When one examines important rituals in Australia today one notices the palpable sense of empire. This should be unsurprising given our historical situation but it rankles even the most casual of engaged observers. This is not only in obvious manifestations like parliamentary sessions or citizenship ceremonies, which retain imported British customs and objects, from carrying in the mace to portraits of the Queen. It is present too at universities, which used to lay claim to being august organs of discontent and progression. At the university one notices that the symbolic is invested with a musty air, that many rituals are anachronistic and misplaced, and that these symbols and practices ultimately fail to adequately represent what a place of learning should be here. This is most apparent in graduate ceremonies – where the regalia worn is but a pretty imitation of a medieval European inheritance. This is not to say it has been done badly, but rather that it is inappropriate; which is why it feels hollow if not downright sinister.
The regalia I want when I graduate next year need be clear-eyed about the history here, for history provides the bedrock from which one can live a good life. Our history is not 200 years old. Our history does not have its deep roots in Merry Ol’ England. Our history in its land and culture has firm traditions that are marked on the body; traditions that are carried in living ongoing communities of Indigenous people and their places of learning. The University of Western Australia sits on Noongar land – Noongar people have customs that extend well beyond acknowledgement of country, well beyond what non-Indigenous people recognise as important and valuable. I can only imagine what they might be, but to find out one need ask Noongar people.
In my mind’s eye I have an idealised representation of Aboriginal culture, which abstracts the identity groupings that come from specific individuals. This ideal is created by examples but is also a composite. This is not only from the mediated forms – be they novels, television or film – but lived engagements. I have drawn from my time as a high school student visiting missions and meeting with Reconciliation leaders like Pat Dodson; from interactions on country in the Gulf of Carpentaria with Alexis Wright and Murrandoo Yanner; from reading people like Tony Birch and Ali Cobby Eckermann and speaking with them at academic conferences. This ideal though is made up more than anything from spending many hours with my brother-in-law and looking after my nephew, who is already a little Ngarluma warrior. I still hold onto an ideal though; and I do not think that is a bad thing, precisely because ideals give us something to aim for. My ideal might be better than that held currently by many others – particularly those with the power to take actions towards such ideals – but I am still non-Indigenous. We need consult people for the ritual to make sense in the land that is here.
The graduate ceremony I want is for everyone though. To speak only of dress – keep the mortarboard, keep the floppy cap, but change the tassel, change the sash. I want a tassel made from feathers like I have seen in Walpiri fire dances and Ken Wyatt’s maiden parliamentary speech. I want a sash colourful and bright that recognises our non-European immigrant heritage. And to advance the idea further still – why can’t people design their own and be influenced by African patterns or Indian swirls or Chinese dragons? This is not to suggest that ‘we’ wantonly appropriate cultural forms that do not belong to ‘us’, but rather that the university has a responsibility to reflect what knowledge is through collaborating with its whole community. We cannot mimic ‘Aboriginal culture’ lest we wear ‘blackface’, but Aboriginal people are part of our culture and deserve to have a greater say in the rituals that are important here. This goes for non-European settlers too. All those people have made Australia their home and the university need reflect that. Universities have always learnt more from their students than the other way around – they should not simply be empirical institutions that one assimilates to.
This goes then to the heart of education in this country. The university has lost its way in the rationalised, neoliberal space. This is not an argument against the commerce degree, or similar mere interfaculty disputes. It is about the tradition that we need to call our own. The liberal humanist legacy still means something in American higher education, and Harvard in particular, which is the institution managerial staff here claim to aspire to. Oxbridge is replete with eccentric and fitting rituals. Australian places of learning are still learning their way about the landscape.
I have a bias for literary studies, which has been what for my degree is in. I have learnt from this that we learn from Indigenous stories, that we learn from migrant stories, that we learn from white stories. In other words we learn from all kinds of stories – not simply the classics. The story that we need to tell ourselves though is the story of our learning places. And it is different from the one we are telling ourselves now.
Words by Robert Wood