A proposal to politicise university curricula

In this morning’s Australian, I am reported criticising some recommendations of a Universities Australia report on ‘Indigenous cultural competency’.

The report contains examples of things universities are doing to better serve their Indigenous students or give other students knowledge they may need when working with Indigenous people. All this is within the scope of what universities should be doing to educate their students and prepare them for their professional lives. Unfortunately, the report’s recommendations go well beyond necessary, reasonable or desirable initiatives to a much larger political agenda. Consider the first three recommendations in the section on teaching and learning (emphasis added):

Recommendation 1: Embed Indigenous knowledges and perspectives in all university curricula to provide students with the knowledge, skills and understandings which form the foundations of Indigenous cultural competency.
Recommendation 2: Include Indigenous cultural competency as a formal Graduate Attribute or Quality.
Recommendation 3: Incorporate Indigenous Australian knowledges and perspectives into programs according to a culturally competent pedagogical framework.

The ‘all’ in recommendation 1 is a step too far. There are no Indigenous ‘knowledges and perspectives’ on much of what is taught in universities, if by that we mean their traditional knowledge. If it means the ‘knowledges and perspectives’ of modern Indigenous background people, then it is hard to see why these deserve a place in the curriculum (even if academics perhaps need to know what some of their Indigenous students might believe). Nobody has any special insight just because of their ethnic background. At least in theory, the modern university rejects any such claim to authority. Knowledge and theories have to stand on their own, regardless of who advocates them.

The over-reach makes the recommendation essentially political rather than academic. And that is something that I think should be resisted as a matter of principle, regardless of the cause being pursued. A point I made to the Australian was that if a precedent is set for curriculum politicisation, there will be a long queue of people hoping to insert their pet cause into what students learn. That’s exactly what has happened in school education, and exactly what I want to avoid in higher education.

At the moment, the Universities Australia report just provides recommendations. Though funding came from DEEWR, the unusually strong disclaimer suggests that the government was aware how far the report departed from academic norms (‘The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of or have the endorsement of DEEWR, or of any Minister, or indicate DEEWR’s commitment to a particular course of action.’) If it had been any other cause, I expect it would have been howled down, instead of the Australian struggling to find anyone but me willing to go on the public record with criticism.

My fear is that with the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency we now have a mechanism for across-the-board curriculum politicisation. The current minister denies that he is a threat to academic freedom, and I believe him. But he has created the institution that other ministers may use.

Update 17/1: Greg Melleuish expresses similar concerns.

  1. I already have something like this where I work thanks to a certifying body. Given that there are all of 30K of them in Victoria, it’s utter overkill and not surprisingly everyone only ever pays lip service to it. If there really is a need to learn cultural stuff at university (and there would be in some areas), there are far bigger groups that are more worth targeting — If you are one of the tiny number of people that end up working on Aboriginal issues, then I don’t really see why you couldn’t just do a short course or something like that.

    Aside from Recommendation 1, Recommendation 2 is crazy because the formal graduate attributes and or qualities dreamt up by universities are usually ridiculous (including where I work). I can just imagine seeing something like “graduates will be entrepeneurial, self motivated, have an international attitude whilst respecting local issues and also aware of Aboriginal issues”. This really looks the one where I worked (the Hollowmen used a print-out of it as prop it was so ridiculous).

    Recommendation 3 highlights what’s bad about all this government crap — it’s a great example of educational hyperbole. I wonder what:”culturally competent pedagogical framework” means to 99% of people teaching. I’ll admit, it means nothing to me.

  2. Should Indigenous beliefs and perspectives be incorporated into standard curricula ? For example, if, as one Indigenous authority has pointed out, ‘we had a name for every star’, then why not bring this important aspect into standard physics and astronomy curricula ?
    During the Hindmarsh Island controversy, one Indigenous authority pointed out that, traditionally, people would have gained a detailed knowledge of the shape of river estuaries from above (crucial to the subsequent Inquiry) by knowing how to levitate. This ‘knowledge’ could also be incorporated into geography and civil aviation curricula.
    Clearly, for certain students, especially in history and archaeology, it would be vital to have some knowledge of Paleolithic beliefs and prejudices, just as it would be important for students of agriculture and agricultural history, even of religion as well, to have some working knowledge of Mesolithic and Neolithic beliefs. After all, many students are exposed to some Ancient History, and even Medieval History, so why shouldn’t Paleolithic Studies be available as well ?

  3. The issue of beliefs and persepctives in Paleolithic societies – hunting and gathering societies – should be taken seriously, especially when such a society comes into contact, violent or otherwise, with another type of society. The culture (and language, as part of that) of a hunting and gathering society revolves around hunting and gathering. No mystery there. When young people suddenly came in contact with a totally different type of society, such as early-industrial colonial Australia, it seems that they moved TOWARDS such new centres, with all their strange and innovative ways, their processed food, tobacco, grog, clothes, money, technologies, work practices. And often stayed. Very quickly, especially younger people would have become familiar with colonial culture, and put their knowledge of traditional culture on the back-burner, to be used whenever they went ‘home’ – if they did. Quickly, the common language of different Aboiginal people would have become English, and what they talked about would probably have involved these ‘new’ ways and artifacts. And new needs. The ‘old’ needs would have tended to wither away through disuse.
    Paleolithic societies did not need maths: such a need arises because of trade and taxation regimes, such as in ancient India and Egypt, Sumeria and Meso-America. So it’s no wonder that Aboriginal languages had words for ‘one’, ‘two’ and maybe ‘more than two’: they didn’t need any more than that.
    So it is silly to play this ‘well, we had all that, too’ game. Of course they didn’t, they didn’t need to. What passed for knowledge in traditional societies, Paleolithic or Neolithic societies, was of a completely different order from modern knowledge. Different perspectives, ways of seeing, belief, yes; not knowledge in a modern sense, but a body of belief which is incommensurable with modern knowledge.
    So if ‘Aboriginal Culture’ is taught at universities AS TRADITIONAL CULTURE, it should be made clear that it is a perspective, recounted as near as possible to that of the various Paleolithic societies across Australia before 1788.

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