In recent weeks, BHP, Australia’s biggest mining company, has announced the Ngarrngga Project, an educational initiative aimed at “encouraging Indigenous knowledge experts and practicing classroom teachers to work collaboratively”. The project finds BHP partnered with the University of Melbourne, which is well known for its Indigenous Knowledge Institute. According to the promotional materials, the program “will expand the trial and use of Indigenous resources and tools to better support the teaching of First Nations content across the existing Australian Curriculum, and in teacher education programs”. Professor Marcia Langton, an Iman woman and academic from the University of Melbourne, announced that the project would teach Australians that contemporary First Nations communities are “strong, resilient, rich and diverse”.
Mirroring this language, Caroline Cox, BHP’s Chief Legal, Governance and External Affairs Officer, stated that the project would encourage “celebration and pride in the strong, diverse and living cultures” of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. The announcement followed years of bad press for BHP regarding the disturbance and desecration of Aboriginal cultural heritage sites as part of its $4.5 billion South Flank iron ore operations in Western Australia. Setting aside the appearance of corporate whitewashing, the project shows the considerable prestige that indigenising the curriculum has acquired in recent years. We now have Australia’s top-ranked university teaming up with Australia’s largest non-financial company to give new impetus to the indigenisation of Australian education.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Yet as Professor Langton’s reference to the “existing Australian curriculum” suggests, the goal of indigenising the National Curriculum has been a major priority among educators since 2008, and English teachers have been at the forefront of this development. As a result, English teachers have accumulated considerable experience in teaching stories, poems and plays from indigenous writers. However, serious problems have emerged. The biggest of these is that the texts selected by boards of studies are almost invariably soaked in the victimhood narratives popularised by American-style social justice. Far from learning that indigenous communities are “strong, diverse and resilient”, students are presented with a syllabus that focuses on exploitation, dispossession and molestation, making indigenous communities appear as perpetually traumatised victims of settler-colonialism.
A related problem (one also evident in the promotional materials for the Ngarrngga Project) is that indigenised curricula frequently involve the religiose quoting of progressive shibboleths about whiteness and indigeneity. A final issue, one which the Ngarrngga Project could potentially help to address, is that indigenisation projects put non-indigenous teachers (roughly 99 per cent of the total teaching body) in the position of authorities and curators of the indigenous experience, a position which is highly problematic according to the tenets of social justice. Unless these issues are openly debated by educators and the general public, the Ngarrngga Project runs the risk of replicating past mistakes and becoming another well-intentioned but counterproductive initiative from educational bureaucrats.
A prevalent myth in education reporting in Australia is that students are uninformed about the “true history” of colonialism in Australia, and a dose of “truth-telling” is required. This view was recently repeated in The Conversation by Tracy Woodroffe, a Warumungu Luritja academic from Charles Darwin University:
“We didn’t learn this in school,” they say. This proves school students need to be given a balanced and truthful education about Australia’s history. This needs to include the stories of massacres, dispossession, segregation and exclusion, as well as the personal long-term impact of the Stolen Generations and other racist government policies.
Speaking as an Australian teacher, I am not surprised that many students have learned nothing about indigenous history and culture, but this does not mean that teachers have never spoken about it. The headline of a recent article from the Sydney Morning Herald says it all: “We Can Use the Word Illiterate: The Writing Crisis in Australian Schools”. As grim as the article sounds, it is not hyperbolic: Australian literacy and numeracy levels have been in precipitous decline since the turn of the millennium. Many Australian teenagers are chronically disengaged at school, partly due to the prevalence of sub-literacy. In all likelihood, the students who professed little awareness of indigenous history would also know next to nothing about the pharaohs or trench warfare. This cannot be taken as proof that they were never taught about ancient Egypt and the First World War.
NESA, the New South Wales Education Standards Authority, has compiled a detailed timeline of indigenous educational initiatives which goes back decades. As long ago as 1991, Aboriginal Studies courses were added to the curriculum, and by 1995 the Aboriginal Education Policy covered all students and staff. During the 1990s many novels on indigenous issues were taught in Australian schools, such as My Place by Sally Morgan (a Stolen Generations narrative), James Maloney’s Dougy Trilogy, and No Sugar by the indigenous dramatist Jack Davis. From 1998 onwards, Sorry Day was commemorated in Australian schools to apologise for child removals during the Stolen Generations and by 2006 ten Aboriginal languages were being taught in New South Wales schools.
The indigenisation of Australian education gained greater momentum with the implementation of the National Curriculum from 2010 onwards. This document identified three cross-curricular priorities for Australian education, the first being “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures”. In other words, for the past decade Australian teachers have been tasked with incorporating Aboriginal perspectives into every subject. The first of three key concepts in this area is that indigenous peoples have “unique belief systems that connect people physically, relationally and spiritually to country/place”. The second and third involve recognising the linguistic and cultural “diversity” of Aboriginal cultures, a state of affairs which teachers are expected to explain without being able to speak a single word of an indigenous language or having the authority to explain indigenous cultural protocols.
While these concepts seem benign on the face of it, they are often vacuous and reductionist. The curriculum requires students to accept the paradoxical mantra that indigenous cultures are both wonderfully diverse and completely interchangeable: truisms about the spiritual importance of “country” apply equally in Tasmania and Arnhem Land. At the same time, students and teachers are expected to accept that these simplistic concepts are so profound that they require endless elaboration. If students are not “engaged” with a curriculum that recycles these same concepts in every subject, it is presumed that the teacher is doing something wrong and requires professional development. This, I suppose, is where the Ngarrngga Project comes in. In truth, the talking points of its promoters are substantively identical to the key concepts in the twelve-year-old National Curriculum (namely, that Aboriginal cultures are “unique and diverse”), yet educators will be expected to feign excitement, as if something revolutionary is being offered. But where the buzzwords of “celebration” and “diversity” are merely tiresome, something far more worrying lurks in the English texts prescribed by the Board of Studies.
Since 2018, the New South Wales Board of Studies has mandated that every final-year school-leaver should study “Texts by Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander authors and those that give insights into diverse experiences of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples”. Therefore, it is absurd for Tracy Woodroffe to talk about the lack of indigenous perspectives in Australian education. In Australia’s most populous state, it is impossible to graduate from high school without writing essays about indigenous perspectives.
While many people would regard this development as a noble attempt at “inclusion”, it is patently clear that some indigenous voices are more valued than others. Predictably enough, the Board of Studies has promoted texts which propagate a social-justice worldview, with intergenerational victimhood being a common theme. A popular choice in New South Wales and Victoria is Rainbow’s End by the indigenous playwright Jane Harrison. Dux College, a tutoring college based in Sydney, offers the following overview about Nan Dear, the novel’s dauntless matriarch:
She is a bearer of intergenerational trauma as she lived in the era of the stolen generations. She is painfully aware of many families around her whose children were taken. She has developed a kind of stoicism to deal with this trauma and is thus reluctant to speak about this subject. She was also sexually abused by a white man in her youth. Her character is also useful to demonstrate the great resilience and perseverance of indigenous Australians … despite the discrimination levelled against them.
These themes of white depravity and Aboriginal nobility are also explored through the other characters. For instance, would you be surprised to learn that Dolly Dear, Nan’s granddaughter, is also the victim of discrimination and sexual abuse but nevertheless emerges as a powerful survivor, who symbolises the feminist resilience of a younger generation of Aboriginal women? The experiences explored by a text like these are not human universals such as love, growing up or the search for meaning, but the experience of oppression, which, in accordance with social justice theory, is the unique preserve of minoritised groups. Rainbow’s End lacks the complexity and ambiguity of true literature, replacing it with Manichean generalisations about the racialised nature of experience. Sadly, it is typical of the texts on offer.
An alternative option for budding dramatists is Parramatta Girls by Alana Valentine. (Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah, another Alana Valentine play, is also on the reading list. It explores the politics of the hijab, ultimately presenting it as a symbol of liberation.) In contrast, Parramatta Girls offers a dramatisation of testimonies of child abuse at a girls’ home. The play centres on the trauma of three indigenous women: Marlene, Kerry and Coral. Marlene’s flashbacks reveal her sexual violation by a medical officer known as “Dr Fingers”; Coral’s story involves her sexual assault and impregnation by a prison guard before being brutally bashed in an attempt to induce an abortion. Apart from these horrors, the play details degrading chores and punishments. Nonetheless, the women achieve maturity and healing through their communitarian solidarity with the other former inmates of the home.
Exam-takers can also satisfy the indigenous literature requirement by studying poetry. Many teachers select poems from Ali Cobby Eckermann’s 2015 collection Inside My Mother. These poems offer a dual focus, swinging between the callousness of non-indigenous Australians and the otherworldly mysticism of Aborigines. For example, “Oombulgarri” is a protest poem about the closure of a remote Aboriginal settlement in Western Australia. According to the Guardian, the remote indigenous settlement was closed due to the prevalence of suicide, alcoholism and child sexual abuse. However, these details are completely absent from Cobby Eckermann’s poem. They remain what left-wing theorists might term a “gap and silence” within the poem. In fact, anything that would challenge the dominant narrative of white oppression and Aboriginal victimhood has been expunged. The take-away message is that white callousness has destroyed a thriving Aboriginal community, causing trauma and grief. As Matrix College candidly sums it up on their websbite: “‘Oombulgarri’ does not hesitate to place the blame for what has happened on those who drove the population of the town away: (‘the town is empty now / as empty as the promises / that once held it together’).” Indigenous communities are represented as the powerless victims of capricious state power.
“Unearth”, another Cobby Eckermann poem, uses burial as a metaphor for the white repression of indigenous culture, before ending with the hope that this vanished heritage might yet “boomerang” back into existence. In contrast, her poem “Trance” colourfully depicts an Aboriginal woman drifting off into a trance while “hunched in a possum-skin cloak” and “floating in a pitjuri haze”—pitjuri being a kind of native tobacco. Here we have a highly stereotyped view of indigenous people as otherworldly beings, adrift between the material and spiritual worlds. At least “Trance” offers a respite from the tales of dispossession and cruelty, but it also exemplifies the dualistic worldview evident in most of the set texts by indigenous authors. In fact, the perceptive student will suspect that there is something very Western about these texts; they owe far more to the social-justice worldview of the last twenty years than to timeless indigenous myths. The focus on dispossession, trauma and abuse is saturated with victimhood culture, relieved only by neo-colonial clichés about the timeless spirituality of indigenous people.
What has the media response been to the wholesale adoption of the metanarratives of the social-justice Left? Very frequently, it is to deny that any such thing has happened. Apart from Professor Woodroffe’s piece in The Conversation, the ABC ran an article with the following assertions:
“Despite the traumatic impact that the Stolen Generations policies continue to have on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities, very little about this chapter of our history has been taught in schools—particularly from an Indigenous perspective,” Professor [Steve] Larkin said.
This puff piece was written in its entirety by the Healing Foundation, which, according to a 2022 Quadrant article by Christopher Heathcote, received $600 million in forward funding to facilitate “healing” in communities affected by the Stolen Generations. However, as Heathcote revealed, “No medical specialist in Aboriginal health sits on the board or is listed in senior management of the Healing Foundation, which is incorporated as an unlisted public company. There is not even a token GP.” The all-indigenous-identifying board consists mostly of academics, administrators, social workers and activists.
To sum up, the education page of the ABC was handed over to an activist organisation devoted to intergenerational (but non-medical) healing. What was the result? Even as tens of thousands of matriculating students were studying texts written by Stolen Generations survivors, the ABC blithely assured its readers that “very little about this chapter of our history is taught in schools”. Furthermore, millions more in funding is going to projects, like the Ngarrngga Project, which aim to help educators embed these perspectives still more deeply in the curriculum.
What students make of it is anyone’s guess, but many of them have read The Burnt Stick (a Stolen Generations picture book) in primary school, watched the Stolen Generations film Rabbit Proof Fence in the early years of high school, studied modules on “European Invasion and Indigenous Resistance” in history, and completed high school writing essays about dispossession and intergenerational trauma for their leavers’ exam. There is nothing more canonical than Stolen Generations narratives in the current Australian high school. Furthermore, only one perspective is being advanced: namely, that the episode was the defining moral outrage of twentieth-century Australian history, one which is the leading cause of intergenerational trauma for indigenous Australians and the reason why white Australians should support initiatives like those offered by the Healing Foundation. This approach is now so central to Australian education that is hard to see what more could be done to “embed” it.
An alternative approach (or what appears to be) is what Caroline Cox of BHP terms “celebration and pride in the strong, diverse and living cultures, knowledge systems and histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”. This could, in theory, offer a more promising approach, but educators should first notice the non-academic emoting from which the formulation suffers. Some decluttering is in order. The first target should be the list of adjectives “strong, diverse and living”. Tellingly, this is very similar to “strong, resilient, rich and diverse” in the Australian curriculum. If teachers are to develop critical thinking skills in their students, they should warn them that adjectives and adverbs are discouraged in scientific forms of analysis. As Rutgers University explains:
One of the good elements of style is to avoid adverbs and adjectives. Adjectives and adverbs sprinkle papers with unnecessary clutter. This clutter does not convey information but distracts and has no point especially in academic writing, say, as opposed to literary prose or poetry.
The ubiquity of “strong, diverse and resilient” in policy documents around indigenous education indicates a high level of (positive) bias in favour of indigenous culture. It is one of the indicators that clear thinking has been abandoned in favour of on-trend sloganeering. The second cause for concern here is the language of “celebration and pride”, which also indicates a highly emotive approach to learning rather than the development of critical thinking skills. Funnily enough, the concept of “celebration” is also problematic for social-justice educators, though for very different reasons. As the Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice entry on “school climate” explains:
If the norms, values, practices, heroes, and sacred stories celebrate [my emphasis] middle-class Anglos, which is often the case with older schools, minority and non-middle-class students may feel that they are not welcomed.
In other words, if the culture and stories of the majority are celebrated, others may feel excluded. Therefore, celebration of Western culture is problematic because of the putative hurt feelings of non-Anglo minorities. The encyclopedia goes so far as to describe the celebration of majority cultures as “insidious”. In contrast, the same encyclopedia encourages teachers to celebrate the beliefs of ethnic and religious minorities. The advice is: “Both students and teachers … overcome their fear and celebrate [my emphasis] diversity in religion.” Therefore, it is only non-majority norms, beliefs and stories which can be safely celebrated by schools—the sort of double standard which is rife in social-justice circles. This usage maps neatly onto the Ngarrngga Project, where indigenous cultures will be unproblematically celebrated. Plainly, celebrating non-Western cultures no less than decrying the evils of colonialism is part of social-justice education. Therefore, there are serious signs that the Ngarrngga Project is already affected by social-justice ideology and its entrenched biases.
However, decluttered of such excrescences, the formulation holds promise. Students would simply study the “cultures, knowledge systems and histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”. Yet this should be done using a multi-perspectival approach that would necessarily include source materials which do not support the certitudes of the social-justice approach. For example, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Australia’s most canonical indigenous poet, published a poem, “The Child Wife”, which is highly critical of the Aboriginal custom of marrying young girls to older men:
They gave me to an old man,
Joyless and old,
Life’s smile of promise
So soon to frown.
Inside his gunya
My childhood over,
I must sit for ever,
And the tears fall down.
A more balanced indigenous studies curriculum would have a place for works that are critical of some aspects of indigenous culture. It is now standard for teachers discussing Shakespearean drama to look at patriarchal marriage customs in Elizabethan England. How many teachers would feel safe subjecting indigenous marriage customs to the same level of critical inquiry? It is surely no accident that “The Child Wife” has been kept well clear of a curriculum ostensibly intent on indigenisation.
At present, educational bureaucrats are so deeply ensconced in the “celebration and pride” model of indigenous studies that it has already caused them to drastically misinterpret texts. The classic example is the poem “Mango” by the indigenous poet Ellen van Neerven, which matriculating students were asked to analyse in 2017. The exam paper asked them to consider “how the poet conveys the delight of discovery”. Unfortunately, it later emerged that the poem is about the sexual assault of an eight-year-old girl at a swimming hole. Lines such as “boys talking about mangoes / slapping water / some have never had one”, make the sexual content abundantly clear. Asking students to write about “the delight of discovery” in the context of childhood sexual abuse was a true fiasco.
We should ask why educators who have recommended the study of sexual violence in Parramatta Girls and Rainbow’s End would completely miss the signs of it in a poem about indigenous Australians. It is hard not to conclude that they have convinced themselves that abuse is something white men do to Aboriginal people but is absent in indigenous communities. Oppression operates across racial boundaries, not within them. Therefore, the Board of Studies grotesquely assumed that nothing but “delightful discoveries” were going on in a poem about childhood sexual abuse. So-called education experts are fundamentally misreading texts in accordance with their ideological biases.
There seems little hope that poems like “Mango” or “The Child Wife” would be willingly assigned to students under current conditions, but an indigenised curriculum might be better for it if they were. It would provide some balance to a curriculum which is monomaniacal in its focus on white wrongdoing and Aboriginal innocence. For while educators are constantly asserting that indigenous communities are diverse, they do not seem to have viewpoint diversity in mind. They devote themselves to whitewashing the problems of indigenous culture by attributing every problem to the legacy of settler-colonialism.
Apart from a greater diversity of viewpoints and opinions, an indigenised curriculum could be improved by including more exposure to oral literature. One of the notable absences from current English syllabi is songs and poems collected from traditional communities. A celebrated example would be Song Cycle of the Moon-Bone, which was collected from north-eastern Arnhem Land by Ronald Berndt in 1946-1947. For teachers who have cut their teeth on the traumatised narratives of the current curriculum, this song can come as a welcome respite:
People were diving here at the place of the Dugong …
Here they are digging all around, following up the lily stalks,
Digging into the mud for the rounded roots of the lily,
Digging them out at that place of the Dugong, and of the Evening Star,
Pushing aside the water while digging, and smearing themselves with mud …
Berndt observed in 1948 that the Song Cycle of the Moon-Bone is a work of “exceptional beauty and poetic quality”. It also represents valuable insights into the culture and mythology of a hunter-and-gatherer society. There are now many translations of such “song-poems”, with Songs of Central Australia by Theodor Strehlow containing many fine examples. These songs offer access to indigenous cultures which are comparatively unmuddied by contemporary ideological obsessions. (As translations, these songs will undoubtedly include influences from Western thinking and poetics.) If the Ngarrngga Project truly wants to incorporate indigenous perspectives in education, it could do worse than starting with “dream songs” which offer a representation of indigenous culture from inside.
However, we should be aware of the dangers of this proposal. Several years ago, I showed students some photographs of Aboriginal rock art as part of lessons on Noonuccal’s much-anthologised poem “No More Boomerang”, which favourably compares indigenous rock art to the abstract art of the 1960s. One of my indigenous students protested that I had no right to speak about examples of Aboriginal rock art as they were “sacred sites”. I offer this as an example of how fraught the concept of indigenous knowledge and culture can be. The well-meaning non-indigenous teacher who tries to incorporate indigenous perspectives and history can easily break cultural protocols of what is “sacred” and “non-sacred”. As it turns out, the Song Cycle of the Moon-Bone is a non-sacred song which can be safely taught, but non-indigenous teachers are ill-equipped to navigate these protocols. A potential solution is to bring more indigenous teachers and elders into Australian schools, as they are best placed to judge such matters. If this is the sort of collaboration BHP has in mind, then it could be helpful. But it should only be part of a frank discussion about the purpose, scope and direction of indigenising the curriculum, a debate which educational elites show little interest in having.
Indigenising the curriculum is a prestigious prospect, which has attracted the attention of everyone from mining giants to the national broadcaster. Far from being marginal, it has been a national educational priority since at least 2008, with precursor projects dating back as far as the 1980s. The current focus, especially in high schools, has been on the Stolen Generations and cultural dispossession, with these experiences mediated through the social-justice lexicon of oppression, harm and trauma. Many academics and media outlets seem either puzzlingly unaware of this development or convinced that this perspective needs to be embedded still more deeply, a belief that should ring alarm bells about indoctrination.
What is truly needed is a free debate about what indigenous education should look like. I would recommend more viewpoint diversity and greater attention to oral literature from traditional communities, but the winds are blowing in a completely different direction.
Raymond Burns is an English teacher with many years’ experience teaching in Australian schools