Monday Night Q & A: UNSW Curriculum Change


Mr. S, Member of the MQ Liberal Club

The past doesn’t care about how you think or feel. It simply is. I loved history in high school because I was told what we know and given perspectives that challenged my own. I was pushed to think critically – hit with the dominant narrative and those that challenged it.

The problem with UNSW’s history teacher guidelines isn’t that they embolden voices, but that they silence them. They sell students on a false dichotomy about ‘invasion’ versus ‘settlement’, inflaming political tensions rather than resolving them. There is no real debate about whether we were ‘invaded’ or ‘settled’ – we know both these things happened. Indigenous Australians were displaced from lands they previously lived off by settlers or crown policy. By the same token, the Australia’s first permanent settlements were European – bringing technology and an economic system necessary for non-nomadic life in a harsh landscape. Many settlements existed for years amidst little conflict with the ‘indigenous nations’ upon whose land they were built.

‘Invasion’ and ‘Settlement’ are politically charged terms that hurt or offend because of our perceptions, not because they tell a lie. Terrible atrocities were committed against our first people – Events and consequences must be acknowledged fully, whether 50 years old or 200.

But Australia’s settlement is also a tale of daring, industriousness and camaraderie – sometimes between settler and the indigenous tribesmen working with them as trackers and guides. It underpins our cultural foundation – language and institutions adapted from Europe and applied our own way. A tale of both human achievement and tragedy, and though it may no longer be politically correct to state it – one that has influenced who and what our society is today far more in 200 years than the 40,000 preceding it. We gain nothing by demonising our past and we can tell this story while also detailing our dark chapters. Telling teachers to stop using the term ‘settled’ entirely is more about pushing an agenda than reflecting plural perspectives.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Another guideline dissuades teachers from mentioning ‘40,000 years of human presence’ – the best estimate science has given us. Instead, they must refer to the indigenous ‘Dreaming’ myth when describing Australia’s human beginnings. In the guidelines’ own words, this is to ‘reflect the indigenous view that they have always been here’ – a scientifically tenuous claim. This is tantamount to telling middle east history teachers to teach the Adam & Eve myth to avoid offending religious zealots or advising science teachers to teach biblical creationism. It belongs in cultural studies and has absolutely no place in history other than as what it is – a cultural trope.

Let us stop using history as a vehicle for divisive agendas catering to political correctness. Let us tell the whole story – good, bad and ugly. Only then can we truly reconcile the past for a better future as a nation united.

Lizzie Green, Secretary of the MQU Labor Club and NUS National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Officer

What a fantastic move made by the University of NSW on the terminology that should be used when talking about pre and post-invasion history. The Diversity Toolkit teaches students the correct terminology to reflect Indigenous Australia and our history without whitewashing.

For too long, Australian students have been taught the wrong terminology – that the correct term to use when talking about what happened in 1788 is “settled”; that the correct term when referring to Indigenous people is “Aborigines” or “Aboriginal”. This change will allow students of UNSW to learn that the real correct thing to say is that Australia was invaded, occupied or colonised and the more appropriate way to refer to people is “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”. As an Indigenous person, I see this as a great step forward.

I had the chance to see many people outraged with what UNSW is teaching when I posted on the National Union of Students page commending UNSW on this toolkit. And from what I’ve read, people haven’t actually sat down and read the Diversity Toolkit that UNSW has released – they’ve just based their opinions on what has been said by the Daily Telegraph, which has (as usual) skewed the truth.

One of the most common complaints is that “the university is teaching that Captain Cook invaded Australia”. But when you read the toolkit, UNSW actually say that it’s more appropriate to say “Captain Cook was the first Englishman to map the east coast of “New Holland”, rather than say he “discovered” it. There’s no mention of ‘Captain Cook’ and ‘invasion’ in the same sentence throughout the document.

Another thing that people seem to be confused about is the part that asks for respect for Indigenous people by not referring to them as “Blacks”, “half-caste”, “Aborigines”, “octaroons” and many more offensive terms that have been used across Australian curriculums. Rather, they should be calling them “Aboriginal people”, “Torres Strait Islander people” and “Indigenous people”. This terminology stresses the humanity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Daily Telegraph and right-wing commentators should read the facts first before making outrageous claims. When people like Alan Jones and Kyle Sandilands say that this is just rewriting history and it’ll just cause Australian society to be “divided”, it’s just ignorant. The only thing that will divide our society is attitudes and terminology not changing on this terrible part of our history.

As Annastacia Palaszczuk, Premier of Queensland, said “For many years Australian schools and Australian institutions have not told the truth about the way in which Australia was settled. A lot of Indigenous people lost their lives, there were massacres and the truth always must be told.” This reflects what many others, including the university, have said.

I believe this is something more universities should be adopting and we should do more to encourage the true pre-invasion and post-invasion histories of Australia be taught with respectable and correct terminology. Let’s hope Macquarie follows in UNSW’s footsteps and adopts this toolkit!