Closing the Gap between Past and Present: History, Justice and Indigenous Education Policy

Year: 2015

Author: Rudolph, Sophie

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

‘Closing the gap’ has become the dominant way of describing and addressing Indigenous educational disadvantage in Australia since the implementation of a national, bipartisan policy carrying the same name, instituted in 2008 by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). On the one hand, Closing the Gap policies appear to acknowledge the impact of historical discrimination experienced by Indigenous peoples through colonialism and educational exclusion, and advocate for this to be addressed through improved educational provision for Indigenous students. On the other hand, as I argue in this paper, this construction of history as about events in the past also has the effect of distinguishing present-­‐day actions from prior historical periods that are deemed oppressive and discriminatory. While calling history into view, one effect of the Closing the Gap policy discourse is paradoxically to severe the past from the present rather than to address the diverse ways in which historical legacies continue to animate the present. A further consequence of this is a misrepresentation of structural and embedded inequalities, despite the rhetoric of ‘closing the gap’ and proclaimed recognition of prior discrimination in which the present is cast as a time/place of redress for past wrongs and not as a time/place in which history is not over.

This paper examines both the stated aims of the Closing the Gap policy discourse and the ways in which it has been critiqued, with particular attention to how history is negotiated, understood or employed to explain both disadvantage and discrimination. It is argued that the education targets of the Closing the Gap policy limit knowledge diversity and as a consequence fail to recognise the historical construction of knowledge in relation to educational success. The political and policy understanding of and relationship to history is significant in this failure. Finally I suggest some possibilities for a reorienting of historical understanding in relation to justice and how this might offer some ways of addressing the structural inequalities that seem to be submerged in the Closing the Gap policy and its historical orientation.