Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Knowledge in Early Australia

Aboriginal Australian communities, all the evidence shows, placed a high value on knowledge – in fact, they still do. Complex systems to regulate knowledge and assure it is passed on appropriately not only infuse traditional Aboriginal educational systems, but also structure kinship and relational obligations throughout the Indigenous Australian nations.

The same knowledge of land, medicine, fauna and economy was also highly valued by the Europeans who, in the late seventeenth century, began to explore, invade, colonise and settle the Australian continent. Europeans brought with them ideas gleaned from the era known as the ‘enlightenment’. These encouraged them to ‘discover’ and catalogue knowledge – knowledge that was often acquired from Aborigines.

Other ideas that Europeans carried prevented them from seeing that stealing knowledge and claiming it as their own was an act of intellectual violence. Ideas moulded British behaviour, often in destructive ways. Pre-conceptions about what farming looked like prevented settlers from seeing the ways that Aboriginal fire-stick farming shaped the landscape and, by mixing Aboriginal labour with the land, asserted their rights of ownership in just the way British philosopher John Locke had defined. For colonists, this misunderstanding led to the terrible doctrine later known as terra nullius, the belief that Australian land had no owner, an idea that inflicted considerable harm on the Aboriginal nations in subsequent centuries. In the same way as they dismissed their farming practices, Europeans also dismissed Indigenous knowledge: when they learned something from Aborigines, they treated it as if they had ‘discovered’ it through mere observation, a kind of intellectual terra nullius, as if the Aboriginal knower was not really there.

Ideas had power, for both Europeans and Aborigines. Aboriginal knowledge was among the substance that would dwell in the first Australian universities, protected and nurtured by European scholars, as if it was their own. This knowledge helped ‘enlightened’ nations, as the Australian colonies aspired to be, reach the levels of civilisation that made them proud. In pursuit of this civilised ideal, less than seventy years after the first British fleet landed in Aboriginal Eora country and began to settle it as Sydney, the colonists began to plan their first universities.

--- This is a segment of my first draft of Chapter 1: Ideas of the the University in Australia, from the book I am writing Knowing Australia: a history of the modern university, for UNSW Press. ----

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