“Education has fundamental connections with the idea of human emancipation”. That is, a responsive, knowledge-creating education should “equip students with the skills they will need to participate in the production of knowledge needed for their own liberation and that of others”. The colonisation of Australia by 18th century Europeans left a legacy of oppressive doctrines and practices, which have dispossessed Indigenous Australians from their ancestral homelands, languages, and culture - their Aboriginality. Moreover, educational policies and practices have significantly contributed to the “bitter history of racism and division” experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as curriculum in Australian schools has institutionalised Euro-centric ideals and interests, to the exclusion of Indigenous voices. As far as emancipation is concerned, the Australian education system has consistently failed the Indigenous peoples of Australia.
Fortunately, post-colonial education in Australia has redefined “previously benign notions of European colonisation”, and Australians have generally acknowledged the “historic process of invasion, oppression and genocide” of Indigenous peoples. Indeed, the doctrine of terra nullius has been abolished; Native Title has been recognised and granted at common law; and federal legislation has been enacted to establish and protect the rights and liberties of Aboriginal people.
Despite these progressions however, research in various sectors, including education, health, and employment, indicates the ongoing struggle of Aboriginal people to gain equal access and opportunities to all facets of daily life in Australia. So, while successive political initiatives have curbed some inequities, there is a definite, systematic failing of social justice for Aboriginal people in Australia. This is where education comes in.
Schools are key socialising agents, which play a vital role in shaping individual and group identity. Studies have shown relatively high academic achievement and strong retention rates of Aboriginal students in schools where a program, essentially Aboriginal studies, is offered. According to research, these programs are a positive, highly relevant way to enrich the lives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, parents, local community members, and educators alike. Considering the emancipatory goals of education, programs of Aboriginal studies have an invaluable place in schools across Australia, as they visibly provide institutional support for Indigenous perspectives, engendering greater respect and understanding of Indigenous peoples and culture - paving the way to emancipation for all Australians.
Thus, the question that arises is: “Should Aboriginal/Indigenous studies be introduced in all Australian schools, both public and private, regardless of the presence of Indigenous students or community members within the school?” This question is my point of reference, from which further research may be conducted, with the dual aims of clarifying the need for Aboriginal studies in all schools Australia-wide, and the wider aim of redressing social inequities faced by Indigenous Australians through education.
Contemporary Australian Indigenous issues are the everyday social inequities experienced systemically by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, which have come about as a result of Australia's inauspicious colonial past. A significant part of that history was the way education was used to disfavour Aborigines and privilege `white' Australians. For instance, “when schooling became compulsory for European children, in most colonies by 1885, Aboriginal children were usually not allowed to attend the public schools”, thus were immediately denied access to the life chances enjoyed by European children - purely on the basis of race. Indeed, throughout Australia's history, educational policies have reflected dominant Euro-centric ideologies, which typically bore the hallmarks of institutional racism that have become entrenched in and perpetuated by the education system. This reproductive cycle of social and educational inequity becomes clear when we look at education in Australia historically, and is central to the issue of whether or not to include Aboriginal studies across all schools, Australia-wide.
As Malin (1998) suggests, there have been four distinct periods of educational policy that were developed and implemented by non-Aboriginal Australians and strictly enforced upon Aborigines. In each era, the goals of education were tailored to reflect contemporary non-Indigenous values. So, between 1788 and 1939, there was a gradual shift from the idea that education should be used to `civilise' the so-thought `primitive' Aborigines to an era of segregation. During this time, it was deemed necessary to preserve the “`purity' of the European race…from `contamination' through interracial [mixing]”. Educational policy served this rationale well, and “Aboriginal children were allowed to attend public schools provided none of the European parents objected”, but many of them did, “so Aboriginal children were either excluded or placed in annexes separate from the main school buildings”. These ill conceived, overtly racist educational policies and practices fueled the inhumane, degrading treatment of Aborigines in Australia, by propagating notions of racial supremacy, especially in young minds. Future generations of non-Indigenous and Indigenous children alike were thus led to believe in, or at least not to question, the legitimacy of their respective roles as `oppressor' and `oppressed' - perpetuating educational and social inequity.
Between 1940 and 1971, there was again a change in the attitudinal climate of Australia towards Aboriginal people. With sufficient pressure from civil rights lobbyists, educational policy swung into an era of assimilation. Aboriginal people were suddenly expected to integrate with non-Indigenous Australians - the very people that had excluded Aborigines from all of the rights and privileges enjoyed since colonisation. Educational programs were “based on the assumption that Aboriginal homes were culturally deprived” and pedagogy was structured to enculturate Aboriginal students into dominant Euro-centric ways. This “perception of Aboriginal culture as marginal and something to be endured within the dominant grid [did] not make for a positive self image” and it is no wonder Indigenous people developed a “strong perception that they were fighting against the system, the combined forces of mainstream society”.
Likewise, it seems only natural that Australian Indigenous children have been, and continue to be, sent to school with a profoundly different cultural capital from that which is considered acceptable by Australia's non-Indigenous education system. For many Aborigines, school is a `cubbyhouse', where Aboriginal children go to play and socialise rather than participate academically, because their cultural capital is not valued in the classroom and participation becomes a futile, alienating experience. Assimilation policy in education has invariably produced results opposite to its goals, as Aboriginal children are effectively estranged from school and thus deprived the opportunity to participate fully in mainstream society. This unfortunate educational outcome exacerbates the endemic poverty, poor health and low socioeconomic status experienced in many Aboriginal communities throughout Australia, as “the use of educational credentials for social and economic selection, are now major features of the social order”.
Interestingly, it was not until the mid-1970s that Australia began to act upon the stories of loss and frustration experienced by Indigenous Australians. The Australian public started to take notice of Aboriginal issues and the federal government began to address concerns for social equality, particularly in the education sector. Aboriginal advisory committees were established to consult with most state governments to alleviate the educational inequities experienced by Aborigines. Educational schemes, such as increased allocation of funding and “bilingual programs … in many remote Aboriginal schools” were also introduced. The overarching aim of these initiatives was to “sensitise governments and the Australian public to the educational needs of Aboriginal people”. While there was still widespread reluctance to relinquish administrative and decision-making power to Aboriginal people to govern their own affairs, this period signaled the beginning of self-determination and self-management for Aboriginal people.
Subsequently, in the last ten years there has been genuine political acceptance of the fact that “Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders continue to be the most educationally disadvantaged groups in Australia…[and] do not enjoy equitable and appropriate outcomes from education”. Nevertheless, current media reports suggest this trend is only gradually changing, with relatively few recent political initiatives to make Aboriginal people central to the decision-making processes that directly affect their communities.
If we consider emancipation as the paramount goal of education, positive discrimination for Aboriginal students becomes a necessity. The misconception that equality means treating all people the same must be discarded in favour of more inclusive curriculum and pedagogy that cater to the needs of particular groups or individuals. Additionally, because “education is a common good as well as an individual good, its value depends not only on how it is distributed but also what it qualitatively is”. This means curriculum must be changed, to take several important considerations into account when designing programs for Indigenous students.
Contemporary research has identified that “most teachers have been given very little training in the implementation of Aboriginal education policies”. Teachers are not made aware of things like the widespread occurrence of otitis media (glue ear) in Aboriginal children; their living conditions and home life; their use of Aboriginal English and certain cultural protocols, such as showing respect by using little direct eye-contact, and being autonomous in the classroom. This creates a very poor foundation upon which to build teacher-student rapport, engendering low motivation for the child to learn and the teacher to teach, particularly because of the centrality of the kinship system in Aboriginal culture, where strong personal relations supercede individual achievement. This lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity on the part of some teachers make it prohibitively difficult for schools to implement a genuinely inclusive and emancipatory curriculum.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, there are critically reflexive practitioners who have initiated programs of Aboriginal studies in Australian schools, which serve to educate Indigenous and non-Indigenous school members about Aboriginal cultures, languages and perspectives. These programs have proven especially successful for Aboriginal students, and their communities, because unlike previous educational practices, “teachers [do not see Aboriginal] kids as a problem to be fixed”, but as valuable assets to their classes and the wider community. Case studies conducted in these schools, where there are relatively high percentages of Indigenous students, reveal the use of responsive education, which “priorities a definition of learning that involves the collaborative production of knowledge by students, teachers and their communities”. Accordingly, programs of Aboriginal studies feature a “combination of both Aboriginal and Western ways” so that “Aboriginal people learn something from white cultures, and white people can learn from Aboriginal cultures”. For example, in Western Australia, students are educated alongside their adult counterparts in places like Kulbardi Aboriginal Centre, where they enjoy “bush tucker [and learn about] many different [Aboriginal] artefacts and…stories”.
Research shows, schools that implement this kind of framework are more successful in deconstructing Aboriginal students' culture of resistance and opposition to the school, than schools that ignore their Indigenous students' perspectives. This may be attributed to the fact that programs of Aboriginal studies sensitise non-Indigenous teachers to Aboriginal students' ways of being, learning and knowing. This simultaneously helps teachers promote a strong sense of identity and belonging for those children; generating cultural capital that is a vital “social asset in the late 20th century”. Unfortunately, considering the connection between educational outcomes and social equity, it is clear that most schools in Australia have perpetuated the place of Aboriginal people in Australia as those who “constitute by far the group disadvantaged to the greatest degree over the longest time”.
Of course, there are other intersecting categories of difference, including socioeconomic status, gender, (dis)ability and locality, that affect the overall academic and social success of a child, which should be taken into account when designing curriculum. However, considering the historical failure of the Australian education system to create equal life chances for Indigenous Australians since colonisation, those categories of difference are subsumed by a child's Aboriginality.