Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Aboriginal Education, Again

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Aboriginal Education, Again

Article excerpt

Reports and inquiries on Aboriginal issues are usually polite, sometimes plaintive, often euphemistic to avoid sensitivities, and frequently a set of bullet points to show how far Aborigines fall below the Australian norms. Bluntness is uncommon, and so it is both refreshing and grim to have such a brutal analysis from Helen Hughes on the failings of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory (Hughes 2008).

She asks how there can be such appalling educational deprivation 'in a compassionate country with one of the world's most effective democracies' (Hughes 2008:2). Failure is to be found in inequitable school facilities and teacher housing, in substandard teachers and teaching, inappropriate curriculums, massive shortcomings in electricity, ablution blocks and equipment (even down to the absence of pencils and paper), and in a succession of 'pretend' vocational courses. Children who have been at school for ten years cannot read above Year 1 primary level (Hughes 2008:3).

Her remedy? Look at Aboriginal children 'in the open society attending mainstream schools' and see how well they manage in comparison with those in remote and separate Homelands education systems. Invest in real teachers, qualified teachers, she writes; insist on school attendance registers, do something drastic about CDEP (Community Development Employment Projects, or work-for-social-service benefits), teacher aides, get rid of the teacher fly-in and drive-in regimen, abandon the vocational courses that lead no one anywhere and, whatever else, teach children English and mathematics, the very foundations for real work, for artisan or professional careers. Public inquiries into Aboriginal education have been going on for more than 30 years, she states (incorrectly), but her axe falls most heavily on the Northern Territory government, which, she insists, has known for a decade that Aboriginal schools are turning out children with the numeracy and literacy rates of five-year-olds (Hughes 2008:1-12).

Professor Hughes is frank about her opposition to those who insist that Aboriginal culture can only be kept alive by sensitive bi- or monocultural programs; she is a steadfast mainstreamer, a believer in a free-market, individual-achieving society.

There is not much to contest in this vivisection of entrenched and embedded failure of Territory policy and its administration. One could resort to old-fashioned victim-blaming, arguing that parental values and influences are grossly disruptive and therefore the long-held assimilationist and separating theories should come back, with distant boarding schools, yet again and as yet another flavour of the year. Or one could return openly, again, to a Social Darwinian postulate that 'these people' really are beyond the pale and that Governor Macquarie was probably right in setting up the first Native Institution in 1815, the forerunner of many more, in which the boys could be trained 'for agricultural employ' and the girls for domestic service.

There can be no return to that kind of racist philosophy and anthropology, and despite a federal initiative of $20 million in scholarships, thousands of children cannot be transported from Milingimbi, Cape York and Kalumburu to board at St Josephs in Sydney. The (yet again) relocation theme is now a major focus of philanthropists, business corporations and well-intentioned governments. We can no longer push the 'overwhelming primitivism' explanation--given that there are enough successful programs, here and abroad, to show just what can be done. We could also learn to admit that the problems we can't resolve aren't irresolvable.

Herein lies the major weakness of the Hughes report: the absence of history--contextual history and institutional history--as an explanation of much of the above. That lack of context, and memory, is also, of course, what bedevils most of Aboriginal policy making. The Coalition Government's Emergency 'Intervention' in 2007, recently renewed by the Labor Government for at least another year, is possibly the most gauche, visible and noisy replication of past practices that have come unglued, turned messy and then been unabashedly consigned to the amnesia bin. …

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