Aboriginal Culture As 'The Problem'


Rather than assume that I’d immediately disagree with his reported view that schools should not ‘teach’ Aboriginal culture, I chose to read thoroughly Gary Johns’s Aboriginal Education: Remote Schools and the Real Economy, which was launched by Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop at the end of May.

Johns, once a Minister in a Federal Labor Government and now a fashionably neo-conservative opinionist, tends to use dismissive language to describe our muddled, public efforts to deal with the complexities of justice and equality in a complicated world. This pamphlet at 30 pages, it’s more a polemic than a research report has less than usual of his ‘vivid’ language, but Johns still can’t help himself, making occasional offensive references about the relationship of Aborigines’ past ‘cargo-cult beliefs’ to current welfare dependency, the assertion that ‘Aboriginal culture is the problem’ which education should eradicate, and the ‘romance’ of faux traditional lifestyles.



Johns’ primary, underlying preoccupation is that ‘education is essentially an instrument in economic integration’ or, work will make you free. Without denying that hopelessness, lack of purpose, and despair make education in some Indigenous contexts virtually impossible, one must simply point out that education is a fundamental right of every child without discrimination because it is an instrument for realising the full human potential of the individual child.

This is a greater goal. If education be an instrument, then it is one that must be tuned to the capacities and circumstances of all children along with their other (social, medical, cultural) needs if that potential is to be realised.

Johns’ second premise is that remote communities are economically unviable, which means admitting that they do not have adequate services and support. But, he quickly asserts that one cannot expect these services and support to be provided because such communities will not exist for much longer.

He goes on to argue that Western education both cannot and should not preserve Aboriginal culture: that this is a job for Aborigines themselves, and that they instead allow such culture to ‘interfere’ with Aboriginal schooling. Johns quotes complaints that some Aboriginal parents have failed to require that their children attend school, or that they fail to provide the necessary conditions for educational achievement, such as: ‘peace and quiet, food, civility, reading skills, discussion, the use of the English language and the work ethic.’

Johns argues that, if Aboriginal parents don’t (or won’t) take up local employment opportunities because of what he says are disincentives (welfare reliance and apathy) then it may be good public policy for child protection authorities to remove those children not attending school.

I recall this having been done in our recent past, with disastrous results for individual children and Aboriginal family life, leading directly to a generational loss of parenting skills and cultural destruction.

Actually, Johns’ argument about ‘teaching Aboriginal culture’ is less important than his clear perception that it doesn’t really exist any more, or shouldn’t. He dismisses the use of traditional languages, because only missionaries had the commitment and time to study and preserve them: no such luxury now. He perceives a correlation between the ‘excessive’ involvement of non-employed Aborigines in customary activities on the one hand, with poor parenting practices and children’s educational failure on the other. Thus, he concludes that:

Too often, educators continue to defer to Aboriginal culture, without recognising that Aboriginal culture is the problem. Can a culture that is pre-literate and pre-numerate survive in an education system that is meant to make children literate and numerate?

These generalisations are actually false, and Johns’ assertions don’t make them true.

I agree with Johns that Aboriginal children must be decently educated. But it’s the responsibility of the state to meet these children’s needs when their parents can’t. His cure for their deprivation is just magic: leave the land, because we can’t, or won’t, make it liveable; transport your children into a brave new world of employment a world their welfare-dependent, culturally exclusive parents ‘choose’ not to inhabit by living in small, remote communities they have owned for millennia into a world of responsibility from which Aboriginal children are presently excluded by their dependence on ‘unearned’ income, such as royalties from those exploiting their traditional lands.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

If they won’t leave, he says, then Aboriginals’ money should be spent more wisely for example, by diverting Northern Territory Aborigines’ land rights royalties (under the 1976 Aboriginal Lands Rights Act) and forcing them to pay for their own electricity, water, rent and childcare, ‘so that there are consequences for bad behaviour.’

But human rights cannot be privatised or reduced to economic ideology. In 1992, the Kennett Government closed down a lot of schools in Victoria to cut educational expenditure and balance the State Budget. One of these schools was Northland Secondary College internationally known for its innovative programs and educational achievement for Koori children who had abandoned formal schooling. Its ‘whole school’ program acknowledged the historical and present-day realities of Aboriginal culture which, Johns and I would both agree, is indeed changed by the very process of education, but is nonetheless still ‘Aboriginal’ and involved parents, teachers, friends and the wider local community.

Two Koori children claimed, successfully after a series of hearings in anti-discrimination tribunals and, ultimately, the Victorian Court of Appeal that the closure of their school meant that the State’s education system removed a facility and programs that took into account the special needs and disadvantages that arose from their history of dispossession, and that this was indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of their race. It would be, and the Court found it had been, catastrophic to throw them into mainstream education.

Indirect discrimination complaints are a claim by disadvantaged groups that their rights have been ignored in a way that damages societies. They are always inconvenient to majority interests. They arise precisely when individuals experience that their interests have been sacrificed to achieve majority goals.

The Kennett Government put a simple economic argument that the public interest in a more efficient ‘bottom line’ result in Victoria in the 1990s (achieved by cutting education expenditure), was more important than the ‘selfish’ claims by these children of a human right to access education in a way that worked for them, as Aboriginals. In the case of Northland Secondary College, as in Johns’ argument, the interests of the dominant group were asserted as ‘public interest.’

Ultimately, the notoriously cautious, conservative judges of the Court of Appeal in Victoria said that it was open to the Equal Opportunity Board, on the evidence, to find that it is in the public interest for a grossly disadvantaged Indigenous student p
opulation to have genuine, meaningful access to public education in the culturally informed, inclusive and collaborative way that Northland worked. The Government was mistaken in adopting its definition of success in terms of exclusively economic indicators as Johns, no expert or scholar in education, does in Aboriginal Education: Remote Schools and the Real Economy.

The problems are complicated because of dispossession and a shameful history of the official response to its consequences and the right response will not be simple now.

It must be achieved, but only by understanding that it is our unalterable, absolute obligation as a whole community to protect all of the rights of all children to the best possible family environment of love and understanding, to social inclusion without further loss of cultural identity, and to participate in the life of the community.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.