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Learning, our way

Australia's Aboriginals shape adult-education courses to reflect their values.

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 5, 2000


For many of Australia's Aboriginal people, education has often meant one of three things: assimilation, exclusion, or irrelevance.

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Generations of the continent's indigenous groups have been schooled to drop cultural patterns and adopt European ways. Some government policies went as far as to keep native children

But these often-heavyhanded attempts to stamp out indigenous culture have in fact fostered something quite different: a drive for self-determination. And as part of a broad effort to change longstanding patterns of discrimination and low achievement, Aboriginals are working to build outlets for education that connect more emphatically with their culture - whether it's by telling stories through art, teaching about pre-colonial history, or fostering an indigenous perspective on healthcare and law.

"People are constantly in this poverty cycle," says Yvonne Jackson, director of studies at Tranby Aboriginal College in Sydney. "There's often that notion of, 'Why should I go on? There's nothing out there for me.' "

At Tranby, adults who have slipped through wide cracks in the educational system, or who simply want a school that has echoes of home, learn in a hands-on way by doing research in their own communities much of the year.

At another school, the Eora Centre, students can combine Aboriginal studies with basic literacy training, or earn diplomas in visual or performing arts.

Both schools offer degrees akin to those from American community colleges. And they help create a bridge into Australian universities, which have also been making strides toward supporting indigenous students.


The negative cycle that has trapped so many indigenous people can be linked back to policies that forced Aboriginals to live on missions and reserves, disconnected from their way of life. State directives spanning the decades from the 1930s to the 1960s also removed some Aboriginal children from their homes and placed them with white families.

"It's only since 1972 that Aboriginal children were in any way guaranteed an education," says Pam Gill, Aboriginal Programs Unit director at the Department of Education of New South Wales.

Today, adult education addresses the needs not only of older people who were offered no education, but also of younger people who simply have become disillusioned with school or haven't yet mastered the basic skills.

At Eora in Redfern, a part of Sydney with a concentrated Aboriginal population, most of the roughly 400 students are Aboriginal. The school is the result of a merger between a community center and the Sydney Institute of Technology, part of a state system known as TAFE (Technical and Further Education).

Many Aboriginal learners find entrance to college-level study or jobs through TAFE because of its vocational focus. "There were a lot of people in the communities who wanted to do a course where they could study their own culture ..., and these courses were developed [to start at a level where] there is open access - there are no barriers in terms of literacy and numeracy," Ms. Gill says.

Tranby has been providing Aboriginal-directed education since 1958. It was founded by an Anglican minister in cooperation with Aboriginals, and it has gained a more politicized focus since it took in its first students, three natives of the Torres Strait Islands (at the northern tip of the continent) who wanted to enter the baking industry.

Armed with a new level of awareness, alumni of schools like Eora and Tranby frequently become ambassadors of sorts in the process of reconciliation between white and black Australians.

My art is a voice

Take Jason Shaw, a young man with close-cropped hair whose paintings were recently exhibited during a "Common Ground" cultural night that Eora sponsored for the community. "I like my art to be a voice for the indigenous people of this land," he says, standing in front of several works that combine traditional content (such as depictions of animals) with a modern flair from his earlier days, when graffiti was his medium of choice.

Mr. Shaw, whose light skin hints at the not-uncommon mixing between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, started in Eora's basic-education classes while still a teen (students can enter as early as age 15). He is now pursuing a three-year arts diploma. One of his small paintings shows connected circles that represent his family tree. It seems a simple design, but a closer look reveals subtle, skillful gradations of color.

Once a kid with behavioral problems, Shaw is now "going from strength to strength," says Eora campus manager Jason Darney. The school is considering inviting Shaw to teach when he finishes his diploma, and his artwork may soon appear on a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt.