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Offering educational opportunities

By Stephen Hagan - posted Thursday, 21 February 2008

Henry Peter Brougham (1778 - 1868) a British writer, scientist, lawyer, Whig politician and abolitionist once said "Education makes people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave".

Cape York Institute Director Noel Pearson must be congratulated on his visionary approach to overcoming Indigenous education disadvantage in remote communities. His ambitious plan, revealed in The Australian on January 17, to recruit experienced teachers and the brightest graduates to work in the most disadvantaged Indigenous communities by offering performance-linked incentives of up to $50,000 a year, tax-free, is an achievable goal that should produce positive outcomes.

I say “should” as I’m well aware of the enormous obstacles from first-hand experience of the abysmal track record of some educators: those who are partial to peddling their draconian schooling philosophy of the noble savage in their daily instruction.


I recall in the early 1980s a bad experience in my final year teacher training practice at a Townsville primary school that adversely impacted my goal of being a teacher. So incensed was I of the racist material presented in the Queensland Primary School syllabus of Aboriginal people being blatantly referred to as thieves, rapist and murderers that I approached my supervising teacher to ask if I could use my own resources instead of the set text.

When the teacher, with support from his principal, emphatically denied my request I knew then that I would need to consider a career change - hence my move to Canberra to work under charismatic leader Charlie Perkins instead of clocking on as a teacher in a Queensland school the following year.

I knew I couldn’t bring myself to teach such racist nonsense when a third of my class was Indigenous. It would have been insufferable for me to have provided such erroneous instructions to those students cognisant of the impact I would have had on their fragile self esteem.

Most Indigenous people can recall awful experiences of being victims of racist name calling in the school yard. And back in those bad old days, when the head of my state was the ultra conservative Premier Joe Bjelkie-Peterson, it appeared teachers were at ease in dismissing or at least turning a blind eye to racist taunts in the playground.

So of course many of our mob don’t have fond memories of their schooling years and are suffering through limited work opportunities today. Many experts suggest it is the school as a whole which contributes to the failure of many Indigenous students, but I also believe a single bad teacher can turn a promising child into a problem child through ineffective teaching practices.

But have things really changed in the past two and a half decades, since my ill-fated experience in one of Townsville’s inner city schools, which would suggest that teachers are more open-minded today? While the descriptive language of “the noble savage” may have been modified or at least tinged with a more balanced rhetoric of some of the achievements of Indigenous sporting heroes in recent times - there is certainly no empirical evidence to suggest that teaching has improved and is now more culturally appropriate.


I lecture in a progressive university where Australian Indigenous Studies is a compulsory core unit for all trainee teachers, but despondently only 5 per cent of my students would qualify as having a basic operational knowledge of Australian Indigenous peoples, even after 12 formal years of schooling.

The extent of their limited knowledge is acquired, it would seem, from undertaking dot paintings on boomerangs or minor projects about the happy nomads in primary school during NAIDOC week or visiting a site of significance on a school excursion in a national park.

Some students may have been fortunate to have had regular visits from a local elder to their class or developed a good friendship with an Indigenous school friend and hence an appreciation of their culture. That however would be more the exception than the rule in most cases.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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