Thursday 17 November 2022

"Acknowledgment of country"

is the practice of stating words which recognise that an activity is taking place on land that is considered to of special significance to an indigenous tribal group. I have mentioned it just recently but I will try to explain again because it is back in the news for a disturbing reason.

It is a very recent practice. When I was at school. and later at university, nobody had ever heard of such a thing. Now it is almost impossible to attend any group event of any nature without someone making such an acknowledgment.  I have heard such acknowledgments at training for public servants, at weddings, at funerals, at the opening of an art exhibition, at craft meetings, at a book launch, at a meeting of social welfare organisations, in court and just about everywhere else.

The words are usually said with much less care than is taken over the Lord's Prayer in parliament or those taking an oath in court. It has become something that "has to be said" but equally something most people simply want to get out of the way. It makes some people cringe and many others feel at least mildly uncomfortable but it seems it is a requirement. Forget to do it and someone will say something. They will shame someone in to doing it or report them to a higher authority.

And recently one of our universities has gone even further. They are now requiring all students in all faculties to do a unit which is said to teach them about indigenous culture and more. At first the unit was openly labelled "compulsory". If you failed to finish the online course work and pass the examination you would not get your degree. This applied to all students, even those in subject areas where indigenous culture had no relationship with what was being taught. There were complaints and the unit was no longer "compulsory" but the university got around this by making online lectures unavailable to those who had not completed the unit. The university went as far as to say that students even had to write such an acknowledgment on their examination papers even in courses like engineering.

One of the engineering students failed to write an acknowledgment on his/her paper and was marked down because of it. The student complained and the lost marks were eventually reinstated.

The reinstatement of marks was the correct decision but the problem remains. Yes, it is a problem.

I have been giving a little long distance help to a student working in an area of interest to me. In an email she has told me that there is a great deal of disquiet among her fellow students about the unit itself as well as the compulsory nature of it. It seems the students are very wary of actually saying anything for fear of being seen as "racist" if they do criticise, being marked down for failing to write the acknowledgment and of failing to get their degrees if they do not do as the university is now demanding. 

I have not been able to sit down and talk to her about the issue and find out more about what is behind it. I have looked at what information is available on the university website. Here it is:

Overview of Indigenous Australian Voices Program

Comprising four online modules, each will take approximately 40 - 50 minutes to complete.

Module 1: Living and working on the land of the Kulin Nations
Students will learn who Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are, and in particular, the people of the Kulin nations, the Aboriginal people who are the traditional owners of the lands of the greater Melbourne region.

Module 2: A Journey Through Time
Students will learn about the oldest living culture in the world having been on these lands for over 60,000 years. Students will also be introduced to some of the key events for Indigenous peoples since the arrival of the British in 1788, including the social, political and historical events of Australia's past that continue to shape our nation today.

Module 3: Here and Now
Students will learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in contemporary Australia and how the past has impacted the present and will continue to impact the future

Module 4: Becoming an Agent of Change
Introduces students to the practical ways that each individual can begin to be an agent of change for and with Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people and our communities.

Yes, it should only take about four hours to complete you say? What's four hours? Just do it and get it out of the way? 

Many students will do just that but what will they really learn? Even the first module outline presents some problems. Indigenous cultures are incredibly diverse and often what is being taught is not a reflection of reality. The second module actually refers to "the oldest living culture" when there is no such thing.   

It is clear from what is being said in the outline that the unit is intended to indoctrinate, not educate. I doubt it will reduce "racism" or increase "reconciliation". Perhaps those who oversaw the idea and introduced did so with the best of intentions but, like the demand for an acknowledgment, it will be seen by most as simply something that has to be done.

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