‘Education is largely the application of anthropology’: Debating Aboriginal education and settler colonialism from Hawai'i in the 1930s

Year: 2021

Author: Paisley, Fiona

Type of paper: Symposium

This paper takes up the question of progressive education and race raised by the title of our panel from the perspective of anthropological debates in the 1930s, and their interpolations with new education, philosophy, New Liberalism and sociology in this same era. It concerns the account of Aboriginal Australia presented by AP Elkin, Anglican clergyman and the University of Sydney Chair of Anthropology, at an international conference on ‘native’ education held in Honolulu in 1936. With a background in social justice Christian Liberalism including offering courses and lecturing outside of formal institutional settings, and by aiming to inform general readerships through a range of publications and public lectures, Elkin was himself the product of new thinking in relation to society and education both in Britain and Australia. Following fieldwork experiences in central and northern Australia, by the 1930s he was advocating for a form of community-based integration that complicates the binary of protection versus segregation, and in Honolulu in 1936 and within Australia he proposed the education of settler Australians in cultural awareness as well as for a system of professional educational provision for Aboriginal children within their own communities that would involve older generations also. Based on his claim to expertise in Aboriginal ways of life and religiosity, Elkin argued that Aboriginal people were ‘capable’ of negotiating their own place within modernity. His promotion of Aboriginal culture and community through popularising social anthropology helped to inform humanitarian circles, of which he was also a part, and eventually (if temporarily) influenced federal government policy by the end of the decade. At the same time, Elkin actively obstructed Aboriginal leadership, effectively marginalising demands for education enacted daily by Aboriginal parents and communities, and their voices from the Pan-Pacific international stage when the rights agendas were being articulated by Aboriginal political organisations before national and international audiences such as during the sesquicentennial in 1938.