We are the generation of Australian students who grew up watching The Apology in sweaty school halls. Most of us, one would hope, were taught about Australia’s history of colonial genocide and oppression. Undoubtedly, racism – structural and casual – still profoundly affects the opportunities of Indigenous people today.
I did not think, however, that given the way many non-Indigenous people jump at opportunities to condemn the past, that we would be so uninterested in the stories of Indigenous people. Perhaps that was naïve.
Because when I sit in the sweaty classroom of my first Indigenous Studies tutorial I have to face the fact that whilst everyone in the classroom seems to quite genuinely care about the subject, only 4 of the 20 or more students are Australian. It seems that exchange students are far more interested in Indigenous history than we are.
The University does not release numbers of exchange students enrolled in subjects, but their over-representation in Indigenous Studies units, or rather domestic under-representation, seems to be a fairly consistent trend. One friend said that, last year, about 20 per cent of the students enrolled in another junior Indigenous Studies unit were exchange students. This is a grossly disproportionate representation when compared with other Arts subjects.
I’d heard that some exchange students took the subject because it was presumed to be an easy pass. In my own experience, that view seems needlessly cynical. If their presumption is true, it’s an unfortunate one. Indigenous Studies courses are complex and deeply challenging. The more important question though, is why, of the relatively small number who choose to take the course in the first place, so few are domestic students.
The primary reason would likely be that many students believe it does not carry the prestige of traditionally ‘employable’ Arts majors (read: Economics and Government). As university graduates face an increasingly dire graduate job market, this seems reasonable.
However, a bad subjective valuation of majors is embedded in that decision. Given the expanding number of experts in Indigenous issues and culture needed particularly in the public sector, it seems odd few people are drawn to the subject.
Further, this reasons would not explain why similarly less ’employable’ subjects thrive. Established faculties like Philosophy and English are some of the most popular within the Arts faculty. Part of that can be explained by their historic prestige as faculties and established reputations as well taught courses. Indigenous Studies – established in only 1990 – is structurally disadvantaged in that regard. Repeated attempts at amalgamation of the department are of no help in this regard.
Again, this doesn’t explain the fact that even in comparison to similarly niche and new departments undertaken by socially minded students – like Gender Studies or Political Economy – Indigenous Studies does so poorly.
One friend suggested that, for him at least, he just didn’t know anyone doing it. Though tempting didn’t know anyone doing it. Through tempting to dismiss this as trivial, it’s apparent that course choices are social choices, even performances, for many students. Shaped, even if only subconsciously by the fact that their peers also trust the subject.
What seems to be the only substantial reason left is that we just do not care. Universities are, in many ways, a microcosm of what we value and what we want to give our time to. Non-Indigenous Australians seem to have no problem in erasing Indigenous issues from every level of our lives. One would hope that higher education would be the exception to this. Instead, it seems to be just another manifestation of it.
Our apathy is not a breaking story, but it is a disheartening one.