SCHOOLS: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Time to teach proper history
, July 22, 2006
Textbooks give school students a one-sided account of our national history and Aboriginal culture, argues Kevin Donnelly.Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop is right. It's about time school students were taught traditional Australian history. For too long, teachers have downplayed - even, at times, denigrated - our nation's achievements. Pointing out past sins is one thing; making ourselves ashamed to be Australians is another thing altogether. Consider the way indigenous history and culture are taught in Australian schools.
Beginning with the Keating government's Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE) curriculum, students are told to celebrate Aboriginal culture uncritically and to recognise the worth of individuals such as Pat O'Shane and Eddie Mabo.
European settlement is described as an invasion and there is little, if any, recognition that Aboriginal society may be dysfunctional. The Northern Territory SOSE document also presents Aboriginal culture in a blinkered way.Indigenous culture
In the NT, students are told to "celebrate the survival of indigenous Australian cultural heritage" and to "learn from members of indigenous Australian communities as often as possible".
Once again, no mention of the dark side of Aboriginal society, especially those elements that are misogynist and patriarchal.
One of the more extreme examples of a biased interpretation of indigenous issues is the Jacaranda SOSE Australian History textbook written for Victorian Year 10 classes. To be sure, some of the problems faced by Aboriginal communities, such as petrol sniffing, are acknowledged. But the dark side of indigenous culture represented by domestic violence is ignored. Of greater concern is the way problematic issues are presented as beyond dispute.
Take terra nullius
. While some academics argue that the expression was not in use when the First Fleet landed, the Jacaranda text is in no doubt. In describing the High Court's 1992 Mabo judgment, the statement is made that the High Court decision "overturned the legal fiction that Australia had been terra nullius
(land belonging to no one) when the British took possession of it in 1788".
The expression "black armband" provides another example of bias. Much of the Jacaranda textbook criticises the effect of European settlement. On two occasions, it does briefly mention that historian Geoffrey Blainey and Prime Minister John Howard hold a different view. According to history teacher John Cantwell in the text, black-armband critics are motivated by the desire to "leave out certain parts of the human story because they are painful". In fact, Blainey, like Howard, acknowledges that history teaching during the 1970s and '80s was too congratulatory and what is needed is balance, not ignoring past sins.
The textbook's coverage of the 1997 report Bringing Them Home
provides a further example of misleading students. Removing indigenous children from their parents is painted as genocide and the statement is made: "The motives for taking children were underpinned by racism." Never mind that many children benefited in later life from being removed from dysfunctional families.
It gets worse. The textbook writers argue that Australia's legal system fails "to cater for the cultural differences of Aboriginal Australians". (Is this code for arguing, as several judges do in interpreting tribal law, that Aboriginal elders should be treated leniently after raping underage girls?)
The Jacaranda textbook condemns Australia's 1988 bicentenary celebrations. Most Australians, the argument goes, believe "the history being celebrated was only a small part of Australia's story and that the nation's history began thousands of years before 1788".
Mining companies and governments are not immune from criticism. "Mining companies and some state governments," the text reads, "have often shown little appreciation of indigenous land rights and even less concern for the protection of sacred sites."
Never mind that mining giants liaise with Aboriginal communities and jointly determine the best practices to suit all parties involved in the process. Rio Tinto, for instance, employs anthropologists to work with indigenous communities to carry out cultural heritage studies before embarking on any developments and plans to double the number of indigenous workers employed at the Argyle diamond mine in Western Australia.Simplified view
A second Jacaranda textbook, Humanities Alive 2
, also adopts a simplified view of teaching history. Australia's settlement, the logic goes, is the same as the Spanish invasion of South America.
Students are asked about similarities between what happened to the Aztecs and to Australian Aborigines. The suggested response is: "In both cases the invaders were after territory (and its resources) and set out (consciously or otherwise) to subjugate and/or destroy the indigenous population, should it stand in their way."
Education should be disinterested and give students a balanced understanding, free from ideology or cant. When it comes to teaching indigenous history, that means examining the full story and acknowledging the good with the bad. Over to you, minister.
- Kevin Donnelly, director of Education Strategies in Melbourne, taught history and social studies for 18 years. This article first appeared in The Australian, July 7, 2006.