Why Aboriginal Studies Matters

Why Aboriginal Studies Matters

Australia’s First Peoples are central to the narratives that make up our national story. Schools and teachers tell this story and sculpt perceptions about what matters, why it matters and what this means. The time has come to make something very clear: Aboriginal Studies matters. It matters because it is a fundamental pillar in addressing our nation’s unfinished business. It matters because taking proactive steps to build Aboriginal Studies can have significant and positive implications for the individual, school and society. And it matters because institutionalised education has its own unfinished business to attend to.

Aboriginal Australia matters. In contemporary Australia few statements are met with more enthusiastic approval. It has come to be a motherhood statement of Australian public discourse. However, rather than uncritically accept this statement and move on, it is important to consider what it actually is that matters. Our First Peoples and their heritage and culture are the only unique socio-cultural ingredients in the Australian national identity. All other aspects of our national story have been sourced from, or are the same as, elements in other nations. This does not at all diminish the importance of these other elements. Character traits, be they individual or collective, are best viewed non-judgementally, without hierarchy. To highlight uniqueness in one does not diminish another; it is not a binary condition. When Australia’s First Peoples are accepted as the unique thread in our social fabric, the whole national story changes. It moves beyond the world view of an Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia, beyond the “us” and “them”, beyond competition, and into a world where the millennia of civilisation and culture are accepted, explored and celebrated as a part of Australia’s shared story.

Aboriginal Studies matters. If the premise is accepted that Aboriginal Australia matters, then it logically follows that Aboriginal Studies matters. Aboriginal Studies is the only specific subject in the Primary and Secondary curriculum system which is wholly devoted to the exploration of Aboriginal Australia. Without Aboriginal Studies operating as a sustainable subject within our educational institutions, many of the other principles and actions which recognise its fundamental value ring hollow. This is not to imply that Aboriginal Studies is more important than other disciplines, it is simply to advocate a logical conclusion based upon an accepted premise. If Aboriginal Australia matters, then Aboriginal Studies matters.

Aboriginal Studies matters for other reasons: institutional and historical context, principals of affirmative action, and the role that institutions play in shaping culture and character. Until very recently, institutional education in Australia was an instrument of marginalisation and racism in NSW. Schools were part of the problem. “Exclusion on Demand” multiplied by the “Great Australian Silence” equalled racism and discrimination on a scale that echoes still today. It is worth pausing to consider these echoes. Consider a young Aboriginal student in 2014 whose Grandparents, Aunties, Uncles and Parents all either experienced this directly, or knew of family who did. It would be difficult to look this hypothetical young person in the eye, tell them that education mattered and expect unquestioning acceptance of this idea, when for so long education had been telling their family that Aboriginal people do not matter. Consider a young non-Aboriginal student who has never met an Aboriginal person and whose word associations extend barely beyond sport, dance, dots, didgeridoos and disadvantage. For the same length of time, the institutions of learning have implicitly told this non-Aboriginal student, her parents and grandparents that Aboriginal people do not matter.

Education in NSW was part of the problem until as recently as the 1980s. The long slow road to redress this injustice has had many roadblocks and detours, but offering HSC Aboriginal Studies has been one of the central pillars since 1992. Education matters, it matters for Aboriginal families and communities and education of Australia about Aboriginal communities matters for us all. Aboriginal Studies must therefore be supported with strategies to build it and present it in a sustainable and meaningful way. The sustainable offering of HSC Aboriginal Studies sends a powerful message to students, both the minority who might consider choosing it and the majority who probably won’t. It sends a message to the school community and to the whole of society. The message is: Aboriginal Australia matters. It is important. It is important to our national character and our national story.

Subjects within the dominant culture, those that have not had to emerge from a history of institutionalised racism, those which students might see as “mainstream”, are accompanied by a shared cultural understanding within the minds of students and families. The echoes of silence mean that broad understanding of Aboriginal Studies as a valuable, relevant and rigorous subject is only emerging. By supporting it proactively, schools convey that it is so important that we are prepared to offer it in ways that might not apply to other subjects; other subjects which have the momentum of institutional support, collective understanding, student interest and enrolments. This subject is not, or rather should not be, about a curriculum competition; it is not a zero-sum context. Indeed, Australia’s First Peoples have been marginalised throughout our shared history partially due to the application of this very same competitive, binary framework. Shifting the paradigm away from competitive education towards a shared narrative leads to very different conclusions about the implications of building HSC Aboriginal Studies.

If institutional education in NSW is to fully reconcile its own role in the marginalisation of our First Peoples, then institutional education must take proactive steps to correct the record. It is true that our cross-curriculum priorities integrate Aboriginal perspectives. This is necessary, but not sufficient. Schools must stand up and proclaim unambiguously that Aboriginal Australia matters and that Aboriginal Studies matters. This means that merely offering the subject in a crowded curriculum is not enough; schools have a responsibility to support the subject with positive, proactive strategies. Justice does not mean that everything should be the same. Occasionally justice demands action.

So, when Aboriginal Studies is offered as just one in the maze of subject selections, evidence suggests that students don’t choose it. They do not choose it, because schools do not communicate, explicitly or implicitly, its importance, why it matters and what it means for the individual student and society. We perpetuate the echoes of silence if we do not advocate for change. This means taking proactive measures to develop institutional support, collective understanding, student interest and enrolments. It means to err on the side of action, rather than caution, and to avoid tokenism instead while pushing for substantive change. Aboriginal Studies matters and it’s time for schools to lead. Anything less is lip service and surely we’ve had enough of that.