Danielle Hradsky is a PhD candidate at Monash University, Australia, living and working on the unceded lands of the Bunurong and Woiwurrung peoples of the Kulin Nations. She is exploring professional learning which engages teachers with the complexities of teaching First Nations content and concepts. Danielle is a non-Indigenous Australian.

If you are in Australia at the moment, and connected in some way to education, you might be aware that the Australian Curriculum is once again under review. A curriculum review may sound rather dry, and only of interest to a small proportion of the population. This review, however, is causing newspaper headlines. One reason for that is the proposed changes to the cross-curriculum priority, ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures’. Amongst other changes, the reviewers rightfully argue that “the First Peoples of Australia experienced colonisation as invasion and dispossession”, and that the curriculum should acknowledge this experience. A fairly modest concession, you might think? Sadly, our Federal Education Minister and Coalition-led Federal Government disagree. From the Minister’s concerns about “dishonouring our Western heritage” to the government’s absurd rejection of critical race theory from the curriculum, it is clear that the proposed changes have touched a nerve. Perhaps a little history can help us to understand why.

I began tracing the cross-curriculum priority’s history long before the current curriculum review. As someone who was eager to teach First Nations perspectives in my classes, I rejoiced when the cross-curriculum priority was published, around the same time that I qualified as a teacher. Over time, experience and research showed me that as it currently stands, the cross-curriculum priority displeases practically everyone. Wanting to understand the priority’s structure and wording, I sought out the curriculum before the Australian Curriculum. And the one before that. And the one before that. And…

I ended up back in 1836, the year the first school (incidentally, for First Nations rather than White children) was opened on the lands of the Wurundjeri People in Melbourne, Victoria (where I live). Before we had detailed curricula, schooling was dominated by government-issued textbooks, school readers, and school papers. Analysing these documents, as well as education policies, can help us to understand what, why, and how First Nations content has been taught over time, and who controls it. By focusing in on a particular element (like, for example, the invasion of Australia), we can see the shaping of a national narrative that still holds tremendous power today.

Teaching Terra Nullius: Battle for an empty land?

During the first 130 years or so of schooling in Victoria, an invasion narrative was actually taught—but only from the invaders’ point-of-view. First Nations peoples and cultures are increasingly present in school readers and papers used up until the 1960s, in stories best described as racist folklore. These stories can be divided into pre-, during, and post-invasion, although the ‘I’-word is never used.

  • Pre-invasion (aka “at one time”, “before the white man came”, “before the dawn of history”): These stories depict First Nations peoples as nomadic, primitive, and pre-human, “a relic of a type of mankind once widely scattered across the world”. Thus, Australia is set up as empty of true humans, primed for the arrival of a superior race. 
  • During invasion (aka “discovery”, “colonisation”, “pioneering”, “settlement”): ‘Fighting the blacks’ is part of the pioneering narrative. First Nations peoples in these stories are most frequently described as “savages”, simultaneously fearless and cowardly, fiendish, eager to kill White adults and children, but also willing to recognise certain White people (the heroes) as “very good”. It is always the Blacks who start the fights in these stories, and always the Whites who win, through their superior physicality, weaponry, and morality. 
  • Post-invasion (aka “now”): In the ever-moving present, First Nations peoples are represented either as “passing away” and “lost”, or childish servants, completely devoid of culture and dignity, “pleased at being recognised by a white man”. White children are encouraged to be kind but firm to these “members of an inferior race”, and to inherit what remains of their legends and folk stories. 

Strip away the ideologies, and these are stories of invasion: invasion of lands inhabited by peoples who fought desperately, but lost in the face of determined colonisers supported not only by guns, germs, and steel, but also policies, resources, and narratives. These narratives justify invasion as inevitable and, ultimately, beneficial for the enslaved remnant populations.

Teaching about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures

Political and social reforms in the 1960-80s trickled through to education. The 1967 Referendum began a national narrative of inclusion and equality, albeit one unsupported by facts. Reforms took place mainly in the education of First Nations children, but somewhat also in the teaching of First Nations-related content. The explicit racism of the school readers was phased out, replaced by ‘polite’ narratives which still imply White superiority. Without a government-set textbook, it is difficult to state exactly what was taught about invasion across Australia. Most available textbooks though, focus on Aboriginal life pre-invasion, while being largely silent or euphemistic on what came during and post-invasion. After all, it is difficult to describe pitched battles and massacres and maintain White people as heroes, when it is no longer acceptable to portray First Nations peoples as savage, primitive fiends. 

Our current curriculum can be most clearly traced back to the Hughes Report, published in 1988 by the Aboriginal Education Policy Task Force. The First Nations academics, community workers, and educators who comprised this Task Force argued that Aboriginal Studies should be a requirement for all students. Four (Victorian) curricula and twenty-two years later, the Australian Curriculum was published, including ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures’ as a cross-curriculum priority, to be embedded in all learning areas.

Two of those four Victorian curricula include the word ‘invasion’. In fact, the 2000 Curriculum and Standards Framework II (CSFII) Year 9/10 History Curriculum Focus required students to “examine the impact of European occupation of Australia including the perspective of that occupation as invasion”. In the next curriculum, invasion was still a Year 9/10 learning focus, but reframed as a “representation of [European] settlement”. After that, invasion became less and less of a focus, and in the present curriculum is rephrased entirely as ‘settlement’ with “intended and unintended causes and effects”.

These curricula have all been written and controlled by non-Indigenous people, with minimal or non-existent First Nations consultation. The cross-curriculum priority is included under the premise of contributing to, benefiting from, and promoting reconciliation. But reconciliation, as defined by Reconciliation Australia, requires acknowledging and accepting the wrongs of the past. Ironically, the current curriculum includes Reconciliation as a historical event, occurring somewhere between the 1967 Referendum and the 1992 Mabo Decision. Reconciliation has not occurred, and will not occur unless we accept fundamental changes to our national narratives.

Education for reconciliation? Acknowledging our past through education and understanding

For the first time, the revision of First Nations content in the curriculum is being led by First Nations people (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Advisory Group). This group state accurately, amongst other points, that the current curriculum does not include enough truth telling, over-emphasises the period prior to European contact, and fails to recognise that colonisation was (and is) invasion. We no longer teach that gallant White men clashing with fiendish savages was justified, but the current silence on invasion is not much better. 

As this brief history shows, much of our Western heritage is dishonourable. Refusing to acknowledge that is not promoting reconciliation. Honour, like reconciliation, requires respect, truth, and justice. Only time will tell which narrative Australian education will choose to tell next.

To read more about the history of teaching First Nations content in Victoria, Australia, take a look at Danielle Hardsky’s new article in History of Education.