How to Teach History: What Australia can learn from Pakistan

By Danish Khan

Over the last 28 years, I have moved between Pakistan and Australia six times. This included moving three times between the ages of nine and fourteen. I was therefore exposed to the education systems of both countries. This provided a unique opportunity to build my identity based on cross-cultural experiences. However, my identity was most acutely shaped by my experience of being a migrant in Australia.

Over the years I have been faced with ignorance and indifference in relation to my migrant experience, and how my country of birth shaped me. In almost every instance when I started a conversation about Pakistan (my country of birth and where I have lived half my life), it was met with silence and blank faces, rather than further engagement. The conversation would be quickly transitioned to one on issues which the other person either had knowledge on, or had already developed an interest in. In a progressive and pluralistic society, when speaking about another country, there can be engagement on a host of different aspects of that country (geography, history, politics, literature etc.). If someone in the conversation has little to no knowledge of the country, an attempt to engage and understand should be a baseline reaction. This is something I experienced to be greatly lacking in Australia, which is ironic given its migrant history. I wasn’t willing to accept that this was an intrinsic belief of Australians, and therefore some cultural conditioning had to be at play, to create such an environment. It wasn’t until I went through history classes in both Pakistani and Australian schools, that I started to understand where this cultural conditioning came from.

In Pakistan, I was taught about our indigenous history in great depth. We have had many indigenous civilisations and communities, which spread across what is now modern-day Pakistan.

One of these was the Indus Valley Civilisation. Dating back to 3,000 BC, this was arguably one of the oldest civilisations known to humankind. They lived in dense multi-storey homes constructed out of uniformly sized bricks, along perpendicular streets. Cities were oriented to catch the wind and provide a natural form of air conditioning. Most homes were connected to a centralised drainage system, which was used to carry waste and water out of the city. This ran under the main avenues; a plumbing system which would have been the envy of many 18th century European cities.

As school kids, we were taken on excursions to the sights of their two major cities, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. These places remain a foundational element of our history curriculum, and a matter of great pride for many Pakistanis, and the greater subcontinent.

So when I came to Australia, I expected to be taught similarly. To have the proud history and practices of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people championed. To learn about how 65,000 years ago Indigenous Australians were the first known migrants out of East Africa. That long before white settlement, they travelled throughout South East Asia, lived among the local people, forged relationships, learned local languages, and had families. They traded with the Macassan people from Sulawesi, Indonesia, who valued sea cucumber, which they could source from the top end of Australia. I expected to be taught that good agricultural practices and climate smart agriculture was being practiced by aboriginal people and settlers near the coastal town of Ulladulla, New South Wales, many years before climate smart agriculture became a science taught in academic institutions. As part of their farming practices, these communities would not take undersized or pregnant fish, and would not overfish. This allowed fish to breed and grow, rendering their populations sustainable.

Learning about this part of Indigenous Australian history fills me with great pride. Just like I speak with pride about the rich heritage of the Indus Valley Civilisation when asked about my Pakistan identity, I now speak about the rich Indigenous cultures and traditions, when speaking about my Australian one.

The sad truth is that none of this was taught to me in my Australian high school education.

Indigenous history rarely featured in our curriculum and what was taught was almost exclusively from the perspective of white settlers. The multitude of different indigenous cultural and language groups were described as being a homogenous entity, even though their histories, practices, and outlooks varied greatly. It was a trip through Arnhem land in 2017, followed by reading the book Why Warriors Lie Down and Die by Richard Trudgen that helped me begin to grapple with the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land’s understanding of the earth, utilisation of resources, and farming practices. I do not recall our history curriculum covering histories and practices of such diverse indigenous cultural and language groups. It was as if this part of the history curriculum was a necessary evil, a bitter pill to swallow for educators, and a narrative with which they had either little wherewithal or volition to engage.

The private school I went to in Pakistan (along with many other private schools) was formed during British rule over the subcontinent and was a blend of both Western and Eastern education. The British wanted to install administrators, who could understand both their ways, and those of the local population. They didn’t however have the inclination to rewrite Pakistan’s indigenous history. What is considered ‘indigenous’ in Pakistan remains a grey area, and from the onset of British colonialism, religious and ethnic disparities were exacerbated by colonial policy, more so than indigenous ones. This is why the selective history taught in Pakistan is based on a colonial hangover, based more so around religion and ethnicity, rather than Indigenous identity.

Australia’s history played out quite differently. The British also colonised the local population, however the locals identified themselves (or were identified by the British) through indigenous cultural and language groups, rather than religious, ethnic, or other such parameters. However in Australia’s case, the colonisers never left, and had both the clout and inclination to rewrite Australia’s indigenous history, cementing their dominance over the continent. This was and still is reinforced through the selective history being peddled in school textbooks. For example, it is only in recent years that the Yolngu people of Arnhem land have had midwives and other health professionals trained from their community (or those who speak their language), to work with Yolngu patients in health centres. In previous years, a lack of indigenous health professionals has led to misdiagnosis, exacerbation of health issues, and greater disenfranchisement of the Yolngu people. I never learnt about this in our indigenous history classes, however I was told about how the physical infrastructure (roads, dams, and other such developments) made indigenous communities more accessible and developed.

“Selective history” is where historical narratives are created based on the dominant power structures within society. It remains in the best interest of the “Australian project” (the nation building effort based on shared myths) to teach indigenous history selectively, conducting nation building through leaving out details which would build the self-efficacy of the indigenous population. There does seem to be some progress though. Originally published in 2000, Why Warriors Lie Down and Die by Djambatj Mala, and other such narratives on indigenous history, written by indigenous Australians are gaining traction throughout academic circles. One would hope that it is a matter of time before academia transplants this literature into the indigenous history curriculum.

Pakistan’s indigenous history curriculum is testament to what can be taught if governments don’t push their agendas through history curriculums. In Australia, in order to improve the Australian indigenous history curriculum, we must first understand the forces at play which influence the way history is taught. This includes teaching indigenous history through the lens of the white settlers and how this is translated into the indigenous history curriculum, without significant input from the various indigenous cultural and language groups of Australia. Ideally, these groups are the ones who should write this history, as they are the ones who have lived it. Only then will we be able to truly engage with indigenous history, colonial legacy, and their intersection in contemporary Australia. This will not only greatly affect the experience of indigenous Australians, but also migrants like myself. The result would be a more progressive and pluralistic society, where people would show curiosity towards people from different cultures, countries and groups. This will help us move towards an inclusive country, where diversity is championed, rather than sidelined.