Home / 2016 / Writing Our Wrongs In History (A UNSW Student’s Perspective)

Writing Our Wrongs In History (A UNSW Student’s Perspective)

This morning I woke up to the sound of birds chirping, the smell of lightly toasted bread, and a front page or headline article from our favourite right-wing newspaper telling us that we, at UNSW, have rewritten history! Now, I know that we spend a lot of money in the science and engineering faculties but have we really mastered time-travel so soon?

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Alas, we’ve not. But the Daily Telegraph has reported that UNSW teachers are “rewriting history” and are telling students that “it is offensive to suggest James Cook ‘discovered’ Australia.” Alternatively known as teaching the nation’s history—instead of manipulating it to spare white people’s feelings.

In Year 6 speech writing I was always told to define the key words. So I whipped out my OED to find out what discovered means:

discover (verb)

be the first to find or observe (a place, substance, or scientific phenomenon) Fleming discovered penicillin early in the twentieth century.


be the first to recognize the potential of…

Correct me if I’m wrong but I reckon those 800,000 or so indigenous people that just happened to be here living their lives before Cook turned up with a flag and said “Better throw some shrimp on the barbie,” were probably the ones who “discovered” Australia. At least, according to the widely accepted dictionary definition.

Now, I’m not here to argue about semiotics, even though the papers seem to be. According to them, naming the arrival of Captain Cook and his posse an “invasion” is RE-WRITING HISTORY and ABSOLUTELY OUTRAGEOUS! Rather than simply an accurate representation of what actually happened. I am somewhat impressed with the authors passive aggressive tone in the Telegraph. She writes, “The phrase “The Dreamings” is apparently more appropriate than “Dreamtime.”” Yes Clarissa, here at UNSW we take into consideration the emotional well-being of our students, sorry that offends you.

This is the sub-section that is causing all of this debate (https://teaching.unsw.edu.au/indigenous-terminology)

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This document was given to teachers at UNSW and is open to anyone who has internet access. My personal favourite part of the Telegraph’s article was naming conventions, because UNSW had the crazy idea of calling things their real name, instead racist alternatives like “coloured,” “mulattos” and “octoroons” because after all, this is 2016. The Telegraph comments “Institute of Public Affairs research fellow Matthew Lesh criticised the guidelines, saying they suffocate “the free flow of ideas”. That’s nice Matt, and if I wasn’t in a tertiary institution that let me voice my opinions freely, and created unbias and challenging discussion; I would agree with you, but alas I am not. Let’s interact with some real students that are taking part in these courses, which the Telegraph conveniently forgot to do… hold on to your seatbelts It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Libby Birrell, an ex- UNSW student who majored her undergraduate in History and continued to do Honours in the subject says “We had debates on the legitimacy of terminology such as ‘invaded’ and ‘discovered’ but at no point were we told what we had to use. We were told that any terminology that was used needed to be justified with appropriate research-based arguments but at no point was a specific viewpoint or terminology forced upon us. If anything, we were encouraged to look at the situation as if there were two (or even more) sides to the story”

“The UNSW Australian history courses actively teach the concepts of perspective when engaging in the debate on Settlement vs. Invasion. No student in the course I attended was forced to come to any sole conclusion. The students are almost all intelligent, critical adults and what is more is an engagement with historical sources simply makes a better argument for Invasion rather than settlement. Invasion needs to be considered as a historical term, which invests a discourse with accuracy. The history writing guide was simply a tool for that aim. The media taking aim at UNSW blatantly ignores the necessity for a view of Australian history which looks at the facts, no matter how bad those facts may make us feel.”  said Katrina Shepherd(Education majoring in History), when we spoke about it today.

This article was also picked up by channel 7’s Sunrise this morning, where as the valued news source they are got two qualified educators to talk about the education system: radio shock jock, Alan Jones and journalist from the Herald Sun Rita Panahi, and yes… you guessed it no current or past students, no teachers from UNSW and of course no Indigenous Australian.

The Bridgit Cama, Indigenous officer on the Student Representative Council says “It does not surprise me that people like Keith Windschuttle have opposed the term “invasion” and shock jocks like Alan Jones and Kyle Sandilands have said the toolkit will ‘divide society’. The problem is, our society is already divided. You only have to look at gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to know this. The shocking statistics clearly show that there is a division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, with issues stemming right back to invasion and colonization of this great southern land. Yes, many find the term invasion challenging. This is because by calling it for what it was, invasion, Australians must recognize the true history and events that took place, making “invasion” a good place to start. Education is the major contributor to social ideas, norms and ideologies. It is time that the education system rid itself of white homogenous history books, teachings and terminology. It is time for the real, true and terrorizing history of this nation to be told. This Diversity Toolkit has the potential to make real change for the true history of Australia to be taught and is something more universities and education providers should be adopting.”

Overall, UNSW has made a positive step towards bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australian’s. Unfortunately that makes some people uncomfortable, however it is important to come together and respect the traditional owners of the land we invaded.

“It is insulting to me as an Aboriginal woman that the majority of Australia fails to recognise the 40,000-year-old culture of my people, as well as the 200 years of suffering inflicted upon them at the hands of the English.

I want to commend the Law Faculty for recognising the true history of Australia; this is the only way we can move forward. I think to call this change in school policy a controversy is ridiculous. If we can’t critique and explore differing points of view at university, then where can we do it?

The Law Faculty’s intentions were never to create division, but rather the opposite. To create an environment where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students feel safe to discuss the complex history of this nation. It is so encouraging to see this kind of thing implemented at one of Australia’s leading universities” (Bek Hatfield)

NB: This is a sample of some UNSW student’s views. Please feel free to have your say in the comments.



About Charlotte Goodsir

Charlotte Goodsir
I really like glitter, rabbits and mac&cheese. I do the english and the acting and the feminist ranting

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  1. Well Done Charlotte! Absolutely correct. The Indigenous Australians deserve the truth to be told. White people need to accept the truth not fight to continue the lie.

  2. Well done Charlotte!!! Alan Jones and Kyle Sandilands!!!Poor choices both.
    Another completely different angle would be the fact that a lot of the invaders (reluctant) were convicts who were also treated abominably by the British overlords and didn’t really have any choice in being here

  3. David Dixon (Dean UNSW Law)

    Thanks Charlotte – the idea that academics tell students what to think is not just wrong, it’s very patronising to students. Here’s the Law School’s response to our critics:

    UNSW Law, Political Correctness and Australian History
    Sections of the popular media recently strongly criticised UNSW for providing students with a guide to Indigenous terminology. This resource is included in on-line support materials for some courses in UNSW Law. It is therefore appropriate for me to comment on this episode.
    The media’s treatment was sensationalist and inaccurate. Claims that students are required to follow ‘politically correct’ dogma are untrue. Reference to the guide itself would have made this quite clear. The ‘Diversity Kit’ of which it is part explains that it is ‘not a prescriptive, fixed set of practices, but a tool that you can use for self-reflection, or with small groups to facilitate discussions’. The guide merely suggests that, in C21 Australia, some terminology is more appropriate and some terminology is less appropriate. It does not, as was claimed, state that ‘It is offensive to say Captain Cook “discovered” Australia’. The document states: ‘most Aboriginal people find the use of the word “discovery” offensive’. That important distinction was too subtle for our critics. Reactions from Aboriginal colleagues and students confirmed the guide’s accuracy.
    The guide is not required reading for all students across the University – teachers can choose to include it as a subject resource for their classes, and students can use it, or not, as they wish. One very good reason for providing students with access to such a guide is to try to avoid unfortunate incidents when, unintentionally, non-Aboriginal students have offended Aboriginal students by use of inappropriate terminology in classroom discussion. Terminology guides such as this are commonplace across universities and many public sector organisations and it is absolutely proper for students and staff to have such a resource available to guide them on what is professionally and academically appropriate .
    Use of such a guide chimes with both UNSW Law’s Reconciliation Action Plan and with UNSW’s 2025 Strategy in which we commit that ‘We will acknowledge, respect and celebrate the important place of Indigenous Australians at UNSW. Respecting and learning about Indigenous knowledge will be integral to the UNSW educational experience.’
    However, this explanation of the guide and its use is not enough. The careless way in which the contents of the guide were misrepresented was in itself an indication that the furore over the guide was merely the pretext for something much more significant. This incident is better seen as a rather pathetic renewal of the ‘culture wars’, the long battle over Australia’s history and identity. A journalist asked me ‘What history do you teach at UNSW?’ My answer was that I hope students read many different histories, from Windschuttle to Reynolds, and that they make their own minds up about the evidence. In my long experience as a university teacher, I have learnt two relevant lessons: that colleagues who have tried to impose their politics on students fail; and that some of the very best classroom discussion that I have had have been with students who disagreed strongly with my opinions – and that they went on to get some of the best results.

    But this conventional statement of academic neutrality is, in this case, not enough. UNSW Law has a long and proud commitment to Indigenous teaching, research and public engagement, and it would be to break the trust of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island colleagues and students to sit on a politically neutral fence when the history of Australia’s colonisation is at issue.
    I have no claim to be an expert in Australian history, so as a lawyer, I will turn to the account given by our profession’s leaders in the High Court of Australia. In the foundational case, Mabo No2, Chief Justice Brennan repeatedly used the word ‘dispossession’ to describe the process whereby Aboriginal land was taken: ‘during the last 200 years, the Australian Aboriginal peoples have been substantially dispossessed of their traditional lands. … (They) were dispossessed of their land parcel by parcel, to make way for expanding colonial settlement. Their dispossession underwrote the development of the nation’. Justices Deane and Gaudron went further, describing ‘the conflagration of oppression and conflict which was … to spread across the continent to dispossess, degrade and devastate the Aboriginal peoples and leave a national legacy of unutterable shame… (The) full facts of that dispossession are of critical importance to the assessment of the legitimacy of the propositions that the continent was unoccupied for legal purposes’ .
    With this judgement, the High Court dispatched not just the legal fiction of terra nullius, but the historical fiction that the colonisation of Australia was anything but a long story of dispossession in which violence – whether it be the massacre of Aboriginal people or the theft of their children or the degradation of their communities – has been central.
    A mature Australia should be able to understand and deal with these shameful aspects of our history. Other advanced democracies have been able to do so in coming to terms with their own histories of colonisation and slavery, and rightly regard Australia’s refusal to acknowledge its own history as a rather contemptible expression of national immaturity. This does not mean wearing a black armband. It simply means growing up and taking responsibility for doing what we can to recognise and put right what was done in the making of Australia. As a Law School, it is our responsibility to ensure that our students are informed about relevant aspects of our history so that they can make up their own minds and choose to be part of the continuing problem or of attempts to put it right.
    Professor David Dixon
    Dean, UNSW Law
    8 April 2016