By R D Wood
In today’s public discourse education is often instrumentalised. That is to say, many of the debates see it as an investment that needs to come good in order to be worthwhile. And indeed it is. As Fabrizio Carmignani writes, ‘an extra $1 of education expenditure increases Australian GDP by $21’. If that is not a good investment I do not know what is. Generally though, when politicians and commentators speak about education it is often merely a stepping-stone rather than a place to dwell in for its own sake. It is a qualification for something else, hence an instrument. The reason for being educated however might not be primarily because it will get you a better job and more money or because there will be some payoff down the road. We need to change this idea of education because the reason for being educated is that it is good in and of itself. It doesn’t have to offer more than what it already does.
One way in which this is particularly acute is in regards to people who live in remote communities. There is, of course, a growing Indigenous middle class in Australia and this form of social mobility is to be encouraged. But there also exists a sizeable gap between educational outcomes in suburbs and cities, and, remote and regional communities. This is one gap that is spoken of when ‘we’ aim to close it. There is an expectation that remote Indigenous people assimilate to an Australian standard, which is a contested ideal in and of itself, and one that many non-Aboriginal people have difficulty with also. But, if your community has been changing and growing in its own way for a very long time, why would you respond to a confused educational system that does not listen properly? In other words, English and its lessons have to make a case for themself precisely because many people already speak Tiwi or Kriol or any other such language that is more fitting for their own lives.
Rather than problematize Aboriginal communities a priori and see them as something needing to change, we could realise that this is a dialogue, that ‘we’ stand to gain as much as ‘them’ when that dialogue is open. In that way there is an awful lot of teaching that needs to happen cross-culturally, and the government’s role might not be about forcing communities to reach some goal they deem to be worthy. If you simply want to learn how to catch a fish then maybe NAPLAN is not a good use of your time. Why wait until retirement for a truly reconciled life?
This means engaging with people on the ground so that they can live good lives as they meaningfully define them. For me, that involves reading because I think reading helps make a good life. For others, that might involve accounting because knowing how much money you are owed gives you a sense of responsibility and engagement. The fundamental philosophical point however is that we need to listen to people and recognise their actions as expressions of themselves that might best serve them. Truancy is only a problem if you expect forcing people to come to school will make them better people. Lore and law systems are strong in a great many places and people could feel proud not only of resisting colonial influences but for also maintaining their traditions in an autonomous sense.
One area though that needs to be firmly engaged with is bilingual teaching. In that way, we need to encourage care for and engagement with Indigenous languages, which is something Victoria and New South Wales are struggling towards with revitalisation and teaching efforts. This is not only for students who learn Marra or Ngarla in their family home. It is also about teaching community teachers, mainly white, about how to interact in a specific and appropriate way. We need then a ‘hybrid education system’ that can speak both kinds of languages. And not as a shallow attempt to engage with both in a half-hearted way, but as a thorough teaching praxis and methodology that shows us reinvigorated ways of conceiving relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.
At the level of content, we need to promote local knowledge within a national framework at every level of education. Australian children need to learn Australian history, Australian languages, Australian literature. We might need to ask then: what is Australian? Turnbull and his conservatives might like to claim that Edmund Barton is a great Australian, and of course he is. The black armband brigade might propose that we need to learn about Jandamarra, and well we should. We can study them both. In both cases, the emphasis needs to be on local content within a cohesive national framework. We have to get the balance right. That might mean Yolngu language on Yolngu country or Vietnamese in Cabramatta. Indeed, the Schools First initiative talks at length about the virtues of school autonomy but this needs to be better reflected in curriculum. For example, of the fifteen possible texts for the Victorian Certificate of Education ‘English Literature’ subject in 2016, only four are Australian. It is not much better in each of the other states either. That proportion needs to be reversed so we can support local publishers and authors too, so we can recognise our Indigenous roots and resist the bland importation of multinational educational tools. That way we might come to a better, higher form of education that is suitable to the country itself.