The Ugly Truth: Why is Australia’s racist past silenced in the Australian education system?
Illustration Credit: Maisie Sharp

Australia – the country known for its beautiful cities, kind people and unique landscapes. However, this glorified perspective acts as a disguise to the harsh realities of racial prejudice that exists within Australia. Every day, everywhere, Indigenous Australians (Aboriginals) are discriminated against – despite being the first owners of Australian land.

The recent up rise of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has allowed people to think, reflect and consider their actions towards Indigenous communities within society. It is ironic that white Australians are disgusted by the deaths of Indigenous men and women throughout the world, they are oblivious toward the racial prejudice held within their own country. In Australia today, Indigenous Australians are still being wrongly killed because of the colour of the skin, violating the human rights these men and women are entitled to.

It is evident that many white Australians are unaware of their country’s wrongdoings towards the Aboriginal community throughout the 20th century, and these attitudes that are carried into today’s world. This is when I asked myself the question – why is the prejudice, the forced assimilation and the countless murders of Australia’s Indigenous community silenced in the country’s curriculum system?

A brief overview of Australian history.

Aboriginals have been present within Australia for over 50,000 years, and are divided into thousands of communities across the country, with over 250 indigenous languages spoken. Aboriginals were regarded as ‘hunter-gatherers’, who didn’t grow crops and did not domesticate any form of animal (except sometimes for the dingo, to help with hunting).

Although white colonisers first settled in Australia in 1788, it wasn’t until 1901 that Australia was officially constitutionalised. The Australian constitution formed in 1901 highlights the racial divide present in Australia through stating that “in reckoning the numbers of people… Aboriginal natives shall not be counted”.

Throughout the 20th century, Indigenous Australians were treated as animals, and ultimately as slaves for economic gain in what was a newly ‘developed’ country. It was only in 1962 where Aboriginals were allowed to vote, and it was only from here on they were considered as ‘human.’

This prejudice still remains in modern Australia. This can be seen through the poor education and low literacy rates and the lack of change of these rates in rural Indigenous communities. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation indicates that only 29.8% of Aboriginal students in year 7 are reading at the national curriculum level, compared to the 95.8% of year 7 Australian students reading at this benchmark. Additionally, as told in an article published by The Guardian, in 2010, an Aboriginal women with a chronic injury and dental issues was denied pain medication for six weeks, as authorities believed she did not need pain medication, and this resulted in her taking her own life. Another well-known case is the death of Mr Ian Ward, an Aboriginal elder from Western Australia who was ‘cooked’ to death in the back of a police van in 2008, evidently reinforcing the racial divide present within Australia.

When, and if, young people learn about Indigenous culture in Australia, they often only learn a couple of songs from their local Aboriginal community and are rarely taught about the harsh realities that Aboriginals endured, including massacres such as the Coniston Massacre of 1928 and the traumatic events of the Stolen Generation . Evidently, young nonindigenous Australians are left oblivious to the racism that existed, and still exists, in their own country.

Many Australian states such as New South Wales and Western Australia have a focus on the cultural aspects of Indigenous education, such as teaching their students the importance of Indigenous rights, freedoms and stories, however this acts as a distraction to the harsh realities that these Indigenous Australians endured to gain these rights.  

Why is Indigenous History not the forefront of Australian education?

It appears there are several reasons why Aboriginal culture is not the forefront of Australian education. Learning about Indigenous culture is an embedded aspect of most of the Australian curriculum system, dependant on the state, however the history and relations between Aboriginal peoples and white colonisers is not. Although in some subjects, such as Social Studies and English, Aboriginal history can be explored, many teachers and schools prefer to research and endeavour worldwide (especially European) history. In 2019, the School’s Curriculum Standards Authority (SCSA) of Western Australia (WA), stated that of WA schools that offer ATAR Modern History, the majority studied Russian history in the first semester of the year. Although Australian history in the 20th century is an elective subject for this semester, it is the least studied elective by schools in WA and does not elaborate into the racially divided past of Australian history in the 20th century. This evidence reinforces how Australia’s destructive past isn’t prioritised in the curriculum system – leaving children and teenagers clueless about their country’s racial divide.

Alongside this, it is evident that schools place a larger focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. The WA Department of Education stated in an article on May 14, 2020 that “… [The Australian Government] regards high-quality science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education as critically important for our current and future productivity…” and that “…the Government is providing significant funding for initiatives to improve the teaching and learning of STEM in early learning and schools”. This funding includes over $64 million allocated to help fund early learning centres and school STEM programs as a measure of the $1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda.

Evidently, there is a lack of funding in regard to teaching Aboriginal history within schools, as the Australian state governments are emphasising a larger focus on STEM subjects within schools, in an attempt to prepare students better for the future. Not only this, but many teachers feel unprepared to educate their students on this aspect of Australian history. In an article released by the Sydney Morning Herald in June, Dr. Paul Kiem elaborates on how the depth of the Australian history syllabus in New South Wales is not detailed enough for teachers to educate efficiently. “This current history syllabus is not a detailed content outline…How much depth of coverage is achieved may be dependent on individual teachers.” This is followed by Senior Education lecturer Lynette Riley, explaining that teachers need better training in Indigenous history. She states that in “… a class of a 160-people training to be teachers…only a handful have a really good idea of Aboriginal studies.” Through educating not only our students but our teachers on Indigenous history, Australians will become more aware about the destructive past of Australia, and young people could benefit from learning about these mistakes and become more empathetic towards Aboriginal peoples, closing the racial gap that divides Australia.

Currently, it is up to each state government to decide what is taught in the curriculum in regard to Aboriginal history. For many schools, Aboriginal history is taught, however it is often only taught once in a young person’s schooling career, usually through a 5-week program in social sciences. In comparison, in New Zealand, Te Reo Māori (Native language/culture of New Zealand) is taught as a language in school from kindergarten through to year 13. Alongside this, the Treaty of Waitangi (the agreement between colonisers and Maori people) is discussed regularly in schools, Haka’s are learnt, traditional stories were celebrated and half of the national anthem is sung in Te Reo Māori. Although a racial divide between the Pakeha (European New Zealanders) and the Te Reo Māori people still exists to an extent, New Zealand demonstrates an outstanding effort to educate children on their country’s original culture and heritage, and it is often the forefront of the education system.

The importance of educating our youth on Aboriginal culture

Henceforth, many people ask, “why is it important to study the cultural history of Australia when subjects such as STEM subjects are preparing our children better for the changing world?” There are, however, many aspects as to why it is important to educate children on the cultural heritage of the country they have been brought into.

Through the education of Aboriginal history, Australians are more likely to be more understanding towards Indigenous Australians, closing the prejudicial gap between white Australians and Aboriginal people.

As stated on reconciliation.org.au, the official site of national reconciliation week (a dedicated week in Australia that aims to close the racial gap), “It [education on Indigenous history] promotes the closing of the gap between Aboriginal and non-indigenous Australians on life expectancy, educational achievement and employment opportunities.” It is therefore important for children to be properly educated on Aboriginal culture and the real history of our country, so young people can understand and empathise with the Indigenous community, contributing to reconciliation between colonisers and Aboriginal peoples.

There is therefore a very strong need for young people to be properly educated on Aboriginal history in Australia. We must reconcile with the Aboriginal community through educating others on the destructive past that Aboriginal Australians endured to gain their own rights. The Australian curriculum system needs to face the truth and educate our young people on our haunting past – silence is not the answer.