Thursday, October 20, 2011

lesson time


Four score and umpteen years ago, I was married. Mistakes are okay so long as we learn from them. Now we have that out of the way, let’s move on:
Many years ago I was living in a reasonably large but technically ‘remote’ town, which had a sizeable Aboriginal population. Without getting bogged down in detail, there was an air of ‘us and them’ about the town – not overt hatred so much as indifference.
A relative of Mr Ex was a primary school teacher and, learning that I was at a loose end with no paid employment to go to, suggested I volunteer to help kids with their reading. Boy, was I in for a shock.

I think the class consisted of a mixture of grade 1 and grade 2 kids – young, in any case. It was no surprise to me that some of the white kids were extremely literate, some moderately literate, and some had no bloody idea at all: This pretty well reflected the white demographic; which parents paid attention to their kids, which didn’t and so on.

There was, however, an enormous difference between the way Aboriginal kids showed and dealt with their illiteracy, and the way the white kids who could barely read showed and dealt with their illiteracy. No wonder said relative-in-law was despondent about the future of the Aboriginal kids at her school.

Educators have come an awful long way since way back then. Traditional western schooling focuses on the 6 big western questions; Who What When Where Why and hoW?
We now understand that direct questions are viewed as bizarre and rude by traditional Aboriginals. Hopefully we also understand that the big 6 questions are not necessarily central to the Aboriginal worldview. Culturally speaking, a western school is a vacuum.
We now know that Aboriginal kids would not dream of advancing any further in their learning than their peers, because that would also be bizarre and rude - and there are many more issues and this we need to account for.

No surprise then that, on that day many years ago when I first sat with Aboriginal kids to practise reading, it hit me that most of them were thinking "who/what TF are you and what has any of this to do with me? Why am I here? Why do my many, many parents send me here?"

I misinterpreted the lack of eye contact as evidence of shame or embarrassment but - my bad - by staring them directly in the eye I was just being threatening.

Any of the white locals would have told you the children were there because the parents were paid to send them. Whether that was true or not is irrelevant. 
What is definitely true is that although the Aboriginal housing butted up against the white housing, there was a spiritual apartheid at work in the town. 
What is almost certainly true is the children were not sent there because the significant adults in their lives saw the point of it. If anything, many of the adults would have had unhappy memories of the time they had spent going to school.
At least white kids who hate school and go under sufferance know that speaking English is ‘normal’, as are things like going to school or eating vegetables.

All of this comes to mind quite vividly every time the idea of tying Aboriginals’ welfare payments to school attendance is raised. [To be fair, this was a part of the NT intervention Tony Abbott has long since threatened to extend to some white welfare recipients.]
For now, however, as this measure is directed at NT Aboriginals, it is directed at predominantly remote Aboriginals.

In some cases I would expect the idea that school exists has become normalised for Aboriginals, but I would also expect that in homes or communities where alcohol and/or violence are a problem – the very places where tied payments might really be important – a majority of the children might well turn up for school with a huge dose of WTF?s.

It’s only natural for white people to assess this proposal based on their own experiences of school and of interacting with remote Aboriginals – those experiences in turn possibly coloured by a white worldview.

If a white child stays home there is a strong probability they will be stimulated by at least some western ideas, they'll learn a western language, some western attitudes or manners, and they'll be trusted or encouraged if they develop an interest in something - something western.

The outcomes for remote Aboriginal children who don’t go to school are vastly different.
If their parents – or their community – are extremely dysfunctional, there is a strong chance they will end up suffering anomie, and do something to pass the time like sniffing petrol. They would certainly be exposed to awful scenes of violence or bad behaviour.
On the other hand, if their community has failed to adapt to western ways but is otherwise functional, then they have a chance of developing healthier habits.
I doubt school would make much difference to either scenario, except some kids would be more likely to get healthy meals and other attention.

None of this is intended as a slur on any Aboriginal. If, for example, a remote area Aboriginal kid turns up for school appearing unwashed and grubby, there’s a strong chance the pump that sucks water out of the ground is broken and the government is too focused on making people earn welfare payments to worry about water. Grubbiness is not always a rejection of western standards.

None of this is intended to suggest that sending Aboriginal Children to school is a bad idea. Personally, I think it’s vital: If children learn to deal with the west and then later want to drop out, that’s fine, but let’s at least have them make an informed decision to drop out, and give them coping skills for the times in the future when the west and their Aboriginal world collide.

What is really behind this debate about linking school attendance and welfare payments is some distorted set of priorities [let’s not call them values].
Are we being ‘politically correct’ and assuming that plonking an Aboriginal kid into a white class – any white class – will automatically make him white and successful?
Are we trying to satisfy the politics of envy by pretending to punish bad Aboriginal parents?
Are we just on a power trip?
Or are we just relying on advice from white people who have taken their advice from other white people?

The final word belongs to Pia Pagotto, of Vermont South. Her letter to the editor of The Age appeared today, and deserves to be read in its original setting [not just because I don’t want to go breakin’ any copyright laws!].
Her letter is titled Tackle Child Health, and it appears about two thirds of the way down the page.


  1. I think that letter made a good point.

    The other thing I'm thinking...

    School doesn't end when kids go home. They have homework. If their home life is destitute, doing homework and keeping up with other kids in the class is going to be very difficult.

    School likely won't be a sanctuary from their home life if they feel it's too hard to keep up with the work.

    Back to the letter though...

    Yeah. I think health should definitely come first.

  2. Four score!!! Wow. Very illuminating post. Two cultures will continue to clash until a third and inclusive way is found.

  3. Hi Dina,
    Pia wrote a fairly spot on letter, didn't she? Not only is health more important, without it, school will achieve nothing.

    Hi Andrew,
    I'm not sure what the third and inclusive way might be, but I suspect the more we include extended families in the class room, the closer we will approximate the 'natural' learning processes of unwesternised Aboriginals.

  4. I recently read an article about an inner city Sydney school's success in raising literacy standards in its largely non-English speaking student population. How? Extended family involvement, bi-lingual team teaching, lesson relevance to multicultural values.

    And where was this groundbreaking story? In a 1977 Readers Digest!!

  5. Hi Red,
    Why does this not surprise me?

    To digress; are you well? I hope you weren't RECENTLY reading a 1977 RD because you've been waiting in a waiting room?