Australia needs a double-shot of Confucius and Cicero

Australia needs to better understand its own history and traditions, as well as Asia’s, if it is to truly embrace the region it’s a part of.

The Abbott government is going to review the national curriculum and has appointed Dr Kevin Donnelly, a well-known critic of the previous Labor government’s education policy to the two-person review panel.

Donnelly, a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University, holds strong views about Christianity and Western civilisation and their place in Australia’s contemporary education system. He argued in an opinion piece on the ABC’s The Drum that “…while Australia is a multicultural society, our political and legal institutions and much of our culture is Western in origin and steeped in the nation’s Judeo-Christian and moral framework.”

His thinking is much aligned with our Anglophile Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose worldview has been shaped by his fondness for both Catholicism and British tradition and history. This has sparked fears from business leaders with close ties to Asia about this country’s commitment to Asian studies, a key priority under the previous government.

Nicola Wakefield Evans, a former Mallesons partner and a director who sits on the board of Lend Lease, Toll Holdings and Macquarie told the Australian Financial Review that “we are actually part of Asia and part of who we are is recognising and embracing that, which is something I think we need to do.”

Her view is typical of many Australian senior business leaders like Mike Smith, Hamish Tyrwhitt and Paul O’Sullivan who have been advocating strongly over the years for better Asia literacy for businesses and students.

So what do we need: more Confucius or more Cicero?

In fact, Australia needs both. Allow me to illustrate this point to you. I tutored undergraduate Asian studies and history courses, in particular a course on Asia in the world, which teaches the history of the interaction between Asia and Europe.

One of the major conduits for interaction between China and the West was through Jesuit missionaries, who were the first to translate Confucian classics from Chinese into Latin and brought advanced Western sciences like astronomy and mathematics to the Middle Kingdom.

But to understand the Jesuit’s evangelical enterprise in China, one needs to appreciate the transformative event of the Reformation in Europe, which shattered the Catholic Christendom that lasted for more than a millennium in Europe. Many students in the class didn’t know about the Reformation and so the Jesuits-in-China story made much less sense.

To give you another example, have you ever wondered why senior British civil servants are called mandarins and why many public servants around the world still need to take exams to get their jobs?

This is because European philosophers during the Enlightenment period thought China’s imperial civil services examination system was much more fair and efficient way of selecting talent than the prevalent hereditary system.

The point is not to indulge in historical trivia but to highlight the need for Australia to understand its own history and traditions as a self-referencing point to understand the Asian region that this country is a part of.

Some of the greatest Asian studies scholars in the world like Jonathan Spence, late Marius Jansen and John King Fairbank have all spent their formative years studying classics and mediaeval European history before they found their new passion in Asia.

Spence, who is one of the most pre-eminent historians of China in the world, read European history at Cambridge University before he immersed himself in Chinese history. He is a historian in the nineteenth-century grand style of British historians, which is to say that he seeks to make history meaningful and fascinating to the broadest range of readers, says one of his colleagues.

Spence’s ability to draw comparisons, explore the linkage between China and the West and his literary style of writing makes him a much more enjoyable author than a new generation of Asian studies scholars who specialised early and don’t have the benefit of broader, humanistic educations.

For China watchers, understanding Australia’s own Western heritage is also important as a tool to understand what Chinese leaders are thinking about it. You may be surprised to know that the favourite book of Wang Qishan -- one of China’s top leaders -- Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution.

The book examines the causes of the French revolution and it is one of the best-selling books in China. It is not hard to understand why Wang is fascinated by de Tocqueville’s book. It’s likely that he is looking at the rule of the Chinese Communist Party through lens of the collapse of the ancien regime. By the way, Wang is also a devotee of the American political TV thriller “House of Cards.”

Chinese premier Li Keqiang was also a student of Lord Alfred Denning, one of the most celebrated English judges of the 20th century. Li translated Denning’s seminal work The Due Process of Law while he was an undergraduate law student at Peking University.  

Learning about Asia and Australia’s own Western heritage should not be mutually exclusive and the understanding of both will make this country more aware of its own past as well as Australia’s neighbours.

I say we need a double-shot of Confucius and Cicero.

Peter Cai is a committee member of Humanities 21, a NGO that promotes humanities education in Australia. www.humanities21.com.au