Getting Started: things to read and things to know about critical education

Oct 2, 2009

CEN Fortnightly Post, #7

The Last Fortnight...

We’ve been a bit interested in the idea of Indigenous Knowledges at the CEN, with a couple of the recent Ideas Column entries dealing with the prospects of multiple ways of knowing (see particularly Jess Gannaway and Renee Herde’s posts). The idea is a tricky one, not least because it is perhaps difficult to divorce your sense of knowing from the epistemological roots that make you who you are, but also because it can be confronting to contemplate logics and ontologies different to ones own. This became patently clear to me during an undergraduate lecture in a sociology of education course a year or so ago when the lecture took a bit of a tangent after a discussion on ‘ways of knowing’ started and we found ourselves contemplating various narratives central to Torres Strait Islander and North Queensland Aboriginal peoples. After one of my students noted that these were simply ‘myths’, I thought I’d provoke things a little by suggesting that they are fundamentally similar to the myth narratives that white western culture has, like, psychology and medicine. ‘Huh?’ was the response from more than a couple of folks, and after a second or so, one of the braver and more outspoken members of the cohort noted that “suggesting that what causes ocean waves is a giant sea turtle flapping its fins has no empirical basis” and that “we all know that what really causes waves are ocean currents and planets and lunar patterns.....”. He went on for another 10 or so minutes with some entirely plausible, if not boring, science (he was a science major as it turns out). We’d hit an impasse, or so it seemed. While some of my students desperately wanted to be able to say that Indigenous knowledges were just as valuable and important as science was to their culture, they couldn’t, through their own epistemological placements, quite rationalise the conundrum our scientist colleague had provided.
Unfortunately, the discussion had missed the point entirely- we’d found ourselves attempting to identify ‘whose knowledge system is best’. This is not the point to be reached at all when considering Indigenous Knowledges. It is what these knowledge systems do culturally and symbolically, and how they represent the ‘boundary’ logic (to borrow from Anthony Cohen) of knowing that is important. Sure, we can probably understand that a giant sea-turtle flapping its fins doesn’t make actual waves, but that is to miss the point of the narrative. It is much more complex and symbolic than that. These narratives capture an entire cultural system and provide reference for how the world is considered and understood- just like science does for folks in some other parts of the world. While we can get hung up on literal interpretations of the narratives and forget that Western ways of knowing have their own literal follies (think here about the wonder that Thalidomide was meant to be, or atomic physics and the resultant millions who have been blown up due to this ‘technology’), the point is that Indigenous Knowledge systems are structures of knowing that have their own logics and ontologies that make sense of the world.
The point is that there is a necessary relativity when it comes to knowing, and this isnt limited to a binary of Indigenous Vs Western views. As another example, I recall talking to a farmer I know about how he was feeling pressured to change his farming practices by a state Government department, even though his practices had been in place on his land through generations of his family, sustained the land in a responsible way and yielded good quality food and produce. Here was a ‘local’ knowledge in opposition with an ‘official’ one (the problem being that the official one had the sanctioning of another knowledge system- the law- which required he change his practices).
I cant help but think of the epiphany that Malinowski, that great white classical anthropologist, had when he spent time in the Trobriands and realised that Western knowledge systems aren’t all there is and that the ‘natives’ he was investigating weren’t developmentally inferior to Western folks, but just different. His ‘Sex and Repression in Savage Society’ (apart from showing its eurocentrism and age by its title) stands as a key example of knowledge systems colliding (Malinowski mounts a convincing argument that makes Freud’s take on Oedipus complexes look itself like a ‘myth’). Perhaps this is the rationale by which we should engage knowledge systems that are different to those of our own- to get over the implicit superiority we perhaps automatically place in what it is we know in order to engage that which is different, but just as legitimate in naming and structuring the world.

'til next fortnight,


  1. Andrew, as you know, you are on a topic that is near and dear to me at the moment. The value of including Indigenous knoweldges in school classrooms is more than just appealing to kids’ different epistemological roots. It is part of the ‘normalising’ Indigenous (here I mean Aboriginal) perspectives and valuing an alternate perspective not only on curriculum but on life. Aboriginality has been represented in schooling from a white/Western viewpoint. Things are changing with the current push to embed Indigenous perspectives in the curriculum but at the moment, most of the ‘white’ kids out there will have parents/extended family who have had their opinions moulded by the past curricula. As we are constantly reminded in our teacher training, kids are greatly influenced by their home environment, for better or for worse. Many teachers accept there is little they can to in the classroom to alter home environments. However, if kids come to accept Indigenous perspectives and knowledges in school as ‘normal’, imagine if they then take this home and are at least able to critically consider perspectives that they hear expressed at home and in the community as a whole. I see that as the source of change, once again I guess it is all about empowering these kids to be aware of their agency.
    I have been watching the video clips on the Freire Project site and one in particular has stuck with me over the last few days. Haggith Gor Ziv suggested that to have a different type of education, in terms of social order, you need to educate a different kind of teacher. I think this is probably fundamental to including Indigenous and alternative knowledges in the classroom. The ability of beginning teachers to be successful in using alternative knowledges in the classroom begins with a foundation in critical pedagogy, social justice and inclusion as well as guidance in how to apply this practice to the classroom.

  2. Hi Renee,
    I like this idea of there being specific pedagogies for Indigenous knowledges, as posed in your post- this is a fundamental question in many ways that suggests that certain types of knowledge require certain types of learning and teaching to be effective. What do you reckon?

    The ideas raised by Jess Gannaway a couple of weeks back with regard to the demise of bilingual language classes in NT schools highlights the challenges of genuinely incoporating an alternative knowledge system into a mainstream environment (in this case, the 'alternative' systemt to the dominant is Indigenous knowledges, but the same logic would apply to other knowledges- for example, Feminist Knowledges). From the 4 Corners report that Jess noted, one interview stood out to me. A ruddy faced, white, male NT department staffer (whose name I cant recall) noted matter-of-factly that 'these' kids needed far more English language education in order to remain competitive in the mainstream world. Not a blink of an eye accompanyied this guys concern for the experiences of Indigenous kids. But there is the conundrum- how do we find space to maintain cultures and incoroprate knowledge systems different to the dominant within a context that is largely unsympathetic and contrary to those very knowledge systems? If you can crack that, you need to get the doctorate done asap and commence work for the NT Education Minister to affect some positive change!!