There wouldn’t be many words in our vocabulary more guaranteed to divide the Australian community, than “multicultural”, yet even those who hold it in reverential awe do not have a clear understanding of its meaning.
“I know what it means,” I hear you say. “‘Multi’ means many; ‘multicultural’ means many cultures. Multicultural Australia is an Australia in which we celebrate many cultures. Too easy!”
But is it that easy? An examination of the history of the word “culture” shows a seismic shift in meaning in the recent past, a shift that resulted from the de-rationalisation of human beings. Today, it is used to describe a people’s way of life, perhaps their national soul (if a collective soul makes any sense at all).
Culture comes from the Latin, cultura, meaning to till or care for the soil, principally, agriculture. Originally, it described a gentleman, a man whose mind had been cultivated by his education, specifically, by a liberal education. We used to look at the rational individual; now we look only at the abstraction.
In fact, so pervasive has the remodeled meaning become, that culture might now be defined as any pattern of conduct common to any human group: we even talk of such things as the “culture of suburbia” and the criminal “gang cultures”.
From next year, if a New South Wales school child were to ask his teacher for the meaning of the word, “culture” he can officially be directed to the website, Making Multicultural Australia. This site contains a plethora of material promoting multiculturalism. It has been named as one of the new multimedia references for the NSW HSC English curriculum. Why the English curriculum, one might well ask. No explanation is given.
Material on the site, we are told, is copyright to the Board of Studies NSW, and is based on research directed by, and copyrighted to, Professor Andrew Jakubowicz from the University of Technology Sydney.
At first glance, as an educational site in multiculturalism, it is objectionable because it preaches rather than teaches. It does not argue the case for multiculturalism, nor does it explain that multiculturalism covers a wide range of practices from the objectionable (which even the advocates agree must be stopped) to the trite: for example, ethnic food and folk festivals - as if a culture should be defined by its belly or its costume. Rather, the site assumes multiculturalism as a given - which may, of course, be true, but education is different from propaganda.
Naming the site as an English educational site is probably more objectionable, since it assumes that there can be objective analysis of the use of English words without objective analysis of their meanings. The site is also objectionable because it pretends a scientific basis for saccharine opinions which are either too simple to be useful or are blatant propaganda.
The Making Multicultural Australia web site states that its purpose is to, “explore new strategies to promote cultural diversity and tolerance” (stress added). It aims to “assist young people of upper primary and high school … explore our cultural diversity”.
What must be embarrassing for Professor Jakubowicz, as a professor of sociology, is that he knows that sociology and every other social science, teaches that all values are subjective. He can not, therefore, prove scientifically that cultural diversity and tolerance ought to be promoted. In fact, he knows that, scientifically, it is as valid to promote their opposites.
A good student, one not content with a saccharine diet that such platitudes offer, might want to know if the research reveals when tolerance is virtuous and hence worthy of pursuit. A better read student might point out that what was a virtue for Hamlet at Wittenberg University, was also a vice when he was called to political life at Elsinore. Is tolerance always a virtue or is it, sometimes, a vice?