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.