Young Children's Views of Australia and Australians

Article excerpt

Civics and citizenship education in Australia encompass many aspects. These range from knowledge about political structures, democratic processes, and legal obligations and status, to a broader sense of social awareness and consciousness, wherein individuals have rights and responsibilities that guide their interactions with others. This latter interpretation emphasizes a definition of a civil society (Cox, 1995) in which "there is trust, cooperation and reciprocity, ties that bind each and all, and recognition of the interdependence of the private and the public" (Dally, 1999, p. 11). Members of a civil society are committed to working together, based on respect for self and others. Underpinning such a society are constructive notions about identity, relationships with others, difference and diversity, and social justice and equity.

Flanagan and Faison (2001) use the term "civic literacy" to refer to "knowledge about community affairs, political issues and the processes whereby citizens effect change," and the term "civic attachment" to indicate the "affective or emotional connection to the community" (p. 3). Both these aspects have been incorporated in approaches to civics and citizenship education in Australia, where there has been emphasis on developing understandings of how governments work, learning the skills required to become involved in the processes of government, and recognizing the "civic worth of each individual" (Civics Expert Group, 1994, p. 5). The message seems to be that how people feel about their country and their place within it relates to their willingness to engage in processes such as democracy. As Flanagan and Faison (2001) note, "If a democracy is to remain secure and stable, each new generation of her citizens must believe in the system and believe that it works for people like them" (p. 4).

Belonging and a sense of belongingness was a feature in the recent celebrations of a centenary of Australian federation, and in the opening of a national museum committed to documenting what it means to be Australian. At the same time, many Australians--namely, the aboriginal population--are working towards reconciliation after more than two centuries of dispossession and dislocation. The fate of those seeking refuge in Australia is also problematic, promoting much-heated debate about "belongingness" and exclusion. Within this context, researchers have questioned the "ways in which young people understand themselves as Australian, how they feel about this country and their place within it" (Gill & Howard, 2000).

Wenger (1998) has described identity as something that is constantly changing and open to renegotiation, such that "who we are lies in the way we live day to day, not just what we think or say about ourselves" (1998, p. 151). This notion is reflected in the definition of national identity offered by Gill and Howard (1999, p. 2) as a "narrative, a story people tell about themselves in order to lend meaning to their social world."

In previous studies regarding children's sense of national identity, children in the upper primary or early years of secondary school were interviewed (Carrington & Short, 1996; Du Bois-Reymond, 1998; Howard & Gill, 2001). These researchers found an increasingly complex understanding of nationality as children move from initial definitions of nationality as something shared by a distinct group of people who have similar cultural practices, such as language or religion, or identity based on living in a particular area, to an abstract connection between the group of people and the place they inhabit--the nation (Howard & Gill, 2001).

This article investigates young children's views about their national identity and that of their peers. Evidence suggests that young children are aware of social, racial, and cultural differences (MacNaughton & Davis, 2001), but little discussion exists of how this may affect their relationships with others or their willingness to engage in civic processes. …