Government and governance, National security, Education, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

27 March 2019

As the list of topics being covered in national security education grows longer, teaching despair is becoming an increasing problem. A new focus on resilience is much needed, Sandra Bourke writes.

As Australia’s Federal election looms, national security is aptly front and centre on both Liberal and Labor political agendas with the number of national security threats expanding.

In Australia, since 11 September 2001, the threats on the ‘new global security agenda’ were war, weapon proliferation, non-state threats – including organised crime and terrorism – and the adverse impact of poverty, disease, and environmental breakdown.

Issues added incrementally to the national security agenda include cybercrime, child sex predators, illegal drugs, national criminal gangs, biosecurity hazards, natural disasters, and climate change – to name a few. It’s also concerned with ‘grey warfare’ – perpetrated by both state and non-state actors – and risks to the rules-based order arising from fast and slow shifts in geopolitics.

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While the securitisation of these additional issues has both positive and negative implications for democracy, these developments also have an impact on how national security education is shaped in Australia and on the future resilience of the country’s liberal democratic values.

National security education emerged as an explicit higher and professional multi-disciplinary offering following 9/11, aligned to, but generally separate from, the disciplines of International Relations and military studies.

Courses are currently offered by at least 12 Australian universities at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. There are 19 national security courses listed with the Australian Department of Education and Training.

National security education arguably ‘looks out from a national capital’, and is concerned with the well-being of the state. However, as with the political agenda, the teaching of national security is becoming increasingly complex and broad.

Since 9/11, the range of subject content taught under the national security rubric has expanded to include climate change, criminology, biosecurity, law, demographics, and emergency management. Subjects also cover energy, space, cyber and technology, critical infrastructure, intelligence, history, and ethics. A number of these are themselves emerging academic disciplines, also contested and challenging to teach.

While this challenge of continuous expansion is not new, it is ongoing. National security education ‘risks dilution and diversion to the point that every critical national and international problem comes to be defined as a security issue’. The rationale for including subjects is not always clear, perhaps more a result of ‘muddling through’ reactions, confluence and convenience rather than reflective design.

As a result, many students express that they are often overwhelmed by the range of generally negative subjects. This raises the question, are current national security offerings ‘teaching despair’?

Teaching despair is not a new risk for educators. It is perhaps more readily realised in this era of global threats where climate change, pollution, and energy risks amass with threats ranging from terrorism to total war, and the allure of the fourth industrial age is fragmenting and highlighting the increasing inequity and ideological tribalism in the world.

However, teaching despair will not instill the resilience required to sustain liberal democratic values. Resilience is defined by David Chandler as ‘the capacity to positively or successfully cope with, adapt to, and recover from security crises, and is widely employed as a framework for addressing a broad range of interrelated security threats’. Resilience is persistence – the ability to ‘bounce back’ from shocks, to adapt, adjust and minimise vulnerabilities.

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Resilience, at both individual and collective levels, enables agency and empowerment. Adding skills such as policy-design and facilitation, risk and causal analysis, and critical thinking, including complex systems and adaptive approaches, is therefore essential.

Learning how to apply ethics, including knowing when the securitisation of an issue is justified as well as its effects, is also critical. Borrowing ideas such as ‘pragmatic optimism’ with its emphasis on creative yet evidence-based problem solving, and shared capability is one way of countering fear and despair.

The resilience paradigm is encouraging a rethink of national security education. It is a pivot from passive incrementalism to an interdisciplinary curriculum that builds agency, examines cause and capability, applies ethics, and perhaps even fosters pragmatic optimism across a broad range of coherent yet interconnected security threats.

Moving forward, educators must actively accommodate this new chapter in national security education. The ever-evolving nature of the world’s security environment calls for the next wave of policymakers to be prepared for the complex and unpredictable. Future national security education must, therefore, focus on producing knowledgeable public servants who also understand resilience as both an individual and social strategy that can strengthen the state.

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