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Teaching Asia to Australia: it’s not just about languages

Universities play a vital role in creating a better understanding of Asia – if it is included broadly in curricula. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Ahead of the soon-to-be-released Asian Century White Paper, Foreign Minister Bob Carr has said Australia needs to “know Asia” in order to prosper.

Delivering a speech to the Asia Society on behalf of Prime Minister Julia Gillard in New York he argued that “we’ll need Asia-literate policies and Asia-capable people”.

Ken Henry, who heads the Asian century taskforce, has also argued that Australians should, from their earliest years, acquire the cultural and linguistic literacy to “operate more effectively in an Asian-centred world”.

So how do we prepare Australians who attend universities today for this new world?

A large decline in the uptake of Asian language courses has prompted some experts and public figures to argue for a greater emphasis on studying languages. Without a fluent population they argue, we can’t reach Australia’s full potential in the Asian century.

But while learning a foreign language undoubtedly improves one’s cultural awareness, it represents only one part of the puzzle. What we need is to incorporate Asia into curricula more broadly, not just compartmentalise it into separate areas of study.

More than Asian Languages

Despite its proximity, Asia is a foreign continent to most Australian tertiary students. Its cuisine may be regularly sampled, its people part of everyday life and its exports a fact of life, but Asia as a natural avenue for our aspirations is an alien concept.

We don’t advocate that Australia emulates the Asian style of education, dominated by rote learning, especially in maths, science and reading. As Education expert Stephen Dinham argues, this approach does not necessarily translate to greater innovation and creativity.

But universities can play a greater role in helping Australians feel comfortable with our place in and relationship to Asia.

Understanding Asia

But you might ask, is that not exactly what courses teaching Asian languages and Asian history already do? Yes, but it needs to move beyond compartmentalisation of knowledge about Asia and include Asian topics into all kinds of courses, whether discussing the way Asia is represented in mainstream advertising, or becoming more familiar with Asian languages’ cadences in a class on community radio.

Students need help to move beyond the clichés. A class on the Indian media and movie industry, for example, needs to present a full picture. One that doesn’t just examine Bollywood but looks at shows like Satyamev Jayante, a popular talk show that highlights social issues in India.

Lessons on communism and nation-states need to include comparative analyses of how these ideologies and concepts are and were lived in Asia as well as Europe. When discussing the relationship between music and identity, non-English pieces can be used to open up discussions on how technology enables the exploration of both music and culture.

The Asia within

Australia has some important assets for this task – the many thousands of students at undergraduate and post-graduate level from Asia trained in our higher education institutes.

When tapped into and shared in our classrooms their experiences become part of our shared repository of knowledge about the many Asias, from many perspectives.

The key to all this is the notion of initiating and recognising Asia as part of everyday life in Australia.

Far beyond exotic holiday destinations, Asia is where a significant part of Australia’s future lies and our university students need to become accustomed to and informed on the region’s diversity and many contradictions if we are to make sense of our place in our time within an Asian-centred world.

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