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Referendums and reading lists reveal similar societal anxieties


Proverbs often remind us of connections we usually overlook. ‘For the sake of a nail the Kingdom was lost’, for example points to how small and great events are related. A village farrier’s carelessness can lead to regime change. Of course, there was more to King Richard’s defeat than a missing horse, but it was one of the elements in that complex story. The proverb encourages us to reflect on the connections between apparently unrelated situations or events.

That encouragement may be particularly apt when considering the Referendum on the Voice. It has been discussed from just about every conceivable angle (including many that should not have been conceived). Two unrelated October dates, however, may illuminate aspects of the Referendum campaigns. October 5 is World Teachers Day, and in a characteristic land grab in the United States the whole of October has been named School Libraries Month. These observances and the response to the Referendum reveal similar challenges to a society and culture under strain from the need for change and resistance to it.

School Libraries Month and World Teachers Day honour the importance of introducing children to their local culture and that of their wider society and also to the demands of the world in which they live. Both observances also recognise the importance of helping children develop the skills in reading, writing, counting and computing that they will need to find a place in society and to contribute to it. They recognise, too, the importance of personal relationships in this process and the investment that society makes in its teachers and librarians. Education, in which nurturing communication in different forms is so central, is a social activity that ideally fosters sociality, the recognition that we receive our gifts through others and are in turn committed to support the good of all in our society.

Times of rapid change in society usually arouse anxiety, part of which can be focused on teachers and school curricula. It expresses itself in concern both whether teachers are equipping children with the skills required in a changing society and whether the content of their teaching represents the right values. In Australia this anxiety has led to centralised control of the curriculum by prescribing areas considered central to society. It has also multiplied the responsibilities of teachers for collecting and recording information, so making it difficult for them to focus on developing relationships with their students.  

Public discussion of teaching then is often marked by criticism of teachers for failing to meet conflicting expectations and by pressure for yet more modifications of curricula. In this atmosphere teachers can feel untrusted as they are encumbered with constant changes about which they have not been consulted. It is little wonder that few want to become Principals, that many parents and students disrespect them, and that schools generally find it difficult to find and to keep staff. Policies that objectify teachers as wheels in an educational machine both discredit the machine and alienate the human beings who rightly see education as revolving around relationships.

 In libraries the development of digital technologies have expanded forms of communication and facilitated the gathering of information in ways that were not possible in a society reliant on print. School libraries have consequently changed, hopefully helping students to use contemporary technologies to access information and to evaluate its quality. The same developments, however, have also raised anxiety about the transmission of values through the information and ideas to which children have access. Libraries can then be made a battleground about values, with parents or politicians calling for books to be banned or edited to prevent the corruption of children by new or traditional values.

Both schools and school libraries, then, are affected by the same dynamic in which change provokes anxiety, and anxiety sparks demands to control the curriculum either in the interests of economic growth or of moral conformity. In the process the central importance of relationships in teaching both in the classroom and libraries and libraries risks being neglected or supplanted by a mechanical model of education in which teachers and librarians are cogs and not actors.


'The reconciliation that must follow the Referendum, whatever its result, will require addressing the inequality and injustice associated with wealth and education as well as with race.'


What has this to do with the Referendum on the Voice? The similarities lie in the dynamic of change. The Referendum, unfortunately, is being held at a time of great change at many levels, which have provoked great anxiety. The prevailing economic ideologies endorsed by governments have created a society marked by inequality and programmed to increase the effects of inequality. The COVID crisis and the breakdown of globalisation have increased debt at national and personal levels. The future effects of climate change have become evident in floods and fires. People are anxious about food, shelter, security and the shape of an emerging world order. In the face of these crises there is a natural tendency to control, to compartmentalise, to demonise persons who are different and to divide. It weakens empathy, making it easier to focus on our individual needs and rights than on the common good and on solidarity with the most disadvantaged persons in our society. As it is with teaching and libraries trust is in short supply. Blame and authoritarian solutions are the menu of the day. 

That is the challenge of the Referendum. To be passed it depends on the desire for good relationships between Indigenous and other Australians, a trust that the messy process of developing relationships will make for a better society, an acknowledgment of the enduring effects of historical violence, and a recognition that past attitudes and practices are unsustainable. It demands empathy, trust and good will.

These values have generally been owned by those in favour of the Referendum motion. They have been commendably and eloquently articulated in personal, institutional and corporate endorsement of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Whatever the result of the Referendum Indigenous Australians will be able to build on this base in their continuing demand for justice.

In hard times, however, people made anxious by the effects of insecurity on their lives and families may resent being confronted with an issue by a Government that does not seem to recognise their own needs. They may be alienated by what they see as the high-minded pleas of people and organisations privileged by education and financial security from experiencing the anxieties that they face. They may then be tempted to vote no, not because they are racists but because they are resentful.

If this is so, the reconciliation that must follow the Referendum, whatever its result, will require addressing the inequality and injustice associated with wealth and education as well as with race. That must begin with building empathy, in which teachers will play an important part.




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Referendum, Teaching, Libraries



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Existing comments

I think there is an element of Magic Pudding philosophy amongst both the Yes and No camps. Quite frankly, I do not think either outcome will be totally satisfactory to those militating for it. Australia is quite a divided society at the moment. Everyone wants a slice of the Pudding. Sadly, unlike in the story, the Pudding is not inexhaustible. Many people seem to be staking their political careers on this and it is not just a matter of Labor against the Coalition. This is more important than anyone's career. Currently we are a nation divided against ourselves. We need to come together and this will not happen overnight. I am reminded of those lines from G K Chesterton's 'The Ballad of the White Horse': 'I tell you naught for your comfort. /Nay, naught for your desire, /Save the sky grows darker yet/ And the sea rises higher.' This is a very dark time and place. I wish we had the leaders to guide us through this Myre.

Edward Fido | 05 October 2023  

Perhaps people might simply prefer the new way being offered by Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. She rejects the current 50-year-old policy of separatism which, despite massive funding and a giant bureaucracy, has seen little change for the most disadvantaged. Price maintains the Voice will simply entrench this bureaucracy in perpetuity and change nothing for the disadvantaged.
Perhaps Price has seen the enormous changes brought about in Britain when one brave teacher bucked the system, set up her own school, Michaela, threw out 50 years of educational "wisdom", and saw her students, mostly poor and black, suddenly achieve outstanding results and end up at top universities like Oxford and Cambridge.
When a Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, can be cheered for stating what has been regarded as plain common sense for thousands of years, that "A man is a man. A woman is a woman", it shows that society, including most of its cherished institutions, has sunk to rock-bottom. Hopefully, the ordinary people will get it right. "George Orwell", wrote the historian Paul Johnson, always felt "that the poor, the 'ordinary people', had a stronger sense of what he called 'common decency'... than the highly educated."

Ross Howard | 06 October 2023  

The Australian electorate usually seems to get it right. Let us hope that it does so this time.

John Frawley | 09 October 2023  

I voted early today. It was all very calm and civilized, as I wish the debate had been. This is still one of the best countries on earth, probably due to the ordinary people. Whatever the result, these people will have spoken. We shall need to move on from there. We must not become a nation divided amongst ourselves. Just look at America!

Edward Fido | 10 October 2023  

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