New South Wales Military Mounted Police massacre Aboriginal people at Waterloo Creek in 1838 (Image: Wikimedia)

Indigenous history is supposed to be incorporated into students’ high school education, although recent comments by Scott Morrison shows perhaps it’s not taught as well as it should be.

Vague learning goals and descriptions in the curriculum have left educators confused and concerned students’ learning is being whitewashed. 

Experts say it’s time to get specific in the syllabus and address Australia’s dark past head-on.

What does the curriculum say? 

Director of undergraduate programs at Monash University’s faculty of education Libby Tudball was an expert designer on the national curriculum subject civics and citizenship.

The course was designed in “close consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders”, although contentious words like slavery and massacre were left out, the focus instead being on perspectives about national identity.

“The curriculum can’t be that precise, but there are lots of opportunities for kids to learn about it,” she tells Crikey. 

Likewise the history curriculum simply discusses “unintended and intended” effects of settlers’ contact — along with the struggle for rights and freedoms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the ’60s — and avoids contentious phrases.

The curriculum is also supposed to encompass the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) education declaration — but this too makes vague goals to “understand, acknowledge and celebrate the diversity and richness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures”.

The problem, senior lecturer in Indigenous education at Melbourne University Dr Melitta Hogarth said, was the vague language meant teachers could skim over important aspects of history. 

“The focus is instead placed on the white-washed and acceptable history of nation-building and ways in which Australia has responded to the rights of Indigenous peoples,” she says. 

“There is very little attention to the actual ways in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were treated.”

States develop their own curriculums, in line with the national ones. New South Wales has developed a more specific syllabus and is the only state which specifically mentions massacre and genocide on Indigenous peoples (although avoids the term slavery). 

What do the textbooks say? 

Given the curriculum is so vague, textbooks broach history with varying degrees of specificity.

For example, Jacaranda’s Year 10 history book, History Alive, specifically mentions massacres, the myth of terra nullius, “virtual slave labour” in Queensland, and how history has been distorted to fit a colonialist narrative. 

In comparison, sample pages of Macmillan’s Year 10 history book, The Modern World and Australia, show that while it mentions the White Australia policy and Stolen Generations, it defines assimilation as when “a person gives up their own way of life to live like other people (for example, giving up Aboriginal ways for European customs)”. It does not mention slavery or massacres. 

Pan Macmillan did not respond to Crikey’s request for comment by deadline.  

What do the teachers say? 

A problem with avoiding atrocities in textbooks and the curriculum is it leaves it up to teachers to tackle hard issues. 

“Research has shown consistently that teachers fear to be tokenistic or to make a mistake,” Hogarth says. 

The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers states teachers must promote reconciliation, and encourages them to find Indigenous resources to teach Aboriginal perspectives. Again, the wording is vague.

Home educator and president of the Home Education Association Karen Chegwidden said without guidance, teaching Australia’s dark history correctly was a challenge. 

“It’s been a really difficult subject to cover well as a non-Indigenous home educator,” she says.

“It was hard to find good resources and accessible, respectful, teaching resources to bring the subject to children at a level they can understand.”

Chegwidden said teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ perspectives had got easier over the years, thanks to children’s books like You and Me Murrawee, and resources from Wingaru Education, an Aboriginal-owned and -operated company.

“The state curriculum and syllabus documents just make a statement and they leave it up to the teacher or the home educator to implement that learning,” she says. “It’s really broad.” 

Dr Hogarth said there were ways to broach Australia’s dark past with young children. 

“There is no need to share explicit examples with young children,” she says. “Teachers could teach through various themes such as racism, prejudice, privilege, and empathy.”

If Australia was to reconcile with its dark past, the truth must be told: “There is a need to include the ‘few scars’, as Morrison has called it on occasion, in the Australian curriculum if there is real chance for reconciliation to occur.”