Teachers should be an example and that means speaking their minds on refugees

Sydney Morning Herald, 16 December 2016. Read the original here.

This week, hundreds of school teachers from the national Teachers for Refugees group will protest against our brutal and internationally condemned refugee policies by wearing “close the camps, bring them here” T-shirts to school.

Predictably, the initiative has drawn strident criticism from the federal government and sections of the media. In yet another escalation of the authoritarianism of Australian political culture, an intervention from the federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has led to teachers being threatened with disciplinary action if they wear the shirts in class. In NSW, they even risk dismissal. Calls for justice, human rights, or respect for international law, it would seem, officially have no place in Australian schools.

Teachers’ critics accuse them of wanting to “brainwash” students. Politics, they say, must be kept out of the classroom. The idea that wearing T-shirts constitutes brainwashing is preposterous. Birmingham himself has acknowledged that a debate on refugees is appropriate. Civics and citizenship forms part of the curriculum in NSW. Schools regularly participate in white ribbon programs to highlight the evils of domestic violence and violence against women. Why should the government’s amply documented violence against refugees be taken any less seriously?

Teachers for Refugees have made it clear they are not interested in forcing anyone to adopt their views: teachers are authority figures, and they can’t and shouldn’t compel their students to agree with them. But they also shouldn’t have to pretend that they come to social topics with no opinions of their own. On the contrary, teachers should be examples of the kinds of adults society needs – politically engaged, independent-minded, committed to rational, pluralistic debate over controversial questions, and not cowed by pressure into hiding their convictions.

Political neutrality in the classroom is, in any case, a fiction. Teachers are called on to take positions on any number of political issues as a part of their job. In history classes, no one could reasonably argue that schools must treat the ideologies of racism or fascism “neutrally”, as though it was an open question whether they are valid.

A teacher’s role is obviously not to be apolitical on topics like these, but to present movements like Nazism as wrong and criminal: there would justifiably be an outcry if, in the name of keeping politics out of the classroom, a teacher refused to condemn anti-Semitism, for instance. The question of refugees is no different: teachers and university lecturers have a duty to assert the principles of justice and human rights that the government is denying.

The demand for teachers’ political views to be kept private also carries a sinister implication. Schoolchildren aren’t immune from the news: many, especially in more senior years, will have heard about the harrowing conditions, the despair, and the tragic self-harm and suicides that flow from Australia’s refugee policies. By forcing teachers to hide their opposition to those policies in class, the state is actively fostering a nagging doubt in students’ minds: maybe, school children are being encouraged to think, the adults responsible for our education actually support this cruelty to refugees. The government, apparently, wants students to believe that their teachers may be in favour of arbitrary, ruthless abuse of vulnerable people. That possibility is deeply corrosive of the trust on which education depends.

These kinds of insidious consequences on education are just one of the dangerous long-term effects of the normalisation of refugee-detention on our society. Those effects should not be underestimated: a more authoritarian political culture, the erosion of justice and the rule of law as norms constraining the powerful, a weakening of the commitment to rational public policy, the increasing expectation of racist state violence, and the more regular suppression of dissent.

Politicians’ current attempt to silence teachers is the latest bid by the state to tighten its grip over independent institutions of civil society. It is of a piece with the longstanding campaign against the ABC, with the establishment of the ABCC to wind back the power of unions, and with political interference in university research grants and the Safe Schools programme this year. The Border Force Act, which still gags teachers working in the detention network, provides a model for the crackdown on Teachers for Refugees.

The public education system belongs to the public, not the government, just like the ABC is a public broadcaster, not a state one. It is not for politicians to dictate what does and doesn’t count as appropriate use of class time: that is for teachers themselves to determine, in consultation with their communities. Politicians should serve the public, not try to stand over it. The virulence of their attack on Teachers for Refugees springs from the recognition that, like the doctors who have also spoken out against asylum policy, the teachers are right.

Children are being abused, refugees are killing themselves and politicians on both sides are persisting with the policies that are responsible. In manifesting their support for refugees against the miserable and bloody opportunism of federal parliament, teachers – a far more trusted profession than politicians ever will be – are showing just how vital it is for society to maintain strong institutions independent of government. Defending refugees in class is every teacher’s duty; we should insist on their right to do so.

Nick Riemer is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney and a member of the Refugee Action Coalition Sydney.

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