Posted on September 27, 2004

A Culture In Crisis

Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), Sep. 15

We thought we were being so wonderfully progressive by spurning assimilation. The result? People who respect nothing.

A SENIOR Herald Sun writer was asked recently to give a talk to Year 10 and 11 students at a northern suburbs state school.

My colleague is widely known as a warm and decent man, yet guiltily told me he felt alienated, even threatened, as he entered the gates — and that’s before he knew one of the students had been stabbed last month just outside.

He saw two students openly smoking in the school yard, without the slightest sign of being worried their teachers might spot them.

He saw that most of the students by far were of Turkish or other Middle Eastern backgrounds, and girls wore Islamic headscarfs, marked off as apart.

In the classroom, my colleague — who does not want me to name him — faced some 22 girls and boys, most of whom clearly did not want to be there. One kept his back turned, another pretended to doze.

Pressing on, he opened that day’s Herald Sun for his lecture on the media. As bad luck would have it, he opened to a story about Karen Ellis, the Melbourne teacher who’d slept with one of her students.

The class erupted, and a boy at the back — of Middle Eastern appearance — stood up and growled how he’d like Ellis to have a piece of . . . this. And he unzipped and exposed himself.

The class teacher, a man, seemed embarrassed, and weakly told the boy he couldn’t “behave like that”.

But he let the flasher stay in the class, lounging in his seat, and in the weeks since, my colleague has neither received an apology from the school, nor any news of how, or if, the boy has been punished.

On hearing this, I was reminded of being told by one teacher and the husband of another how Middle Eastern boys in an inner city school had treated the female staff with a gross lack of respect. These women had felt sexually harassed.

And I was reminded even more of Coburg’s Moreland City College, which lost two thirds of its students in five years and is now being shut down as a lost cause.

WHAT no bureaucrat or politician will openly admit is the extraordinary reason for Moreland’s death — how a school that had planned to grow to 1200 students in fact shrank to just 250.

The answer, as I found when I visited two years ago, and spoke to parents, teachers and the principal, was one of those nasty secrets that most of us are too scared to mention for fear of being branded racist.

Moreland was a fashionably multicultural school, just like the school my colleague visited (let’s call it School X), so that the increasing number of Middle Eastern children who went there were made to feel at home — their parents’ old home, that is, and not their new Australian one.

Islamic preachers addressed assembly, Arabic and Turkish became the main foreign languages taught, Islamic headscarfs were common. Again, much like School X.

Worse, Moreland become known for its ethnic gangs — with Lebanese students notoriously smashing up three Yooralla buses that were kept at the school.

To make a tough situation worse, its discipline and academic standards were left to slide, without any intervention by the Education Department until it was far too late.

By that time, other children — Anglo-Saxon, Greek and Italian — had been pulled out by their parents and sent to other schools, which meant that those left were overwhelmingly Muslim, and Australia must have seemed the “other”.

NO doubt, the students at both Moreland and School X also got the usual teaching about Australia and its past — about our “genocide”, our “stolen generations” and our “racism”.

You know what I mean — an education of the kind you see on display in our sneering Melbourne Museum.

An education of the kind that had Melbourne University’s Hellenic Society tell me: “A nation that created itself from the blood of its slaughtered and persecuted native inhabitants and the destruction of their culture has no right to demand further assimilation from its migrants.”

Is the same true at School X? I don’t know, but two years ago a student at its previous campus reported on his school trip to the Australian War Memorial, and told how disappointed he was to find it wasn’t flying his flag — the Turkish flag. Never mind: he and his classmates marched behind one of their own.

Have such students yet learned to call Australia home? How successful have we been in assimilating them, so that they share our most important values and feel as responsible for this wonderful land as do you?

I fear that to say all this will confirm for many people that I despise Muslims, am racist, just want to stir up trouble and like hurting people — just as letters to the Herald Sun claim.

I hate it. I hate being thought racist or Islamophobic, and my wife is scared that I’m thought so.

In fact, I don’t write this to ask you to think badly of Islam. Good Muslims would no more endorse flashing or disrespect to teachers than I do, and in the flasher’s class would have been Muslim children hungry to learn, safe from the louts.

Nor is it true that Melbourne has seen anything like the shootings and pack rapes that have so scarred the reputation — fairly or not — of Sydney’s Lebanese Muslim community.

And we should remember that Muslims have made great contributions to this country, ever since Afghan camel drivers helped to open up the Outback.

In fact, what worries me most is not even that a minority of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, encouraged by too many of their “leaders”, seem particularly intolerant and rejecting of Australia.

More worrying is that our institutions — not least our schools — don’t seem to promote aggressively an Australia that the children of such immigrants would want to join. Or even give them all the skills to do so.

It’s not just that we like to madly imagine this country has an evil past. See how we trash our present, too.

If that flasher from School X drove from my office to the West Gate Bridge, he’d pass under a huge new billboard displaying a naked woman. If he drove to the airport, he’d go past a hoarding that blares in mammoth letters the name of a vandal-led clothing company: FCUK.

Think also what films he could see, what computer games he could buy, what motherf . . . rap songs he could hear, or what flash-and-grope clips on MTV he could watch on any Sunday.

Does it really surprise anyone that in such a sex-sodden culture two teachers — both with impeccably “Australian” names, note — have just this year been in court charged with having slept with their students?

Would it surprise you if the son of a family from a more repressed culture thought there were no real rules for him, either, and no respect to give?

This is no mere speculation. Several Muslim parents have told me of their disgust at the coarse sexualisation of our society. These are parents who are scared to let their children give in too much to our culture.

And this is only one of the ways we’ve made the assimilating of children from very different backgrounds so much harder. Screaming “racist” when we even talk of such things is another.

BUT for the sake of the children, and for our society, our schools now need to face questions we often barely dare ask — from the practical to the philosophical.

Is it smart to let poorer state schools, or whole suburbs at that, become dominated by a minority culture, and turn into ghettoes?

Is multiculturalism in schools — such as the teaching of the student’s home language — trapping immigrant students in their own closed culture, and should we try harder to make them fall in love with Australia’s?

Are we too often teaching students to disrespect this country and its past, and to see Australia as ugly?

Are we asserting our values and our core culture strongly enough? Or have we so lost confidence that teachers do not dare even to enforce basic rules of civilised behaviour?

And again I ask: what do our bureaucrats do to pick up schools that are failing?

In the end, I suspect, we will discover that discipline, rigor, a little prudishness and an optimistic belief in Australia and a respect for its rituals were not so stupid, after all.

Sound too old-fashioned for you? I agree, it’s not much of an answer, but go watch the boy at the back of the class flop out his member and tell me how you would teach him to feel ashamed of himself.