The Pascoe Fiasco

19 October 2021
The Pascoe Fiasco - Featured image

The promotion of Dark Emu throughout our nation’s schools underlines the serious failings of our education system, argues author and history scholar Paul Monk.

I wrote about Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and Young Dark Emu in this magazine two years ago. His reputation was at high tide, his books selling in large numbers. As of mid-2021, Dark Emu is reported to have sold 250,000 copies, while Young Dark Emu has been foisted on our secondary schools, along with a book, by Simone Barlow and Ashlee Horyniak, called Dark Emu in the Classroom: Teacher Resources for High School Geography. I pointed out then that Pascoe’s work is fatally flawed and should not be taken seriously. Where are we now?

The publication of Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu (Quadrant Books, 2019) was the first book-length attempt to document how flawed Pascoe’s scholarship is and how misleading are his claims. More recently, an even more systematic critique has been published: Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe’s Farmers or Hunter Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate (Melbourne University Press, 2021). It has received refreshingly wide coverage and the scholarly credentials of its authors have been universally acknowledged.

Cover of Bitter Harvest by Peter O’Brien

Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu (Quadrant Books, 2019) by Peter O’Brien

I shall turn, presently, to the many ways in which Sutton and Walshe demolish Pascoe’s claims. But this has been widely acknowledged. The question that should now be asked, as a matter of public policy, is how such flawed work came to be entrenched in our school curricula and what can or should now be done to correct what was, at the very least, a major error of judgement by curriculum authorities.

Not only that, but it needs to be asked how Dark Emu was and has remained a bestseller and been lavished with literary awards and recognition when it is such poor work. Who were the judges for the two NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and for shortlisting for similar awards in Queensland and Victoria? The Government of Western Australia provided backing for the whole Dark Emu caravanserai, through the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries. Who was responsible for that?

Young Dark Emu was, in 2020, given the Eve Pownall Children’s Book of the Year Award for Information Books, by the Children’s Book Council of Australia. What were their criteria for excellence? Why is it that such a flimsy piece of work could have seized so much of the national, literary, and educational imagination, when very much better work by serious scholars and archaeologists was already available?

The awards should be rescinded.

The question about why flimsy books sell is, of course, the easiest to answer. Like much other pulp fiction, Dark Emu is easy to read. It flatters the intelligence of the general reader and caters to the lamentably widespread desire to see the Aboriginal past in Romantic terms, as Edenic and to lament the nature of white, Western culture and governance. Dark Emu is fashionable, in those respects and there is no easy way to overcome the casts of mind that have made it so. Yet that challenge must be taken on. Which brings us to the educational and literary establishments. While those tens of thousands of readers in the general public who have made Dark Emu a bestseller might be excused their choice of historical reading, no such indulgence should be extended to those who hold responsible positions. They need to be called out for a dereliction of duty. The awards should be rescinded. The curriculum needs to be amended. An inquiry needs to be conducted as to what decision-making processes were involved in feting Pascoe’s work to such an extravagant extent.

Now, of course, the very suggestion Dark Emu and its schoolroom sibling should be ejected from the curriculum is likely to raise objections to the effect this would mean insisting on ‘whitesplaining’ or ‘dominant paradigm’ indoctrination of our secondary school students. Such are the ideological times in which we live.

To such reactions, there are two answers, each important. First, the only justified use of Dark Emu or Young Dark Emu in our schools or universities would be to demonstrate how not to write history or archaeology. This could be accomplished by keeping those books as assigned reading, but requiring that teachers and students then compare them with a set of scholarly materials showing how groundless and misleading Pascoe’s claims actually are and why this matters. That would be a useful pedagogical exercise.

The second answer is that, after decades of ‘curriculum reform’ and the ballooning of education bureaucracies, it has come to this regarding the most fundamental aspects of education about Australia’s own past. Pascoe ought, in fact, to be treated as a symptom of a much wider disease in our educational system. Serious thought should be given to how we reform it to strongly equip coming generations for living in a demanding 21st century world and having a clear grasp of historical realities in general.

That, it seems to me, is how serious the problems are that the Pascoe case lays bare. This is not the place to lay out a program of reform. It might help, though, to register here in some detail just how thoroughly Dark Emu has been refuted, in order to see how shocking it is that such a dubious piece of work ever came to be acclaimed and put on the secondary school curriculum.

Dark Emu is a very poor piece of humbug.

Cover of Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Sutton and Walshe are, respectively, a veteran anthropologist and a veteran archaeologist, deeply acquainted with the Aboriginal past and with impeccable credentials for undertaking their critique of Dark Emu. They are painstaking in going over the matter. And they are, on the whole, generous to Pascoe, even as they completely discredit his whole body of work. Moreover, they—especially the cultural anthropologist Sutton—offer a somewhat Romantic view of the Aboriginal past, on ecological grounds. They are very far from being racists or uncritical apologists for the colonial past or existing public policies. In summary, Sutton and Walshe show Pascoe is in error when he claims Aboriginal Australians developed farming: planting and harvesting large-scale grain and root crops, storing large quantities of food, and baking bread. He is in error when he claims they lived in substantial permanent villages with thousands of inhabitants. He is in error when he claims they have been here for 120,000 years, rather than 55,000.

Brewarrina fish traps site on the Barwon River. Photo: Ian Sanderson

Brewarrina fish traps site on the Barwon River.
Photo: Ian Sanderson

He is in error when he claims they built large-scale eel or fish traps and other engineered infrastructure all over the continent. He is in error when he claims they used watercraft all around the coast. He is in error when he asserts mainstream historians and archaeologists have suppressed the truth about all these things. He is in error when he dismisses the hunter-gatherer way of life as aimless foraging. In short, he gets almost everything wrong.

What is even more troubling, they show, is he gets these things wrong because he systematically and willfully misuses his sources of evidence, makes claims without providing any evidence at all, exaggerates and generalises where nuance and scruple are called for, makes insupportable accusations against generations of scholars and government officials regarding a supposed systematic covering up of the past, makes bold claims to originality when he has cribbed his tenuous grasp of things from the work of others, and contradicts himself at various points without apparently realising he is doing so.

Dark Emu, they point out, was never peer reviewed. If it had, many of Pascoe’s errors would very likely have been pointed out. It could not be peer reviewed because Pascoe is not a scholar. He is not a peer of the academic realm. He lacks the credentials to have undertaken an inquiry of the kind his work claims to be. He is, as it happens, a ‘Professor’ at the University of Melbourne. How that happened should also be the subject of inquiry. Even so, his peers failed to critically evaluate his work before it was published.

For Dark Emu to have been taken seriously at all, it should have been a work of inspired amateur genius. In fact, it has been treated as if it is exactly that. It is not. It is a very poor piece of humbug, dressed up as cultural wisdom, supposedly transcending the understanding of whitefellas and exposing the imposition of a distorting and inaccurate Anglo-Irish frame of reference on the Australian past. It is disturbing that it even needed to be systematically cut to pieces. Thankfully, it now has been.

It would be an error, however, to think there are only two views of the Aboriginal past on offer: Pascoe’s and the correct one. The subject is complex and rich. There are serious debates about various aspects of it. It’s just that Pascoe’s version of that past is not even in the race when it comes to accuracy.

Sutton and Walshe are across the spectrum of scholarship and have quite strong opinions of their own. They open their book by insisting that the Aboriginal past, as they see it, is before British conquest of the continent, not settlement of it. They describe the British Empire as “the greatest kleptocracy in human history”. They have firm commitments with regard to questions of native title and Aboriginal culture.

In their opening chapter they go so far as to state that they distance themselves from …

the notion that recognisably European ‘settled’ ways of living, focused on material and technical ‘development’ in food production, are in any way to be valued more than the ways of living that existed in Australia before invasion.

There is a great deal at issue here, but Pascoe has nothing of value to contribute to it.

In Farmers or Hunter Gatherers? a considerable amount of space is given to showing Aboriginal Australians were so embedded in their landscape that they understood it intimately, knew where their food sources were, and practiced, in Sutton’s phrasing, ‘spiritual propagation’—evoking animal spirits or spirit of place—rather than what the modern world sees as scientific or rational economic development.

It is unclear to what extent Sutton believes such spiritual propagation worked and, if so, precisely how. But the point at issue is that he at least, from decades of acquaintance with the subject, describes the practices whereby Aboriginal peoples handled their lifeworld. It was not by farming.

Lack of concern with facts and truth is a pervasive problem in popular and political culture.

In summing up the state of the Dark Emu debate, at the end of their first chapter, Sutton and Walshe offer a damning indictment of Pascoe’s work. It is a passage that needs to be thrust in the faces of the educational and literary awards gnomes who have lionised Dark Emu and Young Dark Emu for years:

Pascoe’s book purports to be factual…However, it is littered with unsourced material. It is poorly researched. It distorts and exaggerates many old sources. It selects evidence to suit the author’s opinions, and it ignores large bodies of information that do not support the author’s opinions. It contains a large number of factual errors…Its success as a narrative has been achieved in spite of its failure as an account of fact.

That is a fail, in any grading system. They go on, in the same passage, to reflect on the broader implications of Pascoe’s unwarranted influence:

All of this success would appear to indicate, within our society and public sphere, either a profound lack of factual knowledge in relation to the peoples and history written about in Dark Emu, or an unconcern with facts and truth themselves, or a combination of these things. Whichever the case, the situation is troubling.

It is, indeed, troubling. Moreover, although the authors do not make this point, this lack of concern with facts and truth themselves is now a pervasive problem in popular and political culture. The Pascoe case is only one of many cases in which this is glaringly evident. But it is especially galling in our national case because it has to do with foundational aspects of what this country is, how we understand our place in it and how we are trying to negotiate a more workable approach to our Aboriginal compatriots. Yet Dark Emu has been made assigned reading in our schools.

Consistent with their stringent critique of Pascoe’s failures as a scholar, Sutton and Walshe turn their critical focus to Barlow and Horyniak’s Dark Emu in the Classroom as a teachers’ resource guide. Here, their judgement is categorical: “This teaching resource book should be withdrawn by any educational authority currently using it and rewritten.”

Unfortunately, they do not spell out how it might usefully be rewritten as a teaching tool. Nor do they point out it is not simply intended to enable students to analyse and understand what Dark Emu tells them. It reads like a text designed to inculcate in the teachers’ young charges the belief that Aboriginal land practices and use of fire need to be understood because they were humane, provident, and sustainable, while modern capitalism and a view of the world grounded in an understanding of biological evolution are inhumane and destructive.

Dark Emu in the Classroom serves as the tool for a systematic indoctrination of young minds.

Aboriginal Australians understood their landscape intimately.
Photo: fvanrenterghem/Flickr

Reading first Pascoe and then Barlow and Horyniak, students might come away with the impression we would all be better off reverting to the putative lifestyle of Aboriginal Australians. This goes far beyond mere errors or distortions of fact. It is Neo-Romantic propaganda. Certainly, the factual errors are there. The book does nothing to challenge or correct Pascoe’s fallacies. It is even stated, for instance, on p. 75, in a segment on firestick farming (sic), that “some evidence suggests that Aboriginal Australians began using fire as early as 120,000 years ago”. No such evidence is supplied. There were no Aboriginal Australians 120,000 years ago.

Was Pascoe suggesting Aboriginals initiated the use of fire before other human beings? Characteristically, he never makes that clear. Nor do Barlow and Horyniak. It would have been useful to have pointed out to students that our hominin ancestors started using fire long before even Pascoe claims any of them reached this continent. In Fire: The Spark That Ignited Human Evolution (2009), Frances Burton argues that, in fact, not only was fire in use by Homo erectus, well over a million years ago, but that fascination with it and at least opportunistic use of it may well date back far earlier.

Dark Emu and its offshoots would have done well to stick to the origins of fire-stick farming as landscape management.

Nor is it pointed out, in those parts of the teachers guide dealing with the real or alleged evils of modern economic and scientific thought, that Homo sapiens (our own species) has been an invasive species throughout its 300,000-year existence. It is not something pioneered by the much-maligned British Empire. In this respect, teachers introducing Pascoe’s work in the classroom might be well advised to juxtapose it with, among many other possible scholarly sources, Pat Shipman’s The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction (Belknap Press, Harvard, 2015).

Dark Emu in the Classroom

In other words, Dark Emu in the Classroom not only repeats uncritically the error-ridden arguments of Pascoe, but serves as the tool for a systematic indoctrination of young minds in accepting and believing his nonsense. It would not be sufficient, therefore, to withdraw and rewrite it, if all that meant was correcting factual errors. It needs to be done away with altogether and replaced by a very different guidebook that would actually require teachers and students to grapple with the process of how we know anything with any degree of confidence about the Australian past.

Sutton and Walshe write:

The danger is that some of those who began reading Dark Emu in a state of even partially reliable knowledge may have now become enamoured of its sweeping, simplified, and distorted mythological history, and are thus newly misled.

That is clearly the case now for hundreds of thousands of Australians and the problem needs to be addressed with some energy and urgency. It needs to be addressed, however, not merely at the level of facts or information, but at the level of really fundamental pedagogical and epistemological principles.

There is such a thing as accurate history and you cannot get away with just making it up.

Educating a young mind requires showing it not only what to learn, but how to learn and, gradually, what the differences are between instinctual reaction, opinion, true opinion, and knowledge. These were the profound themes Plato broached, long ago, in such dialogues as Theaetetus and Parmenides. Unless those designing our curricula have at least some understanding of the issues involved, they will fail in their educational task. To the extent that they substitute Romantic mythology for such understanding, they do fail in their task. That and not simply some quibble over elementary facts is the issue here—as it is in social media and populist political discourse.

The philosophically and historically literate person reading Dark Emu, Young Dark Emu or Dark Emu in the Classroom is repelled by the style as well as the substance of the books. That so few people actually have been so repelled is symptomatic of the parlous state of affairs in which we now find ourselves. Yet such readers also will console themselves with the rueful thought that, in many respects, it was ever thus. Progress in this regard has always been hard work. Regression has always been a danger.

The profound irony of the current era is that at a time of unprecedented scientific discovery and innovation, as well as staggering access to information, we are running into so many problems of this kind. That is to say, poorly grounded and specious arguments that have wide uptake because of their appeal to emotion and ideology rather than sound principles of inquiry.

What is worse, however, is that there are, clearly, currents of confused or malign opinion that are seeking actively to undermine the very idea that there are sound principles of inquiry and not just points of view. The Pascoe fiasco can be turned to good use if it is made an occasion to drive home these arguments; there is such a thing as accurate history and you cannot get away with just making it up. There are such things as principles of inquiry, more generally, that determine whether an argument is sound or flawed. A sound education requires students to master these principles, above all else. Only a mind so educated will be able to navigate successfully and constructively the extraordinary but complex world we human beings have made for ourselves.

Paul Monk has a BA (First Class Honours) in History from the University of Melbourne and a PhD in International Relations from the Australian National University. He has worked as a senior intelligence analyst and a consultant in applied cognitive science.

This article from the Spring 2021 edition of the IPA Review is written by history scholar Paul Monk.

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