This post is a rather political and wary one. I apologise for the sad tone… but in many ways it has been a sad week to be connected to Australian politics.
This week saw the Federal Budget for 2014-15 announced by the Liberal-National coalition government of Australia and the backlash from almost every sector of the community. There are many, many aspects of the budget which have and will come under scrutiny in the next weeks and months. What I’d like to focus on are three key impacts I think a government budget can have for education: faith, language and learning. First, faith. As a teacher at an independent Catholic school (governed by a Board rather than by a Diocese, whilst still adhering to state and federal legislation and accountability) I am, of course, immersed in an environment that is predicated on a particular branch of the Christian religion.
However, it is not spiritual or religious faith that I wish to discuss here. I’d rather quickly analyse the impact of the budget on our faith in The System. Very few people today would believe that every promise a politician makes is one that will become reality. But, the promises – and they were promises – that were made before the election are well documented and recorded.
Luckily. We have faith in words that are spoken and written in public, which somehow build a scaffold for the future and give us assurance that something will be built. Something is on its way. This is what it will look like. The changes of mind, the cognitive dissonance, the blatant arrogance of semantic gymnastics has eroded any sense of faith that many in education have that the federal government will be good stewards of the education sector. We all know that governments cannot (and perhaps should not) attempt to solve every problem through funding, but to be told time and time again that the Gonski funding reforms would be realised, only to have these hopes completely eradicated, is tantamount to treason.
Educators, much like nurses, police officers and many other roles in a modern society, actually rely on a reserve of goodwill and good spirit that buoy the sector through tough times. In the past week, it’s as if we’ve seen those gold reserves – and they are truly valuable – disappear. I do wonder where our new teachers, and those soon to join the ranks, will see themselves in the cruel and cold future of education which is being built. How much faith should we have in a system so heavily stacked against the average citizen that it is like walking into a casino and expecting to take the house for every penny? Only the casino told you that you’d at least break even… so in you walk…
Second, language. The twists and turns that have occurred in the last week by government spokespeople and other vested interests are exactly the kinds of things we try to teach our students not to do: avoid the thesis, circumvent the point, use examples as arguments…
Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidarity to pure wind Orwell
What am I to teach my students about being truthful, honest or open about who they are, what they aim to do, who they want to be, and what contribution they wish to make in the world, when our leaders are so quick to lie? So quick to give excuses for changes of mind which should be done before an election, before a budget, before a decision is made by the voters to give power to a group. No government – of any persuasion – has the right to lie and be given a free ticket. Labor was smashed out of office with the “no carbon tax” lie. What of their opponents now? Should I teach my students that, in fact, is it completely acceptable in a civilised and democratic society to not only treat others in your community harshly if it suits your agenda, but it’s also OK to lie about it before you do it in order to have the ability to do it? Or should they say what they are going to do and let people react, let them question, let them think about what you’ll do.
The answer is of course that you would be given the chance to do any of it. Perhaps that’s food for thought rather than something to be avoided. Third, learning. What are our students learning by watching what is going on? Much of students’ own perceptions of the world come from their parents – we know this – but increasingly our young proto-voters (who, let’s not forget, are already citizens) are engaged in media and more able to analyse and participate in dialogue regarding their own future.
So, what do they learn? Do they learn to distrust authority? Do they learn to distrust language? Do they learn to ignore truth? To restrain reason? To pursue individualistic goals? What should my students learn from this week? I really am at a loss as to what I can teach them. Some will struggle through the next few years as family pressures increase. Some will graduate into a world of increasing university and TAFE fees.
Some may find that they are more useful as a measure of productivity than a measure of humanity. I hope students do learn that they mean more to the world as happy and healthy citizens, rather than compliant and productive consumers. I see government budgets as a way of guiding the ship that is a nation. It gives certainty to some sectors and stability to markets, from which innovation and research can flourish. I understand the need to reduce debt and deficit. I understand that a modern society requires some elements of capitalism to function. However, an unrestrained free market ignores compassion and bemoans diversity, unless it is in the form of competition. A wholly materialistic and individualistic consumer society scrapes the soul of a nation out and replaces it with a bottomless pit of acquisition of things.
We need faith in our systems, but those systems need to earn it. We need to use language honestly and openly, not sedate or abuse it. We need to learn to be better, not just learn to be more efficient. We need to do these things now.