Another Australian curriculum review, and yet more politicians balk at the word “invasion”.

The conservative political outcry follows the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority’s recent proposal that First Nations peoples’ experience of British colonisation be recognised and taught as invasion.

The Federal Minister for Education, Alan Tudge, responded to the proposal by saying:

“Honour[ing] our Indigenous history … should not come at the expense of dishonouring our Western heritage.”

Meanwhile, Senator Pauline Hanson believes the proposed changes will lead to:

“… Australian children…[being] publicly humiliated for being ‘white’ oppressors.”

Tudge and Hanson are not alone; the Coalition backed Hanson’s call to “reject critical race theory from a national curriculum” (not that it was ever there). Tudge, Hanson, and the Coalition are also not the first.

In 1996, then prime minister John Howard denounced Victoria’s first state curriculum as “teaching children that we have a racist, bigoted past”.

Reviewing the Australian Curriculum in 2013, Dr Kevin Donnelly and Professor Kenneth Wiltshire declared that the curriculum was unbalanced, emphasising Indigenous culture and knowledge while “neglect[ing]…Western knowledge, history, tradition, and Judeo-Christian heritage and beliefs”.

The inclusion of “invasion” is frequently what sparks these conservative outcries. But is “invasion” really the word that matters?

While “invasion” inevitably causes a political and media flurry, “reconciliation” generally receives less attention. Since the 1990s, reconciliation has been increasingly emphasised as the reason for teaching about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.

The Adelaide, Melbourne and Alice Springs (Mparntwe) education declarations, which have governed national goals for schooling over the past few decades, all commit to young Australians “possess[ing] the knowledge, skills and understanding to contribute to, and benefit from, reconciliation”.

The Mparntwe declaration also gives reconciliation as a major reason for the cross-curriculum priority of “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures”.

The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers require teachers to “promote reconciliation” by engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures, and languages.

But what does reconciliation mean? Does our education system actually promote reconciliation? And what would our curriculum look like if it did?

“Reconciliation” is itself a controversial term. It’s a Western idea, and therefore neither neutral nor benign for First Nations peoples. Reconciliation implies an initial period of peace that never existed in Australia, making “conciliation” a more appropriate term.

The 2021 Reconciliation Australia theme, “More than a word: Reconciliation takes action”, reflects a core issue – reconciliation can too easily become a sentimental symbol, brought out for one week of the year, rather than ongoing and rights-based actions for social justice.

Reconciliation Australia bases its vision of reconciliation on five interrelated dimensions:

  • Historical acceptance
  • Race relations
  • Equality and equity
  • Institutional integrity
  • Unity.

If our education system is truly committed to reconciliation, we must actively support the acknowledgment of our past. Only through truth, justice, and healing can we work on building positive two-way relationships, overcoming racism, and recognising and upholding the unique rights and cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including in the Australian Constitution.

Our past and present policies, curricula and textbooks indicate that when it comes to reconciliation, Australian education still has a long way to go.

Not a new teaching concept

Teaching about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures in Australian schools is not new.

In the early-mid 1800s, children were taught about First Peoples as:

“… a race of savages who are amongst the lowest and most degraded that are to be found in the world.”

In the 1870s, as education became compulsory, school readers included stories of Australian exploration. Aboriginal people were frequently present in these stories, usually as savage antagonists, but occasionally as (untrustworthy) servants, or even rescuers to the brave British explorers.

Of course, native food was “by no means nutritious” for these white heroes. From Federation to the late 1960s, school papers and readers continued to depict First Nations peoples as primitive pre-humans, savage enemies, and infantilised servants. First Nations cultures, meanwhile, were mixed up with European folk tales into an appealing, romanticised background for the White Australian identity.

These stories are obviously racist. They’re also the stories that dominated the education of most of Australia’s politicians and other power brokers. Even after school readers were phased out in the late 1960s, textbooks continued to teach about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, rather than exploring First Nations perspectives.

The language became more polite, but still maintained white superiority. W.E.H. Stanner argued in his famous 1968 Boyer Lectures that public mentality and prejudice towards Aboriginal peoples could be transformed within a generation, if schools utilised real knowledge rather than folklore.

Stanner’s argument was largely ignored. Twenty years later, the Hughes Report’s call for major curriculum reform to “provide information for a concerted attack on racism” was still necessary. Our current curriculum controversies are part of the ongoing response.

During the past three decades, Victoria has implemented five different curricula, the latest of which is a version of the Australian Curriculum. These curricula, along with related policies and textbooks, have been developed under intense political and media scrutiny. Education has both echoed and rebounded against the swinging pendulum of political agendas. For example, let’s examine that contested word, “invasion”:

The 1995 Curriculum and Standards Framework (CSF) does not mention the word “invasion”. It states, however, that:

“The views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals and groups on significant issues should be sought and taken into account. The impact of social and institutionalised racism and violence, now and in the past, is investigated and students explore ways of achieving social justice.”

In 2000, the revised Curriculum and Standards Framework II (CSFII) set the following year 9/10 history curriculum focus:

“Examin[ing] the impact of European occupation of Australia, including the perspective of that occupation as invasion.”

Five years later, the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS) retained invasion as a year 9/10 learning focus, but reframed it as a “representation of [European] settlement”.

By 2013, invasion had vanished from the Australian Curriculum in Victoria (AusVELS). The corresponding curriculum section asked students to investigate:

“The extension of settlement, including the effects of contact (intended and unintended) between European settlers in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

Rather than being a learning focus, this topic was a detail of an elective for one of three possible depth studies.

The current Victorian Curriculum, implemented in 2017, distances itself still further from conflict, asking students to investigate:

“Intended and unintended causes and effects of contact and extension of settlement of European power(s), including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

As the current review states:

“The First Peoples of Australia experienced colonisation as invasion and dispossession of land, sea and sky.”

“Settlement” implies that Australia was previously uninhabited. The emphasis on categorising causes and effects as intended or unintended focuses attention on the invaders, rather than First Nations perspectives.

As they stand, these curricula perpetuate racism by disrespecting and disregarding the unique rights and experiences of First Nations peoples.

Accepting and understanding our past as invasion creates shared meaning for First Nations and non-Indigenous teachers and students. “Invasion” does matter, but only if it’s part of broader, deep-seated ideological change.

Our education system explicitly commits to promoting reconciliation. When our political leaders balk at words such as “invasion”, they reveal this commitment as symbolic sentiment, lacking any integrity or implicit support.

The ongoing politicisation of the curriculum also contributes to making teaching for reconciliation difficult terrain for teachers to navigate in their classrooms.

The Australian Curriculum revisions, led by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Advisory Group, ask us to follow through on our commitment to reconciliation, to use respectful and culturally-responsive language, and strengthen relationships.

Accepting and celebrating these reforms is a modest step towards making reconciliation more than a word. The Senate’s panicked, uninformed response to instead ban critical race theory from the curriculum is a giant leap in the opposite direction.

Danielle has a peer-reviewed journal article, “Education for reconciliation? Understanding and acknowledging the history of teaching First Nations content in Victoria, Australia” in press with the History of Education, and due for publication later this month.

This article was first published on Monash Lens. Read the original article

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