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Diversity and the civic purpose of education

Race Race Discrimination

Diversity and the civic purpose of education
Speech to University and Schools Dinner
St Andrew’s College, The University of Sydney

31 May 2018

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Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson
Prof The Hon Dame Marie Bashir
Alister Henskens SC MP
Principals, rectors, masters and heads of college
Mr Charlie Taylor, Chair of the St Andrew’s College Council and Council members
Gadigal people of the Eora Nation

I’m honoured to be joining you tonight. To those being presented with scholarships and prizes, my warmest congratulations. It is always edifying to be in the company of the best and the brightest.

Being here reminds me very much of my time at Balliol College in Oxford. Like St Andrew’s, Balliol has a proud Scottish heritage dating back to John de Balliol and his wife Lady Dervorguilla. It was also the alma mater of Adam Smith, one of the figures associated with the Scottish Enlightenment.

I spent five years at Balliol, as a graduate student. I look back upon my time there as I imagine old Androvians might look back upon their time here – as five of the best years of my life.

One of the virtues of being at Balliol was being exposed to students from different countries and disciplines. Over lunch and dinner, I would find myself in conversation with Russian classicists, Indian lawyers, English chemists, Chinese physicists. I would always learn something new.

This was a good lesson in the value of diversity. It taught me that, in our quest for progress, we must never be content with what or whom we already know. We must always strive to reflect and to question. We mightn’t always have the answers, but we must always be curious.

What is true for us as individuals is also true for us as a society.

Diversity is one of our strengths as a nation. Australia is one of the great multicultural successes of the world, and home to the oldest continuing living cultures in the world dating back 60,000 years. According to the 2016 Census, 28 per cent of Australians were born overseas. Another 20 per cent of us have a parent who was born overseas.

When you look at our ethnic and cultural backgrounds, our diversity becomes even more pronounced.

The Australian Human Rights Commission recently published research on this, in partnership with the University of Sydney Business School, the Committee for Sydney and Asia Society Australia. We estimate that about 58 per cent of the Australian population have an Anglo-Celtic background, that 18 per cent have a non-Anglo-Celtic European background, and that 24 per cent have either a non-European or Indigenous background.

In our two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, the non-Anglo-Celtic and non-European proportions would be significantly higher. Just think of the faces you’d see walking down Pitt Street Mall. Or think of the faces you’d see while walking down Eastern Avenue or Science Road between lectures.

However, our diversity remains conspicuously under-represented within many of our institutions – in particular, within the ranks of senior leaders. In our study of almost 2500 senior leaders in business, politics, government and higher education, we found that while 24 per cent of us have a non-European or Indigenous background, that is true of only 5 per cent of senior leaders. Among CEOs, the representation was even lower – at 3 per cent. To put it another way, 97 per cent of the CEOs we examined have either an Anglo-Celtic or European background.

My point here is not to say that our institutions’ leaders must precisely mirror our society’s cultural composition. But when the levels of representation are so dramatically low, and so disproportionately small, we are entitled to ask whether our society is taking proper advantage of its diverse talents.

There is a strong case for embracing diversity of various kinds. Research from McKinsey & Co has shown that those organisations with higher gender and ethnic diversity among its leaders are more likely to outperform. The reason is simple. Diversity is something of an antidote to groupthink. It can be a spur to innovation. The energy of diversity can enliven an institution, even those seemingly hidebound.

Many of you, I’m sure, watched the royal wedding in Windsor two weeks ago. Whether you are an ardent monarchist or a committed republican, you can agree that the wedding represented a moment of some cultural significance. There was something significant in Reverend Michael Curry’s passionate sermon, the Brixton gospel choir’s rendition of Ben E. King, the sublime performance of young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Some didn’t anticipate that the monarchy would, as an institution, embrace diversity in such a way.

We live, of course, in a time when our institutions are under challenge. Trust in our political and economic system is in decline. The recent 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer found that public confidence in government, media, business and non-government organisations in Australia is at five year lows.

Distrust seems especially marked among young people. A recent Deloitte study found that among Australian millennials they surveyed, more than 80 per cent said that business focused on its own agenda, rather than considering wider society. Two-thirds said that they believed political leaders were having a negative impact on society.

At a time when so many of our institutions are being challenged, we must take care to ensure our institutions are worth defending. We must be prepared to look at ourselves in the mirror. Where we fall short, we must be ready to demand that we do better.

There will be times when such work will create discomfort. It won’t be easy. There may be resistance.

Let me share with you some of my own experience in my current work. Within some quarters, there is a critical view of public efforts aimed at eliminating racial prejudice and discrimination. Some say, for example, that talking about race may serve only to entrench racial differences – that it is better for us to be colour-blind in our approach to race. Some say that dealing with racism should best be done by smothering any ugliness with kindness – that it is better to tread lightly, lest we alienate people through confrontation. Some even say that a role such as mine should simply not exist, because racism is such a rarity in contemporary Australian life.

But does it not get things the wrong way around to believe that the real social division is caused by people responding to racism, rather than by the racism itself? Does it not seem convenient for people to believe that racial differences do not matter, if they do not have to live life reminded of their visible differences, as some do? Does it not involve a failure of imagination for some to believe that racism doesn’t exist simply because they may not experience it themselves?

All too often, on matters involving race and diversity, we can have not just discomfort, but also deflection and denial. We don’t need any more deflection and denial. What we need is more candour and courage.

For there is no shame in being honest that there is room for improvement. There is no shame in admitting that you’re not perfect. Indeed, there is honour in being true to your values and in seeking to live up to your ideals. As Australians, we must never apologise for believing in equality and a fair go. We must never apologise for exercising our citizenship.

I would like to conclude tonight on this idea of citizenship. In the modern western tradition, we turn to our halls of learning to promote knowledge and to nurture individual excellence.

But education must also have a broader purpose – a civic purpose. It is not enough that members of our society must have some sense of responsibility or some belief in the common good. They must also have the right sensibilities for the diverse world in which we live.

Our society requires not merely intelligent individuals, but also wise and humane citizens. We must be prepared to have strong convictions, but be unafraid to have them tested. We must be able to disagree with others, but be willing to respect differences. And we must be imaginative enough to have empathy and sympathy for others, even those who appear different.

These are the kind of citizens we need today: citizens who are devoted to their country, but who also seek a better world; citizens whose patriotism requires them not just to defend their country, but also to criticise it when it can do better; citizens who have the courage to confront injustice and uncertainty, because they are sure about their purpose.


Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

See Also

Race Race Discrimination

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