The ‘Australian History’ School Curriculum: A Continuation of Colonial Paternalism?

Interrogating the origins of this country, one knowledge gap at a time.

Last week, I experienced the great privilege of listening to a lecture recorded by Gary Foley, Aboriginal activist, writer, actor and academic of the Gumbaynggirr Nation, as part of a course I am taking on Indigenous Australian Policy. 

Foley launched his discussion uncovering the life of an Aboriginal political activist by exploring the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA), as the first, official Aboriginal-run political organisation in Australia, established in New South Wales in 1924. 

As inspired by the efforts of the United Negroes International Association (UNIA) fighting for African American rights, the AAPA campaigned for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders self-governance, equal citizenship, land ownership and cultural preservation, as well as fighting to terminate the removal of Aboriginal children from their families. 

Knowledge gaps surrounding our history are especially problematic being a non-Indigenous Australian residing on what is Aboriginal land

Upon hearing such information, I was at once overcome with feelings of great shame and sorrow. After sixteen and a half years belonging to supposedly ‘highly esteemed’ education institutions, I felt mortified that Foley’s lecture was my first exposure to the existence of the AAPA. 

This initial sentiment of regret spiralled into a cascade of questions: Why was this the first I was hearing about such Aboriginal political resistance organisations contesting White Australia Policy in the 20th century? Was such information surrounding Aboriginal political resistance discussed or even mentioned during ‘Australian History’ classes in school? Why on earth would something as significant as this be skimmed over or omitted from the ‘Australian History’ school curriculum?  

Pondering these questions triggered a reflection upon my primary and secondary school education of ‘Australian History’ and deplore its failure to adequately engage an in-depth account of what took place prior, during and in the aftermath of British colonisation, from Traditional Owners’ perspectives. Whilst we were taught the tragedy and disgrace of British invasion, this education was delivered in a somewhat surface-level, text-book fashion. 

Reflecting back, I wish there was a greater prioritisation of ‘Australian History’ during my primary and high school education, as such knowledge gaps surrounding our history are especially problematic being a non-Indigenous Australian residing on what is Aboriginal land. 

When looked upon in this light, it becomes clear that the delivery of a History curriculum, or storytelling more generally, is an incredibly power-laden process

However, my past teachers or school institutions cannot be considered entirely accountable for this inadequate teaching of ‘Australian History’ that I received. Rather, the nature, structure and expectations of the ‘Australian History’ school curriculum in Victoria, or perhaps even in wider Australia, is what needs to be foremost interrogated. 

Although the teaching of History is canonised as an impartial reveal of facts surrounding past events, it is important to be critical of this common misconception. The teaching of History may indeed involve the reveal of facts, yet it is still a form of storytelling. The information it delivers will and inevitably does prioritise, omit or misrepresent certain details or perspectives. 

When looked upon in this light, it becomes clear that the delivery of a History curriculum, or storytelling more generally, is an incredibly power-laden process. Those whom are constructing the narrative hold the power to include and exclude certain happenings and voices, and therefore, maintain the ability to reinforce certain notions. For instance, the limited focus on or complete omission of Aboriginal political resistance organisations in the 20th century from the ‘Australian History’ curriculum (like the AAPA) fortifies the fallacy of First Nations peoples as docile victims of White Australia Policy oppression. 

That is to say, in failing to adequately discuss the push for political voice, rights, self-governance and self-determination on behalf of Traditional Owner actors amidst the 20th century, the ‘Australian History’ school curriculum conceivably complies with the doctrines of Colonial Paternalism – a framework that portrays First Nations peoples as utterly down-trodden, helpless and in need of saving by white superiors. In simply propounding this one-dimensional history, Traditional Owners’ efforts to fight against their oppression and injustice are concealed by the story that the ‘Australian History’ curriculum tells, and the image of Aboriginal Australians as powerless agents is reinforced. 

So, I return to the question of why would something as significant as the first Aboriginal-run political organisations be omitted or skimmed over in the ‘Australian History’ school curriculum? Perhaps, consciously or subconsciously, in keeping with the framings of Colonial Paternalism, the ‘Australian History’ curriculum inculcates the justification of continued domination and control of Aboriginal stories, peoples and communities, in the minds of future Australian society. 

it is not too late to work towards a more equitable future that accurately and genuinely acknowledges the past – starting with the ‘Australian History’ education curriculum

It is important to additionally consider that the failure to discuss Traditional Owners’ push for political voice, rights, self-governance and self-determination is solely one dimension of detail not adequately included within the ‘Australian History’ schooling curriculum. We must consider how different the story of ‘Australian History’ may seem if our school level education included other details that have inevitably been omitted. 

Evidently, in order to debunk the broader Australian discourses of Colonial Paternalism and adequately address inequalities experienced by First Nations people in Australia, it is clear that the ‘Australian History’ school curriculum needs to be reshaped and restructured to centralise Traditional Owners’ voices, stories and worldviews. 

While it is too late to turn back the clock to undo the horrific past of ‘Australian History’, it is not too late to work towards a more equitable future that accurately and genuinely acknowledges the past – starting with the ‘Australian History’ education curriculum.

Paris is in her final semester of her Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University. Through her studies and reporting for the St Kilda Local Newspaper, Paris writes to provoke readers to question their own biases and to destabilise dominant societal discourses surrounding culture and the environment, in the hope of working towards a more equitable planet

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