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Rethinking Indigenous Education: Culturalism, Colonialism and the Politics of Knowing

By Cathryn McConaghy


Over the last twenty years or so Indigenous education has been a highly contested terrain. In a context of claims and counter-claims about its forms and its capacity to transform the lives of Indigenous people, a range of views has been put forward. These views have informed a number of traditions: a paternalistic form of welfarism; assimilation, which seeks to institutionalise colonial mimicry; cultural relativism, which promotes cultural sensitivity and tolerance; and radicalism, which seeks to invert colonial power relations. Despite shifts in approach to Indigenous education a number of core assumptions remain intact across each of these competing traditions. Using recent resources from a theoretical field that is created through a nexus of postcolonial and poststructural feminist theories, this book identifies these common assumptions as a form of culturalism.

Culturalism emerges as central to an understanding of the relationship between colonial legitimacy, epistemic authority and disciplinary capacity within Indigenous education. The book examines how, as a set of epistemic assumptions, culturalism articulates with the complex process of rationalisation and the regimes of naturalism, patriarchy, nationalism, colonial desires, transnational capitalism and scientism that collectively constitute Indigenous Australians as subjects and objects of colonialism.

However, culturalism can be critiqued on a range of moral, conceptual and political grounds. The book signals a need from 'postculturalism' within Indigenous education and suggests how this may transcend some of the intractable problems associated with culturalism in this field.

The broader critique of the relationship between culturalism, colonialism and the politics of knowing explored in this book has relevance for rethinking Indigenous education in other postcolonial sites, such as in relation to First Nations education in Canada and the United States and Maori education in New Zealand.

The book seeks to make connections and to turn the gaze in on the processes by which disciplinary knowledges are constituted in colonial and postcolonial contexts. It is also politically motivated to challenge the obsessions with ethnography, with method and with 'Indigenous cultural difference' that limit the possibilities for decolonising Indigenous education. New postcolonialities require a rethinking of epistemological assumptions and the formulation of new legitimating conditions for Indigenous education, work that remains a challenge for us all in the millenium ahead.

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Table of Contents


Foreword: Martin Nakata


Map of Australian sites referred to in the text

Part 1: Introducation

  • Chapter One Knowing Indigenous Education
  • Chapter Two Colonial Legitimacy and Disciplinary Knowledges

Part 2: Culturalism

  • Chapter Three Early Culturalism: nstitutionalising Colonial Ambivalence
  • Chapter Four Scientific Culturalism: nstitutionalising Colonial Value

Part 3: Culturalist Traditions in Indigenous Education

  • Chapter Five Pastoral Welfarism: nstitutionalising Indigenous Incapacity
  • Chapter Six Assimilationism: nstitutionalising Colonial Mimicry
  • Chapter Seven Cultural Relativism: nstitutionalising Colonial Tolerance
  • Chapter Eight Radicalism: nstitutionalising Colonial Inversions

Part 4: Conclusion

  • Chapter Nine Postcultural Postcolonial Indigenous Education



Rethinking Indigenous Education: Culturalism, Colonialism and the Politics of Knowing

Published: 2000
Pages: xv+312
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