Time to stop ‘social engineering’ and teach the ‘truth’

I am not gay – never have been. Though I must admit I did have a crush on Don Johnson when he was in Miami Vice. (While I’m confessing, I should also say that I have a thing for Michael Franti). But the truth is, despite these infatuations, I am as heterosexual as they come.

I should also admit that I am not nostalgic. That is, I cannot remember a time when things used to be perfect. Ok, I would prefer to have Paul Keating back, and I am very sorry for what I said about Dr John Hewson — life under Howard makes you wonder if things might have been better if Hewson had won the 1993 election.

What I will admit to is a belief that we can work to make the world a better place in many different ways. One way to do this is to acknowledge and celebrate the many differences that make Australia a unique and vibrant society. Another way is to help remove all forms of discrimination based on those differences.

Australia has a wealth of differences to celebrate.

One is the colour of our skin. Imagine if we all looked the same! The same coloured hair or the same coloured eyes!

There is also much to celebrate about the meeting and mingling of different religions. We are all richer for living in a society that includes Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews and, just as importantly, atheists.

Likewise, we should be proud of the sexual preferences that make up our community. Though we may not all share the same preferences, differences are part of the reality of life.

Though there is less discrimination towards gay and lesbian couples now than in the past, many challenges remain. Every time a debate emerges over gay marriage, for example, or IVF for lesbian mothers, a small but vocal minority decides they have the right to stick their noses into other people’s bedrooms.

More recently there has been the furore about The Learn to Include books which include titles such as The Rainbow Cubby House (download here) about a young girl and her two mothers who build a cubby house in their backyard with a little boy and his two fathers. First the Daily Telegraph criticised the use of this book at a Tempe childcare centre and then the NSW Premier followed.

In making his criticisms, Premier Iemma said that “Kids should be allowed to be kids and day-care centres should not be a battleground for gender politics. I do not personally believe it appropriate for two-year-olds to be dragged into the gay rights debate.”

This is an interesting position. It certainly does seem like a bad idea to drag kids and child-care centres into a political battle based on moralistic point-scoring. The question is: who is doing the dragging? Is it the child-care centres which provide a range of educational books for kids to read, including those that reflect the diversity of the real world? Or is it the Daily Telegraph and Premier Iemma, who seek to win a few votes and readers by stirring up another convenient controversy?

It would be nothing short of ‘social engineering’ to argue that only characters with one religion or one skin colour should be portrayed in the books we use to teach children. It is no different to argue that we should deny the truth that there are same sex couples with children.

The use of books which encourage diversity is important for a number of reasons.

Firstly, books that embrace difference help children to understand the real world, where not everyone is the same. This may help us become a more cohesive society over time — the less we fear difference the more we are able to focus on what we have in common.

Secondly, simply by acknowledging the truth that some children are raised by same-sex couples, these books are recognising them as part of society. This is important for both the parents and their children.

Some weeks ago, I wrote an article for the Centre for Policy Development arguing that knowledge should be understood as a commons. I used the analogy that knowledge is like a picnic, and if we all bring a dish to the picnic, then a meal turns into a feast. The promotion of the knowledge and truth of diversity in our society means that we are all encouraged to bring a different dish to the picnic. If we all brought the same dish, it would still be a feast, but a pretty boring one.

By teaching diversity, we allow the knowledge commons to grow. This makes the picnic of knowledge an even more important feast.

A considered response to the latest moral panic points towards some important principles for policy-makers.

  1. The first has to do with ‘choice’ — a word that conservative politicians seem to use only when it suits them. Parents, or, when they’re old enough, children, should have at least some choice in the matter of what they learn rather than having a narrow view of what is ‘normal’ forced upon them.
  2. Curriculum should reflect the diversity of our society. Contrary to Premier Iemma’s implied view that child-care centres are education-free zones, all centres currently have a legal obligation to deliver ‘developmental programs’, and therefore have to make decisions about curriculum. The default curriculum used to support early childhood education should accurately reflect the diversity of our society. This does not contradict the first point about choice. If parents (or again, older children) choose to close their minds to the realities of the diverse sexualities, ethnicities, religions etc that make up our society, then that’s up to them. If parents want to request that their own children not read certain books then that is their decision. But we should not promote some sanitised and narrow view of what is ‘normal’ and force it upon people as a default.
  3. The third issue is the need for governments to take a lead on promoting and respecting diversity. Governments need to respect the reality of a diverse society and undertake specific means to protect it including through diversity-based education. For a government to begin to pick and choose which dimensions of our society’s diversity to protect is a slippery slope that could lead us anywhere.

Our community is rich and diverse. To make our child-care centres off-limits to the reality of that diversity would be nothing short of ‘social engineering’.

Of course, we all know that Premier Iemma isn’t about to go on a book-banning spree through the child-care centres of NSW. His comment was a throwaway line, designed to fit some cheap political point-scoring in between his busy schedule of watching our transport, health, and education systems deteriorate. But the ‘soft power’ of government to shape the behaviour of child-care centres in this instance should not be underestimated. Rather than jumping on a bandwagon driven by moral panic, the Premier should be standing up for reality-based education. And that means standing up for diverse reading materials at the local childcare centre.

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