Using History to Inform Current Issues

The recent debate over booing Indigenous AFL player, Adam Goodes, is well beyond a sports issue. As done by just about everyone, including sports and political journalists, comedians and social commentators, I could go on about why booing Goodes is or isn’t racism. Instead, I am going to explore the opportunity this provides for education and museums.

Whilst two very different situations, #museumsrespondtoferguson provided an opportunity for American institutions to “call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change”. Likewise, Australian schools and museums can use the recent events to investigate and explore ancient indigenous history, the arrival of Europeans and indigenous social justice issues such as the 1967 referendum.

By understanding the historic relationship between Indigenous Australians and Europeans, such as the placement of Indigenous narratives and objects in the natural history sections of museums, everyone can understand the offence caused by calling Adam Goodes a monkey and telling him to go back to the zoo. Ignorance, age or gender, as has been suggested by some, should never be an excuse for poor behaviour. In contrast, it should be seen as an opportunity for learning, education and understanding. Similarly, an appreciation and understanding of Indigenous culture and traditions, can help all Australians to take an informed and educated stance on Goodes’ divisive celebration.

This is not an issue simply for history teachers or history museums. For example, science museums can investigate the genetics of historic assumptions that indigenous people were somehow inferior whilst art museums can explore the portrayal of Indigenous Australians in European art.

Teaching skills and ideologies is also important at times like these. The need to clearly define all types of racism can not be underestimated. Understanding that booing Goodes for calling out the racism of 14 year old girl is blatant in group favouritism, yet many fail to see this as it is not the direct racism we are often taught. Discriminatory practices such as in group favouritism and out group prejudice are common in our society and should be discussed as part of the debate. To avoid confrontation it can be exemplified with a more neutral concept such as cyclists and motorists. Equally, skills of analysis, articulation and composure are often lacking in these debates. As educators ensuring all Australians have the ability to construct a coherent argument supported by evidence and examples is a valuable skill to avoid unconvincing shouting responses like “I’m not racist”.

Furthermore, it is an opportunity for schools and museums to assess whether they present a balanced view on the issue. Is there a bias toward European history or absence of Indigenous art in an Australian art gallery? Is the Indigenous persepectives portrayed as the alternative rather than given equal value to characters such as Cook? Do we have an adequate representation of staff?

Whilst the conversation has been heated and controversial, it does not mean as educators we should tread lightly around the issue by avoiding it. Although Adam Goodes almost retired at the height of public debate, I am still glad the conversation was had. I only hope that as the issue of Goodes dies down, those in a position to do so, take advantage of the opportunity to address the wider social and political issues at hand and hopefully incite some social change.


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