Semantics meaning

Dr. Kevin Donnelly
“People would argue furiously, although they essentially agreed with each other” a former politician told me this week, reflecting the way that words can obscure meaning. I was thinking about this dynamic this week on my way to a meeting with, Dr. Kevin Donnelly, a critic of the Australian Curriculum along with stakeholders and academics concerned with the place of religion in curriculum. It was significant that we had all these people in the same room because on the surface it would appear that they are very far apart on the issues we were discussing. Yet, it is not clear to what extent the differences are substantial or semantic.

Dr. Donnelly’s review of the curriculum included a recommendation that many took as being about “the contribution of Western civilisation [and] our Judeo-Christian heritage” (1). This understanding was based on reading the text of a recommendation in the review which begins with a call for more “emphasis on morals, values and spirituality”, as being defined by the second part of the sentence in which the only example of this that is mentioned is that of “Judeo-Christian heritage” (2). Donnelly has argued that he was calling for teaching about all religions.
I think the recommendation is actually advocating for three things.
A. Students should be instructed into morality and good values.
B. Students should learn about spirituality in its various forms.
C. The balance in the Australian Curriculum between recognition of non- Anglo/non- Christian traditions on the one hand and “Our Judeo-Christian heritage… and British” influences on the other hand, should be tipped to favour the later rather than the former.

While there is a lot to debate here, there is also some common ground.
My optimism is based in part of the idea that words are far less important than the meaning they seek to convey. This idea is one way of dealing with a series of discrepancies in the two versions of the Ten Commandments given in the Torah (3). One version prohibits “coveting” while the other forbids desire of your fellow’s house etc. One text commands us to remember the Sabbath while the other demands we keep it. According to prominent Jewish commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, this is unimportant because “the words are the body, while the meaning is the soul” (4).

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