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COVID shines a light on Australians’ fear of the ‘other’

It’s 2021. A new year. A new outlook. Across the country, following extended periods of lockdown, border closures and travel restrictions, Australia is beginning to imagine how it will break out of its COVID-imposed cocoon and reconnect with the rest of the world.

It’s a reassuring image of Australia – the successful multicultural country, a nation of empathic travellers venturing forth to embrace the rich diversity of the world.

Rewind seven months to June 2020. A second wave of the pandemic has hit Victoria. The local press are once again referring to COVID as the “Chinese” virus that threatens our livelihoods. Australia is witnessing a steep rise in incidents of anti-Asian racism. State political leaders are competing to be more parochial than their neighbours as they try to insulate their state from infections by outsiders.

The COVID pandemic has brought into sharp relief the contradictory character of Australia. And it’s shone a light into Australians’ deep-seated fears of the “other”, both within our country and beyond.

Research suggests that global engagement helps us to better understand ourselves and others. If that’s true, then closer engagement with “others” across the world can help us make sense of these contrasting visions of Australia and Australians.

Schools are effective at engaging globally

But how can global engagement happen when international travel restrictions, further waves of the pandemic, and quarantine requirements are likely to continue for some time yet?

According to a recently released study commissioned by the Australian government’s Department of Education, Supporting Australian Schools to Build Global Engagement, our schools provide great examples of how it’s possible to engage globally from local settings.

Indeed, Australian schools are key to building internationally-minded young people, citizens and communities.

The study, undertaken by a team from Monash University, found that global engagement in Australian schools teaches students how to live, learn and work in a globally-connected world.

Through guided and scaffolded global engagement – inquiry into texts, media, and international partnerships – young people learn respect for cultural diversity, and are more likely to commit to building a more just and ecologically-sustainable world.

The study found that many Australian schools are interested in global engagement, and that some have already developed mature global engagement programs.

It turns out there’s already a strong framework for global engagement in the existing Australian Curriculum. It encourages teachers and young people to explore the connections between themselves and the rest of the world, to think critically and creatively about the big issues in our multicultural society, our region and the world.

The study found that many Australian schools are interested in global engagement, and that some have already developed mature global engagement programs. These include school partnerships, study tours, fee-paying international students, student and teacher exchanges, digitally mediated language programs with international partners, and international curriculum development.

With study tours, exchange programs, and new intakes of international students paused for much of 2021, Australian schools are looking for ways they can engage globally from home.

A global engagement toolkit, created by the Monash researchers, shows how some schools are working locally to engage globally. They’re integrating global perspectives into everyday classroom activities, and developing digitally supported partnerships.

In many ways, schools are frontiers of nation building. A core role of schooling is to cultivate Australian citizens of the future, preparing young people to navigate a complex and precarious world. However, schools cannot do this work alone.

A national policy of global engagement in schools offers a way to experience and explore the world beyond our shores. It can help combat xenophobia and racism.

We shouldn’t forget, though, that young Australians are already immersed in the world. Through their engagement with social and news media, and in face-to-face encounters at school, at home, and in their local shopping centre, they experience the tensions of race relations every day of their lives.

We live in a time when lives and worlds are inseparably entwined. It’s a time when fear of the other is high, trust in international relations is low, and uneven distribution of the world’s resources is shaping a precarious and uncertain future for young people.

The global engagement toolkit provides a wealth of knowledge and stories for schools and teachers seeking to reflect on these times, and to expand the horizons of their students.

But, as the toolkit demonstrates, global engagement is about more than study tours and brief encounters with diverse peoples and places.

In order to realise the vision of education for a just and socially sustainable future, global engagement in schools needs to recognise and “stay with the trouble” – to borrow Donna Haraway’s 2016 term – of the inequity and injustice that exists in the world.

It’s in the discomfort of realising our own situatedness in the world – including in cycles of disadvantage and oppression – where alternative futures may be carved.

This article was originally posted on COVID shines a light on Australians’ fear of the ‘other’

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