Helen Hughes & the CIS vs. Indigenous Culture & Identity

7 04 2008

This year has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Languages.  There is an increasing recognition, across the globe, of the importance of language and culture, particularly to Indigenous peoples. These issues have become even more pressing given the hastening extinction of languages and cultures under what we call “globalisation”.

Sadly, not all of us in Australia appreciate the benefits of language and cultural distinctiveness to one’s sense of identity and worldview.

A case in point is Helen Hughes’ recent work with the CIS on Indigenous education in the Northern Territory. Helen’s opinion piece on the ABC web site upset me greatly.  Here are some extracts with my responses in blue text.

Critical of “separate Aboriginal curriculums”.

So a child in the Torres Strait must learn the same as a child in Hobart.   No room for local culture, geography, customs, history etc.  Appalling.  (Not to be pedantic, but Helen should know the plural form is “curricula”.)

“Many of the men and women who actually stand in front of the class in Aboriginal schools have so little training that they are not…even articulate in English.”

There are some schools who have non-Indigenous teachers present English as a foreign langauge or in a bilingual context.  In this setting, the Indigenous teacher’s English ability is pretty much irrelevant.

“…most children graduating from Aboriginal primary schools were unable to manage the work in mainstream high schools.”

And most children from mainstream primary schools would be unable to handle the work in Indigenous language high schools (not that there are many).  

“Three generations of welfare dependence, poor education, and public housing have led to family and community dysfunction, so that teenage pregnancies, alcoholism, drug addiction, and crowded housing often undermine school attendance.”

Many of the communities with stronger language and culture e.g. Yolngu of Arnhem Land and Badulgal of Torres Strait are far more functional and have stronger family ties than those where cultural dispossession is well advanced e.g. Redfern, Alice Springs.  Plenty of the more traditional communities have complete alcohol bans that are self-imposed.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children deserve and must have the same school facilities, curriculums, and teaching as other Australian children so that they may choose how and where to live.”

If they do not inherit the gift of language and culture from their parents, then they will not have the choice of living in their own distinctive societies.  Place and belonging are central to Indigenous questions of identity and coercing them away to boarding schools (as Helen suggests) is not exactly offering choice of where to live.

“If mainstream schooling is not deemed to be viable in very small communities, arrangements will have to be made to board children or assist their parents to move so that they can attend school.”

See previous comment. Geez, I think history has seen enough of “moving them on” policies.

“All remote schools should be twinned with mainstream schools so that exchanges of students, teachers, and parents can expose substandard conditions and enable Australians to learn at first hand how their taxes are being spent.”

Mainstreaming is another word for assimilation.  It is deeply immoral and will lead to cultural annihilation. Helen Hughes and the CIS are to be condemned for this brutal vision of a possible future.  Let us hope she does not have the ear of our prime minister.


Further comment at linguistic blog Transient Languages & Cultures.




5 responses

7 04 2008
Indigenous Peoples researcher

Education is a very difficult topic, since any form of education that teaches indigenous peoples the Western system can be looked at as a continuing form of assimilation and colonization. Incorporating indigenous languages, ideas, and values into the educational system is better in the long run but difficult because the system must be tailored to the individual students. Not easy, but the best option – for both the students and the educational system.

9 04 2008

That seems like a very well balanced position. On one extreme, there are perhaps some relativists/post-modernists who would suggest that science is only valid in the Western worldview and could be replaced enitrely with other systems of knowing – intuition, folklore, etc. I certainly don’t accept this position. But I do think that we need to look critically at how we might sub-consciously envelop so called pure science in smotherings of Western ideology and culture. Moreover, school is not just about learning mathematics and sciences. There is so much more to education that can and should vary across the vast and varied range of human cultures.

10 04 2008

Not to be pedantic, but Verdurous should know that both curricula and curriculums are stardard plural forms of curriculum. The latter form is now more common. See the following article by the publisher of Macquarie: http://www.abc.net.au/wordmap/rel_stories/curriculum.htm.

Amusingly, some of the discussion in that article is at least tangentially relevant to this debate.

11 04 2008


OK, you got me ! I’m trying to shed my prescriptive and totalitarian tendencies with regard to spelling. But I keep having relapses. I realise that there is essentially no such thing as “correct spelling”. Language changes. We can talk about “most frequent” usage but can’t really suggest that one form should prevail over another.

For what it is worth, I had been somewhat influenced by another dictionary link here:


p.s. please don’t make me say “mouses” as a collective noun for “computer mouse”. AAAHHHHHH!.

18 04 2008

thank you for your insightful post. I think its wonderful when indigenous children are allowed to learn in their own language. Growing up multilingual is an amazing advantage.

bloody CIS!

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