Schooling for Assimilation: Aboriginal Children in the Northern Territory, 1939-1955

Suzanne Parry, Julie Therese Wells

    Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debate


    In the Northern Territory only a few Aboriginal children had ever attended a school by 1939. These were children who either lived on mission stations or had been removed from their communities and families to live in childrenís institutions. For the remainder of Aboriginal children their schooling, or lack of it, had rarely been an issue for governments. A decade later, however, the federal government began to establish schools for Aboriginal children throughout the Northern Territory wherever it could be shown that there was a minimum of twelve children of school age who could attend. Why did governments turn their attention to Aboriginal children in the remotest areas in the Northern Territory and decide that it was time for them to go to school? Certainly this change in policy corresponded with the advent of assimilationism as the guiding discourse that would frame government action in the coming decades. In 1992, in an interview on the ABC television's Lateline, Professor Mary Kalantzis claimed the introduction of assimilation was a watershed in Aboriginal history.1 For the first time since the arrival of white settlers in Australia, she argued, Aboriginal people were acknowledged as intelligent and capable of change. In Kalantzis's view, assimilationism must be placed in the context of the previous and sustained period during which scientific racism and social Darwinism dominated the discourse about first nations' peoples. Assimilation policies have received some attention from historians, although generally schooling has not been closely examined. Tony Austin's work indicates that government policy for Aboriginal children of mixed descent was assimilationist long before it the policy was applied to all Aboriginal people.2 Julie Wells' detailed analyses of assimilation demonstrate that it emerged from a complex interaction between global concerns regarding indigenous peoples and specific concrete features of the political and ideological climate.3 And Anna Haebich's moving account of Aboriginal people in south-west Western Australia in For Their Own Good shows that they themselves often sought to used schooling for their children as part of their attempts to improve their living conditions.4 Our purpose here is to elaborate and to complicate received understandings of the way in which assimilationism influenced the establishment of schooling for Aboriginal children. With growing interest in politics of identity in Australia it is worthy of greater attention than it has received to date. To make some sense of this awakening of interest in providing schools for Aboriginal children in the latter part of the 1940s, we need not only to understand the changes in thinking which influenced the policy makers and the public, but to be aware of the capacity and the resources of the administration to respond to demands for change at any moment in such a period of transition. The story of why Aboriginal children were finally sent to school is part of a larger story that we tell here, about the policies which guided Aboriginal children's schooling and the capacity of the administration to meet the policy objectives. The protagonists in this story are not the Aboriginal children, but the bureaucrats and the policy makers who were making decisions about Aboriginal children and school.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)49-63
    Number of pages15
    JournalHistory of Education Review
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 1997


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