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Schooling for a more cohesive society

I have been asked to reflect on two issues: (1) the history of non-government schooling in Australia, from my own perspective, as it relates to the issue of building social cohesion; and (2) the challenges and opportunities presented now and in the near future. Let me declare myself at the outset. Given my own educational history and my ongoing involvement with Catholic education and life in the public square, I am in no doubt that non-government schooling contributes to building social cohesion, and will continue to do so provided we avoid any ghetto-isation of same. The challenges and opportunities ahead are to fund equitably all networks in education and to ensure that robust morale and community engagement are hallmarks of all parts of the network, including state schools and the newly emerging schools including Muslim schools.

Preparing for this address, I read many materials provided me by the Independent Education Union and the Australian Education Union. I am now aware that there is a long time barney between the two unions not just over schools funding all of which is up for grabs again in the next couple of years but also over the role to be played by the variety of Australian schools in providing social cohesion or causing ghetto-isation especially among ethnic or religious minorities.

Reading this material I recalled my first visit to Bourke in Western New South Wales back in the 1980s. The parish priest had invited me to meet with the teachers and teacher aides at St Ignatius primary school. The Parish priest picked me up at the airport and drove me straight to the school yard. He introduced me to one teacher, giving a glowing account of my academic achievements. The teacher looked at me with a slight squint and said, 'So you're a blow in?'

We then went into the staff room where the parish priest gave me an even more fulsome introduction. I could feel the chasm widening. I thanked my host for his introduction and added, 'Father forgot to tell you that I am a blow in. I don't know much about Bourke. I've never been here before, and as far as I know I will never come again. I will fly out tomorrow. From what I have heard, it doesn't matter whether you are black or white, an adult walking down the main street or a kid in the convent playground, life is often hell here in Bourke. We Australians are very good at passing the buck — blaming the past, Canberra or Sydney. But the buck has to stop somewhere. It has to stop in this room when it comes to behaviour in the convent playground.'

I dare to suggest that the buck needs to stop here with those attending this conference and any equivalent conference convened by the AEU when it comes to deciding how to structure our school system so that it might contribute effectively to social cohesion. I am not here to resolve the long-standing conflict. I will offer only two observations on funding.

First, I am one of those Australians who are not helped when told by one protagonist of an argument that funding is inequitable when one makes reference to the funds provided by only one level of government. In a federation like Australia, the equity of funding arrangements can be judged only by considering the taxpayer funding received from all three levels of government.

Second, funding arrangements need to take in to account the heavy lifting done by different schools and networks of schools in providing education services to the neediest students including those with acute learning difficulties and those from families where parents have both few resources and little motivation for providing for the education of their children. I know there is much talk at the moment about residualisation of some state schools which are left to do the heavy lifting especially for children who just do not fit anywhere else in the education system. Schools which perform this heavy lifting deserve a higher level of funding. I make no attempt to quantify what that level should be.

When I studied philosophy more than 30 years ago, the guru on justice was Harvard professor John Rawls who wrote a book A Theory of Justice. He was in the social contract mould, proposing a simple thought experiment. Imagine everyone is placed behind a veil of ignorance where they do not know what their attributes, interests or place in society will be. In this Original Position, people would then choose a list of suitable arrangements to which they would be bound or to which they would voluntarily comply. Everyone would be entitled to the same list of basic liberties. The key offices in society would be open to everyone without discrimination. The unequal distribution of goods and opportunities would be justified in so far as it assisted the worst off in society to be better off than they would have been if no unequal distribution were permitted. For 30 years, social philosophers made their mark by agreeing or disagreeing with Rawls.

The philosopher Amatya Sen who won the Nobel Peace Prize for Economics has just published a book The Idea of Justice. He gives a simple example of three children and a flute. Bob is very poor and would like to have the flute because he has nothing else to play with. Carla made the flute and wants to keep it. Anne is the only one of the three children who knows how to play the flute and she plays it beautifully bringing pleasure to all who hear her. Who has the best claim on the flute? Sen tells us that the economic egalitarian would give it to Bob. The libertarian would insist that Carla retain the fruits of her labour. Most Australians without a second thought would simply assert, 'Carla made it; it's hers; the rest should stop complaining; if they want a flute they should make their own!' The utilitarian hedonist would give it to Anne. Fortunately we have more than one flute to appropriate for education in Australia. The resources are divisible. What are the relevant considerations when it comes to distributing the education dollar? Education for the poorest? Education for those who would most profit by it? Education for those who can afford it? These are real tensions for all of us making judgments on formulae for the allocation of scarce education resources.

Last year after completing the National Human Rights Consultation I visited Pakistan. The security situation was not good. In Lahore, all schools were completing the construction of 9-foot high stone fences, the installation of security cameras, and the employment of armed guards and personnel to conduct personal security searches of all entrants to school grounds including children. I had the opportunity to visit one of the most elite schools in the country — the Convent of Jesus and Mary which commenced educating girls in 1876. The school is now co-educational — providing English medium education to the elite of Pakistani Muslim society as well as Urdu medium education to children from the poorer Christian minority. I was shown over the school at some length. It has splendid grounds and facilities in the heart of bustling Lahore. The elderly British sister who was conducting my tour kept the best until last as we entered the Thevenet Centre for Special Education opened just ten years ago. At the opening, the Sister Provincial explained the origin of the centre which was named after St Claudine Thevenet who established this religious congregation:

'In the summer of 1998 one our parents who has a son with special needs, expressed the desire that her child attend our school somehow, somewhere. At that stage we had no provision as such for children with special needs, but it was her request that gave birth to the idea of starting Thevenet Centre, and for this we thank her. The Sisters of Jesus & Mary are proud to say that they have been educating the girls of Lahore since 1876. It seemed only right then, that at the dawn of a new millennium they should venture forth into a new branch of education and provide for children, not with disabilities, but with different abilities.'

Saint Claudine Thevenet once said, 'Let us so form these children that they may be regarded as a blessing in every household they enter'.

Our Australian history of education commenced with a strong commitment to free, secular, compulsory education. In my faith tradition, it also commenced with lives of extraordinary sacrifice by nuns and religious brothers who laboured in dire poverty to deliver education to the poor, ghettoised Irish and other immigrant Catholics. That is no longer our story. No one would seriously suggest that Australia permit only state schools now or in the future. Such a suggestion would be unconstitutional anyway. There will always be schools run by groups in civil society, and not just government. Being a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Australia has undertaken to 'to have respect for the liberty of parents ... to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.' There are no longer platoons of nuns and brothers at the chalk face; there is no longer an Irish Catholic ghetto with their members being excluded from the professions and high public office. I well remember that iconic moment in 1995 when my own father as Chief Justice swore in Sir William Deane as Governor-General in the presence of Prime Minister Paul Keating. One remarkable aspect of that event was that it was virtually unremarked that the alumni of Catholic schools, descendants of Irish Catholic immigrants, occupied the highest offices of the land. Even the critics of these three gentlemen would concede that they have been massive contributors to the public ethos of contemporary Australia — all being heavy lifters committed to social cohesion, inclusion and reconciliation.

Moving beyond funding issues, we need to consider the costs and benefits of diverse schooling arrangements. The Edmund Rice Centre has completed a research project for the IEU drawing on many academic writers including Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame who distinguishes two types of social capital:

  • Bonding social capital which is 'inward looking', with people finding shared identity in homogeneous groups. It is good for 'undergirding specific reciprocity and mobilizing solidarity'. It creates strong in-group loyalty but may also create 'strong out-group antagonism'.
  • Bridging social capital which is 'outward looking', made up of people from 'diverse social cleavages'. Bridging networks work well for linking to 'external assets: and for 'information diffusion'.

Schools which provide a good education contribute both to bonding social capital and to bridging social capital.

Though it would shock Richard Dawkins and all those gathered in Melbourne recently for the Atheists' International Convention, I am delighted to point out that this conference is being held on St Patrick's Day. Being a Brennan and my mother an O'Hara, let me upset them even further by saying that I am overjoyed that Mary Mackillop is to be canonised in the near future, and I have every hope of being in Rome for the occasion. My own Irish forebears owe more to Mary's co-founder Julian Tenison Woods who eventually fell out with her, thinking in part that the Jesuits had infected her mind permitting her to loosen up too much on their original shared vision of poverty and obedience for the sisters. It just happened that Woods on one of his scientific expeditions turned up in Maryborough in Queensland where my widowed great great grandmother Annie Brennan had arrived in 1862 with her five children — a courageous move by any reckoning. Family legend has it that Woods got my great grandfather off the grog and back to church. So his next son, my grandfather, was named Frank Tenison Brennan, as am I. My grandfather went on to become Minister for Public Instruction in the Queensland Labor Government before then being appointed to the Supreme Court. Even putting aside the family connection to Tenison Woods, the story of Woods and Mackillop will be of increasing interest to many educated Australians (especially Catholics) in the wake of Mary's forthcoming canonisation. I readily concede that it is irrelevant to many other Australians and visitors to our shores including Professor Dawkins. I would not be too much in favour of the story being imposed on all Australian school children as part of the national curriculum. However, I take some consolation from the fact that there are some schools where it would be quite appropriate to tell the story of Mackillop and Woods, and other schools where it would not be. Australia's education system is all the better as a contributor to social cohesion by providing a mix of educational institutions some of which are fee paying and have a religious influence, others of which are free and secular. If we had only State schools, there would be sustained controversy over the entitlement of Professor Dawkins or Fr Brennan to peddle their intellectual wares with students or even with teachers. An educated community needs to hear from both. Within the Catholic tradition, I am an unashamed social justice advocate, always happy to speak to teachers and students about the demands for a more just world. When speaking at religious schools, I am even more happy to draw on the Christian scriptures and the Catholic tradition. Much of my speaking content would need to be radically tailored when addressed to teachers in a state school rather than to those in a Church school. That is only appropriate, and the system is more robust for allowing both.

Three years after the election of the Howard government I spoke to a national conference of fellow Jesuits and pointed out that there were then five ministers in the Howard government who were graduates of our schools. The journalist Richard McGregor had just written in the Weekend Australian an article entitled 'Crossing the Floor' and subtitled 'Not so long ago, if you were Catholic, you voted Labor. Now, more and more Catholic MPs are adding life and soul to the Coalition.' Toby O'Connor from the Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission noted that things had changed. When asked he said, 'I think the Jesuits have a lot to answer for'. Incidentally McGregor and O'Connor were also graduates of our schools. I reflected with my fellow Jesuits that this representation at the Cabinet table was the fulfilment of the Irish dream — regardless of which side of politics these fellows were serving. I then pointed out that I was spending a fair amount of my time with Aboriginal leaders and with asylum seekers and refugees. These groups seemed to think that the Howard government was being pretty tough and non-inclusive with them. I opined that we could invoke the Evelyn Waugh defence and say that we would not know how more tough the Howard government would be if there were none of our graduates at the cabinet table. I said, 'Only a fool would presume that this government will be more reconciling and more inclusive than any other, simply because there is a record number of alumni at the table'.

In Australia, after a considerable glut of a century, there have been a significant number of alumni from Jesuit schools in our national parliament. Gerard Windsor, an ex Jesuit who is a national literary figure, acknowledges that the phrase 'a man for others' has been a virtual motto for Jesuit schools in the last thirty years. He is consoled that there are Jesuits who are 'decidedly in this mould'. But writing in the Australian Financial Review three years ago, he observed:

'In terms of political alignment, however, their schools, in this more recent period, have very patently not produced the liberal, social action men of the left at all. On the contrary, their output has been entirely of men on the right, and frequently the hard right at that...It's a case of a religious program that points its pupils in one direction, but has no effect in actually moving them that way. The lesson here seems to be that the demography of such schools, not anything that is actually taught or held up as an ideal, is what's going to be decisive in terms of forming social and political attitudes. The further conclusion must be that committed believers on the left are having far less political success than those on the right.'

Eighteen months ago, the new Chief Justice of Australia, Robert French, was sworn in at the High Court of Australia. In the course of his acceptance speech, he said:

'Let me now move to conclusion by way of confession. I was taught by the Jesuits and one of them, Father Daven Day who became a family friend of long standing, has travelled to Canberra for this occasion. He has joined our family on occasions of joy and sorrow in weddings, baptisms and family funerals. Although I declare myself in all humility, and no doubt to his disappointment, an agnostic with a sense of wonder, the Catholic confessional tradition runs strongly in my blood.'

You will understand that we Jesuits are very proud that our small school in Perth has produced two of the only three High Court Justices to have come from Western Australia. Both Robert French and John Toohey came to that Bench with a proven track record for their commitment to social justice, especially for indigenous Australians

How wonderful that the new Chief Justice would invite his old teacher Fr Daven Day and publicly acknowledge him in such a way. How blessed that this teacher established such a relationship with his student that for a lifetime he would then join that student's family 'on occasions of joy and sorrow in weddings, baptisms and family funerals'. Of course, we Jesuits would hope that many of our graduates would become people of adult faith, but that is not the only purpose for our involvement in the education of children and young adults.

On Monday we were all treated to a 4 Corners profile of Tony Abbott including his Jesuit schooling. The Coalition trinity on economic issues — Abbott, Hockey and Joyce — all attended Jesuit schools as did the manager of Coalition business in the parliament Christopher Pyne. I am delighted that the deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard will be our guest at the Jesuit Social Services annual dinner in Melbourne this Saturday.

I provide these Jesuit reminiscences not to boast our achievements but to suggest that there has been no undermining of social cohesion by having a diverse educational network that permits even Jesuits to educate the young in a five century tradition. The challenge now for us Jesuits is that our numbers are much reduced, and, as ever in the past, our education needs to be available to the most recent migrants and those seeking a new place in the sun in this land, as well as those families who are now well established in contemporary Australia. I recall in 1998, Sir Gus Nossal paying tribute to the Jesuits who took him in as a young refugee with little English. Happily, we now do have some involvement with a school at Mt Druitt in western Sydney and we are planning a new school for Aboriginal students in Redfern. Such schools and educational traditions should be not just tolerated but esteemed as part of the rich tapestry of the Australian educational network. What government funding they warrant is a separate question from our endorsement of these educational initiatives contributing not only to the educational betterment of the students but also to the social cohesion of a diverse, pluralistic liberal democratic Australia where Dawkins and Hitchens are not trumps in the public square just because they are atheists. Free, secular education is a great public benefit for many of our citizens; some citizens think they can do better not just for their kids but for society as a whole by providing a fee paying religious education.

The issue for state schools, as for all other schools, is not so much one of funding but morale within the school and engagement in the local community. Last weekend, I was at the Blue Mountains Music Festival. American Folk Singer John McCutcheon was performing a concert for kids at the Guinness Stage School Quad — the quadrangle in the Katoomba State primary school. The school principal was one of the MCs at the event. It turned out that the kids from the state primary school had been well primed, having learnt some of McCutcheon's songs. To say the least, he was stoked and called them up on stage, asking them where they were from. The audience response was very enthusiastic when the kids announced that they were from the local state primary school. McCutcheon then payed a fulsome compliment to Australian state education, praising the expenditure of the taxpayer's dollars and lamenting that such community spirit would not be evinced at state schools in his own country.

Last year when conducting the National Human Rights Consultation (about which Ms Gillard and her colleagues are yet to make some key decisions) I visited Christmas Island. I was very impressed by the Commonwealth run school on that island. The community spirit in the school was fantastic, and their service to asylum seekers first rate. The teachers were happy to go the extra mile, day in and day out, to assist unaccompanied minors who had arrived on boats seeking asylum.

On the mainland, our Jesuit school in Adelaide enjoyed more freedom than state schools in the bad old post-Tampa days, being able to offer a first rate education to the Bakhtyari children as well as other asylum seekers. This happened because post-Tampa some of the school alumni who were lawyers involved themselves in the cases coming out of Woomera. When they met families and children who were suffering great trauma at Woomera, they decided to try and do something themselves, and they did. The diversity of our school system creates responsiveness which would not be there in a government run system.

Two weeks ago, I provided a three-day in-service for 70 school principals all of whom work in the Catholic system. I drew on the Catholic tradition of social teaching, even quoting from recent encyclicals by the two most recent popes. It would not be appropriate for me to use such materials if conducting an in-service for principals from state schools. Then again it is far less likely that I would be asked to conduct an in-service for state schools. This sort of diversity is good news for our education system.

In 1988, I caused some discomfort for Catholic educational authorities when I gave an address to their bicentenary conference. I highlighted that Catholic social teaching espouses a preferential option for the poor. The profile of the Australian poor in 1988 definitely included indigenous Australians. And yet, the per capita participation of indigenous Australians in the Catholic system was then less than the national average. It was a call to account.

Being a novice to much of your policy debate, let me step in where angels fear to tread and assert that equitable funding and acknowledgement of the due place of Catholic schools is pretty well assured in Australia today. The difficult issue is now new religious and community schools, especially Muslim schools. Applications to set up new Muslim facilities raise questions about the limits of binding social capital to the exclusion of bridging social capital.

There have been two interesting case studies on Muslim groups on the outskirts of Sydney seeking planning approval for their religious activities. A comparison of the two cases highlights the benefits of the separation of powers and the utility of planning processes which include professional assessments, democratic consideration, and appeals based on legal criteria other than popular endorsement for a proposed land use.

In 2002, a Muslim group submitted a planning application for a prayer centre in Annangrove. The council planning officer studied the plan and recommended approval. 5,181 submissions from 532 households were received, with 5170 objecting to the proposed development and only 11 in support. The Council voted by 10-2 to reject the application. Diana Bain of the Annangrove Progress Association applauded Council's decision:

'The zoning and the majority of the people have chosen to live like this and the majority have spoken and this is a democracy. And I'm really pleased that the council took notice of what the majority of the people wanted.'

John Griffiths, the mayor, explained: 'I have no fear of the Muslims. I have no problem with it. It seems to be that the women in our community that have a problem with it.' He said the outcome could have been different if the Muslim applicants had wanted to start with a small centre primarily for local Muslim residents:

If they'd been living in a community, if they'd had a little house church first, which is permissible in the shire, and they'd built on that house church and built up and they were in the community it might have been different. But to come from within the shire, but to come to an area where they don't actually live, I just felt that people felt — it was wrong.

The applicants then appealed to the Land and Environment Court. Judge Lloyd concluded 'that the proposed development would be compatible with the rural residential character of the area and would not have an adverse impact on the amenity of the area, including social impact. While I recognise that there is strong community opposition to the proposal and that the residents have real fears, these fears must have foundation and a rational basis, which in this case is absent.'

The prayer centre was built. Six years on the owners applied for an extension of the opening hours of the prayer centre. Only four objections were received. The ABC returned to Annangrove to report on the community's reaction to the centre. A typical response came from one of the workers at the local shopping centre two doors away:

'Look I think some people don't like having the prayer house here, but as far as the shopping centre goes they have not disrupted us in any way. They were always very polite, they waited their turn, there was three women working in this shop and never once did they say one nasty word to us. So going by that alone, I've got nothing against them.'

Meanwhile at Camden a Muslim planning application for the construction of a school for 1200 students was causing international media attention. This time the Council planning office opposed the application on planning grounds. Camden is a rural pocket surrounded by the sprawl of western Sydney. The development pressures on the remaining agricultural land in Camden are immense as the state authorities prepare to increase its population from 50,000 to 300,000 in the next 30 years. The Council published the planning application in October 2007 and received 3042 responses to the plan, with only 23 in favour. Rallies and protest meetings were convened. The Council received letters expressing some concerns about aspects of the proposal from the police, the Road Traffic Authority and the Department of Primary Industries. The Council voted to reject the proposal purportedly for very technical planning reasons having no connection with the religious affiliation of the applicants nor of the students likely to attend the school were it to be constructed.

The applicants appealed to the Land and Environment Court where they tested the validity of the non-religious grounds invoked by the Council for the rejection of the application. Meanwhile tempers calmed. In this case, there would presumably be greater difficulty in convincing the Court to overturn the Council decision than in the Annangrove case given that this Council (unlike the Baulkham Hills Council in the Annangrove case) acted in accordance with the recommendations of the professional council town planners and consistent with the reservations expressed by state instrumentalities not directly accountable to the local council. Camden Mayor Chris Patterson welcomed the prospect of an appeal claiming the decision was made on planning grounds alone: 'I'm extremely convinced that Camden has made the right decision for this site'.

Some people in public life were not quite so convinced about the transparency of the Camden Council Decision. Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs Laurie Ferguson said, 'You've got a community there with very few Muslims in the immediate area. There's lack of knowledge, lack of interface connection and basic ignorance coming into it. What happened out there does show we need to work with this council to erode this kind of bigotry in that community.' Cardinal Pell when asked to comment on the Council decision said, 'Everybody in Australia has the right to a fair go, so do the Muslims. We certainly believe in religious schools.'

The social impact of a new religious minority in a neighbourhood is one of those issues relevant to democratic resolution of conflict about town planning issues. It is wrong for decision makers to give added weight to factors mitigating against a planning proposal as a foil for wanting to avoid the new social impact. The social impact is not an irrelevant consideration. But like all considerations it should be treated on its own merits. Once a democratically elected council has made a decision purportedly on town planning grounds unrelated to the social impact of a new religious minority, that minority can be assured that their application will be dealt with by the planning court on the basis that the social impact has no more relevance than explicitly stated or noted by the council.

It would be regrettable if members of the public concerned about the presence of new religious minorities felt they were not given a hearing by their local councils. It would be even more regrettable if councils responded to local concerns about same by distorting the application of other standard town planning criteria when determining applications. The check and balance of court review minimises the prospect and enhances the prospects that even the new religious minority will be given a fair go when it come to planning approvals for their activities. Last June the NSW Land and Environment Court dismissed the planning appeal by the Quranic Society that wanted to build the school at Camden. The court said 'no other reasonable conclusion can be drawn but the proposed development is not a compatible form of development and not in keeping with the rural character of the locality because of the contrasting forms of development. There is clearly little association and few common elements between the urban form of the school and the undeveloped rural nature of the locality.' The court noted:

'The proposed development attracted extensive public interest that centred on the impact the proposed school would have on the amenity of the immediate area and the broader Camden area. The original application attracted 3083 submissions; 23 submissions were in support; 18 were neutral; and 3042 opposed the school. The submissions included 14 petitions containing 435 signatories who opposed to the proposed school. The amended application attracted 1858 submissions of which three submissions were in support and 1855 were opposed to the proposed school.'

The community animus to the building of a Muslim school was rightly considered an irrelevance by the Court which noted, 'Other matters raised by local residents as being in the ‘public interest' have been given no weight in the consideration of the development application as they are irrelevant considerations.' The court had the good grace to observe that the Muslim application had been subjected to very close town planning scrutiny by the local council whereas the Camden High School just 800 metres away. The court observed:

'In the consideration of the evidence on the zone objectives, Mr Gough (lawyer for the Muslim appellants) raised the issue of consistency in decision making by the council with the recently constructed Camden High School. He submits that the school was approved on 14 December 1998 and is located in the same ... zone as the proposed development. The school accommodates 1200 students but appears not to have been subject of the same rigorous assessment as the proposed development. A copy of the council file, including the council staff assessment report for the approval of Camden High School was tendered. The council file indicates that the assessment required ... is dealt with in a relatively simplistic manner and in totality through the following statement:

'Having regard to the above objectives, it is considered that with the school's siting and proposed landscaping, the rural value of the land, that the proposed development satisfies the objectives of the zone.

'Even if the submissions of Mr Gough are correct, these proceedings can only deal with the merits of the proposed development. These proceedings are not a judicial review of the decision of the council to approve the development application for the Camden High School and as such, the decision of the council can have little, if any bearing on the consideration of the proposed development.'

Though the Land and Environment Court had no role in reviewing the original decision relating to the Camden High School, it is troubling to note that the Muslim application for a school appears to have been subjected to much stricter scrutiny by council staff in assessing compliance with the zoning requirements than was an equivalent application for the building of a State school. It was then subjected to stricter scrutiny by the Council which undoubtedly was response to the legally irrelevant din being raised by local residents. I hear there is now interest from the Catholics wanting to build a school in a similar location in Camden. It will be interesting to see if the Catholics are subject to the same scrutiny as were the Muslims.

While there are citizens of diverse religious beliefs in a democratic state, there will always be a place for diverse religious arguments and positions in the public forum. Like their fellow citizens they should be free to advocate peacefully their preferred policy positions as competently or foolishly as they are able or as they wish. They should be free to resolve their internal disputes with state sanction provided only that the disputes do not include matters contrary to public morality or the general welfare or inimical to the fundamental human rights and dignity of all persons. They should have confidence that the separation of powers ensures that their own legitimate interests are not overridden by local populist pressures. They should expect to have the same ambit for providing education to their own as do the members of the numerically largest faiths which are longest established in Australia, and as do the secularists and all other manner of believers who rightly cherish the tradition of our state schools. In time they will win the same acceptance and security within the nation state as my religious and ethnic forbears came to enjoy in what many still consider the most godless place under heaven.

In 1988, I was invited back to Xavier College in Melbourne, where I had once talk Form 4 Mathematics. But this time I was asked to speak at the last religion class for the Form 6 (year 12) boys. It was the bicentenary year and all Australians, even those living in affluent suburbs without Aborigines, were focusing on the place of indigenous Australians. I told my oft repeated story about the fringe dwelling Aborigines from Mantaka near Kuranda in North Queensland. They were squatted beside the Barron River. Across the river was a multi million dollar weekender built by a Melbourne businessman who used to bringing his family in by helicopter. The Year 12 boys asked all sorts of prying questions about the Aborigines and I was unable to give them satisfactory answers. They asked, 'If Aborigines want houses, why don't they build them for themselves?', 'What are they complaining about? If the white man did not come, they would not even have a water supply?', 'What's wrong with the businessman having a holiday house? Afterall, if he did not earn a lot of money and pay his taxes, we would not be able to pay Aborigines for welfare?' In the end, I simply asked them one question in return, 'Which side of the river are you standing on as you ask your questions?' Can you see that there are just as many unanswerable questions that you can ask form the other side of the river? Mind you, they are very different questions. At the end of the class, the new deputy headmaster could see that I was a little shaken up by the student's reactions to Aborigines who they had never met. He opined, 'The good thing is that they are asking the same questions as anyone their age would ask.' On one level, that was a good thing. But unlike many of their age group, they had just concluded five, seven, or twelve years of the best quality Jesuit education. What difference did it make in their asking of questions and in their searching for answers?

As the IEU and its supporters wrestle with questions about how to build a more socially cohesive Australia with a diverse schooling system, could I commend to you the periodic move to the other side of the river, asking, 'How would this look to the teacher, the student, parent in the local State School? How would this look to the AEU supporter?' If there was a little more movement from one river bank to the other, we might all be assured more equitable outcomes for funding all schools in Australia and a truer appreciation of the distinctive contribution of all parts of the education network to 'bonding social capital' and 'bridging social capital'. Let us so form children that they may be regarded as real contributors (and a blessing) to a more cohesive Australia in which all persons can achieve their full human flourishing.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Australian Catholic University's Public Policy Institute. The above text is from his talk, 'Designing a School System for Building a More Socially Cohesive Australia', presented at the 'Our Diverse Schooling System' Conference, 2010 IEUA Symposium, Old Parliament House, Canberra, 17 March 2010.


Topic tags: frank brennan, education, Designing a School System for Building a More Socially Cohesive Australia



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Existing comments

Should we be surprised that five men who attend very expensive private school for Catholic boys end up as Cabinet Ministers? While it is nice to reminisce on success, I think Fr Brennan should hold back on the self congratulations for the Jesuit order until we can see a few Aboriginal cabinet ministers. The Jesuit schools in Australia seem to lean more to the side of social privilege than social justice, which is a pity.

Elizabeth O'Connor | 21 March 2010  

May I ask now what will happen to the current students at Xavier College so as they may learn to know what the other side of the river has to offer????

patricia vaughan | 21 March 2010  

Dear Eliabeth and Patricia,

Why not consider Shakespeare's words,
"We find tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything"?

Ray O'Donoghue | 21 March 2010  

I appreciate your lucid analysis of the issue of Islamic schools and their proper place within a religiously diverse country. I enjoyed your reminiscences of the success Jesuit 'Old Boys' and their contribution to public life... what a pity you did not seek out some examples of the tremendous contribution by women educated in Catholic schools. From the 1950s and even earlier, low fee paying Convent schools produced cohorts of young women who went on to play important roles in public life (often these women were the first of their family to go to university).

I hesitate to mention names but will give accolades to three who were educated by the Brigidine Sisters in NSW - Susan Ryan, Denise Bradley and Carmel Niland - and then, of course, from Brigidine in Victoria there is Morag Fraser, well-known to Eureka Street readers.

JanetM | 23 March 2010  

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  • Greg Soetomo
  • 26 February 2007

When I reflect on this conversation, I am also struck by how different what I see in daily life is from what I read and watch in the media about about Muslim militants, the clash between Christians and Muslims, fundamentalism, or terrorism. Every age has its own false ideas. In our time, it is the notion that identifies Islam with hostility and aggression.