In the Australian context what is now called “Asia-literacy” is still only discussed in fits and starts.

In the words of Kent Anderson, the Director of the ANU’s Faculty of Asian Studies, “[i]t is in Australia’s short- and long-term interest to be ‘the most Asia-literate country in the West’”. Support for the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Program is a move in this direction.

But is it nearly enough?

Back in 2006, I wrote a piece examining the issue of “Asia-literacy” that attempted to draw out the reasons for apparent disinterest in “Asian Studies” among Australians. At that time I suggested that a lack of clear vocational pathways discouraged many potentially keen students. With a new Prime Minister, and a somewhat refreshed national outlook, I do wonder if that is starting to change. For the first-time in history an Asian Studies degree from the ANU looks like a pretty good qualification for the highest office in the land. It is not, as such, surprising that with the Rudd government’s Asia credentials on display the issue of “Asia-literacy” has come back on the agenda.

In my previous effort to explore this issue I also discussed the way that Asian Studies has been, perhaps to its detriment, cordoned of from the mainstream of social science in Australia. This is, I am convinced, an issue that will, at some stage, need to be seriously re-considered.

But that is an old argument, and one that is far too ambitious for today’s New Mandala post; I need not re-hash it right now.

Today’s thoughts are directly inspired, instead, by an article in this past weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald where Hamish McDonald, the paper’s Asia-Pacific Editor, sounds a warning about Australia’s enduring lack of Asia-literacy. He sums up the current situation by lamenting:

…the steady attrition of humanities and language studies at our universities – Hindi and other Indian languages almost gone, Korean ditto, and Indonesian down to about 400 students, and a handful doing Thai and Vietnamese…our knowledge base for picking up opportunities and threats in our part of the world is woefully thin.

Non-Australians may find the terms of this “Asia-literacy” debate excruciatingly parochial. I hope not. There is, to my eye, something about this debate that is relevant to all of us in one way, shape or form.

But for Australians, in particular, there are very important questions here (questions that have now been chewed over for more than a generation) about the goals of education (and not just higher education). The national knowledge base is, arguably, not what it should be given Australia’s geographic, political and cultural realities. That much is clear. What is far less clear is exactly how what we currently call “Asian Studies” and “Asia-literacy” can be made attractive to students, and their parents. It is student choices of subjects at school, and university, that have arguably led to the “steady attrition” that McDonald identifies. Why don’t more Australia students get excited about learning their satu, dua, tiga, or figuring out how Japanese politics works?

Is there some way of doing this better? Will Kevin Rudd’s $62.4 million over four years (the money devoted to the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Program) do the trick? I am not yet convinced that it will.

Whether or not you have studied in an Asian Studies program (at school or university) I would be delighted to hear your ideas on this ongoing debate. As an aside, I would also be interested to hear your thoughts on the status of “Burma Studies” in Thailand, or “Thai Studies” (or “Australian Studies” or whatever) in China. I get the impression they are all part of inter-related conversations.