Fusion of Western rationality and Aboriginal knowledge

Charles Sturt University or CSU has roots going back to Experimental Farms, which were founded in the 1890s in rural New South Wales to spread a scientific approach to agriculture. In its modern form, CSU was created in 1989 by the amalgamation of two Colleges of Advanced Education that evolved from the early farms. CSU’s traditional footprint is across inland New South Wales, to the west of Sydney and the Great Dividing Range.

At its founding, the university was named after Charles Sturt, the British explorer, because his journeys followed the three rivers that flow through this land. These rivers also form the traditional lands of the Wiradjuri, who are one of the largest Aboriginal nations in Australia.

The university adopted the motto ‘For the Public Good’ from Sturt’s writings. He said this was what motivated his military service and explorations. Unlike many agents of colonialism, Sturt went out of his way to treat both his men and local Indigenous populations with respect and decency.

Although there were tense stand-offs, he always sought to defuse them and treat Aboriginal people with respect. The idea of operating ‘For the Public Good’ has been the underpinning of CSU’s success and its commitment to improving regional higher education outcomes.

CSU now has a dozen or so locations and a footprint approaching the size of France. It was because of its large geographical reach and sparse populations that CSU was one of the five tertiary institutions chosen in the 1970s to specialise in distance education in Australia. This has been a critical part of the university’s success as it has allowed us to reach a far larger audience than those who can afford the time or money to attend face to face.

Access vs rankings

Out of all Australian universities, CSU is in the top three in terms of numbers of low socio-economic status, regional and Indigenous students. We also graduate nearly 40% more Indigenous graduates than any other Australian university.

Many of our students, particularly at the undergraduate level, have less social, financial and educational capital than those in metropolitan areas. Educating them is challenging work and consumes a lot of energy and resources.

For this reason, we do not have the economies of scale to devote the same level of resources to research as metropolitan universities and currently we do not figure strongly in any of the global research rankings. Despite this, we have real areas of excellence, particularly in agriculture, winemaking, education, health, environmental science, security, philosophy and ethics.

A particular focus for us has been to work with Aboriginal communities and especially the Wiradjuri as our largest traditional owner group. In common with the experience in other colonial countries, the population, culture and knowledge of Aboriginal people were devastated by the process of colonisation.

The Wiradjuri are a remarkable people and one of the local heroes was Windradyne, a warrior who led an uprising against the British but ultimately also led the peace process. CSU has worked to support Dr Uncle Stan Grant, a Wiradjuri elder in Wagga Wagga, to recover the language and culture of the Wiradjuri people.

In close collaboration with the elders, we have developed a Graduate Certificate in Wiradjuri Language, Culture and Heritage. The journey to achieve this was built on 20 plus years of dialogue and developing understanding. This has now seen two years of graduates and it is helping to build a cohort of Wiradjuri speakers who can sustain the language and culture.

Learning from Aboriginal culture

To have supported the Wiradjuri to recover their language and culture is one thing; it is another for a Western university to learn from that culture. Aboriginal knowledge is grounded in place and people and draws on deep, shared traditions and stories.

One conception of the Western intellectual project is that it renders objective, detached and impersonal knowledge. What is emphasised and celebrated is that which can be recorded in black and white on a piece of paper available for all to see. The paradigms of knowledge are physics experiments or double-blind medical trial experiments.

This form of knowledge has great utility and has allowed us to achieve incredible technical progress. However, given the upheavals we see in the world at present, there is a strong concern that we have given too much over to impersonal forces and we are failing to incorporate the grounded and the personal in our institutions, systems and structures.

Can we find a way to unify these different traditions and find a way of living that honours both traditional knowledge and Western rationality?

In our recent rounds of strategic planning, CSU has, with the consent of the elders, adopted a Wiradjuri phrase which complements Charles Sturt’s ‘For the Public Good’. That phrase is yindyamarra winhanganha which translates as ‘the wisdom of respectfully knowing how to live well in a world worth living in’. Yindyamarra is a core concept in Wiradjuri philosophy meaning to show respect, to go slowly, to take care and to think before acting.

We think Charles Sturt would appreciate that and it now serves as the foundation to our values structure as a university. It is not something to be taken lightly and it is a challenge to live up to it.

It is perhaps a particular challenge at a time when universities are under greater pressure than ever before in terms of funding, accountability and regulation. At CSU, we believe it is the challenge we must face if we are indeed to use higher education to make this a world worth living in.

Professor Andrew Vann is vice-chancellor of Charles Sturt University, Australia. He is speaking at the upcoming Talloires Network Leaders Conference, in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, on 21-23 June, on his university’s work in servicing rural and remote populations in Australia through distributed campuses and online education.

* Credit: Artwork for the illustration in the ThisWeek column is by Aleshia Lonsdale, a Wiradjuri whose artistic name is Tirikee.