Cultural Competency and Indigenous Education


There's been a bit of consternation at Larvatus Prodeo over the post Culture Wars: self-fulfilling prophecy time. The gist is that Universities Australia have a new National Best Practice Framework for Indigenous Cultural Competency. "Not something, if you read the key points, I’d have thought should be overly controversial". Yet at the end, we had:

This proposal is no more appropriate than incorporating Marxism, Christianity or any other extraneous topic into all courses.

How did it get from one to the other? I think the process went something like this. Let's think of this post as an exercise in "mental forensics".

A reader can choose from a 34 page Guiding Principles document, or the full 424 page Best Practice Framework. Most people will choose the first to read on basis on length. There are five Guiding Principles - each for a theme, and each has several recommendations after it. Let's list all 5 of the guiding principles:

  1. Indigenous people should be actively involved in university governance and management
  2. All graduates of Australian universities should be culturally competent
  3. University research should be conducted in a culturally competent way that empowers Indigenous participants and encourages collaboration with Indigenous communities
  4. Indigenous staffing should be increased at all appointment levels and, for academic staff, should cover a wider variety of academic fields
  5. Universities should operate in partnership with local Indigenous communities and should help disseminate culturally competent practices to the wider community

If you haven't come here from LP, have a guess. Which of the 5 guiding principles do you think people are going to object to? If you choose number "2", win an imaginary beverage of your choice. Some people are too lazy to read what being "culturally competent" is, so I'll cover it later - but believe me, it's not objectionable. Let's now zoom into at the recommendations for Guiding Principle 2, because we know we will hit the motherlode of consternation there.

  1. Recommendation 1: Embed Indigenous knowledges and perspectives in all university curricula to provide students with the knowledge, skills and understandings which form the foundations of Indigenous cultural competency.
  2. Recommendation 2: Include Indigenous cultural competency as a formal Graduate Attribute or Quality.
  3. Recommendation 3: Incorporate Indigenous Australian knowledges and perspectives into programs according to a culturally competent pedagogical framework.
  4. Recommendation 4: Train teaching staff in Indigenous pedagogy for teaching Indigenous Studies and students effectively, including developing appropriate content and learning resources, teaching strategies and assessment methods.
  5. Recommendation 5: Create reporting mechanisms and standards which provide quality assurance and accountability of Indigenous Studies curricula.

It's number one, isn't it? Yes. Even I objected, although to the "wanky pseudo-academic prose" as I called it on the thread, rather than the concept behind it. (One: because it makes it easier for the Windschuttles of the world to attack the venture, and two: because I just hate overuse of the word "embed" from a decade of bad websites. Thesauruses, people - they're there to be used!)

But ladies and gentlemen, the recommendation is sound. Yes, very sound indeed. Thoughtcrime will still be permitted, there's not going to be the second coming of Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, and one doesn't have to eat lentils unless you really want to. Academic standards will still remain high, except when you have conflict of interest with corporate sponsors. The notion that "Indigenous cultural competency" will corrupt the hallowed halls of Academia is farcical. For these reason three.

Firstly, the recommendation is about currucula. It's about tackling courses over all - the Bachelors - not the subjects within them. Connecting Indigenous affairs to (say) Lesbegue Integration in Mathematical Analysis 201 would be farcical. That's not what Universities Australia are arguing. On the other hand, there will be subjects that could and should be connected. I argued on the LP thread that a software requirements analysis subject - the process of talking to customers and finding out what they want from their computers - would benefit from the process. What if the customers were Indigenous? How does one know when the customer is unhappy with the software you've given them when their non-verbal cues are different to what you're used to? Other people had their own observations. I reckon the best comment was Moz's at #53.

Secondly, Australians are ignorant about Indigenous affairs compared to Canadians and New Zealanders. That's just a fact. Bachelor degrees have a minimum length of three years. Is there no room for a little bit of Indigenous knowledge in that time?  

The final thing: I like the idea of cultural competence. It's something I'd like to have more of myself. It's laid out there in page 5 of the Guiding Principles.

Student and staff knowledge and understanding of Indigenous Australian cultures, histories and contemporary realities and awareness of Indigenous protocols, combined with the proficiency to engage and work effectively in Indigenous contexts congruent to the expectations of Indigenous Australian peoples.

That should not be objectionable at all, even for those doing in degrees where they did not expect to cover such areas. Firstly, even the most "left brain" courses should include material from the "right brain" area. When I did my Bachelor of Engineering in the nineties, I had to do 25 or 25 credit points of non-Engineering subjects. (In practice, I chose non-Engineering maths, which was not the Faculty's intention, but the rules were so lax that I the credit. Plus PY264: Psychology of Sexuality. Yay! But I digress.)

The other reason is pretty important. Indigenous people are now 500,000, or roughly over 2% of the population. They're not all in the bush, nor do those that live there "stay put". How likely is it that all these "left brain" folk - these dentists and doctors and architects, and engineers - are going to interact with an Indigenous person in their careers? Pretty close to one. In fact, the odds are that they meet more than one Indigenous person, and at different times too. What I'm getting at: "cultural competency" is just another professional obligation. Deal with it.

To sum it up: let Unis teach you to be culturally competent rather that culturally incompetent. Even if the latter makes you feel good.

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