The man on a mission to advance Indigenous knowledge
“It’s a long story,” says Professor Markham Rose through a patchy phone line from his home in Coburg, a multicultural suburb in Melbourne’s north, “but my father was a Stolen Generation kid, and he met my mother, who was non-Indigenous, and I was born in the mid-1950s, a dozen years before the referendum that finally gave me and other Aboriginal people citizenship rights.”
The life story of Mark Rose, the distinguished education academic with traditional links to the Gunditjmara nation of Victoria, is perhaps not unique amongst Aboriginal people.
It’s a life influenced by the experiences of his father Geoffrey Rose, who was removed from his family as a six-year-old and never saw his mother again. Without the support mechanisms of family and community, Geoff Rose was rendered a fringe-dweller. He never recovered from the trauma of being stolen.
“It is really quite tragic, because my father’s demons followed him through his life, and that manifested through domestic violence,” says Professor Rose, an ACU graduate and Pro Vice-Chancellor at Deakin University.
Things were complicated further when Mark’s mother was diagnosed with epilepsy, a condition that was poorly understood at the time. Mark’s dad was ill-equipped to deal with her illness, and so at his mum’s urging, Mark and his brother were sent to boarding school at the Convent of Mercy in Ballarat.
“I was cut off from my family and my Aboriginal community, but I was actually living an Aboriginal life,” he says.
“Even today there are Aboriginal people who are still struggling to make their way home and find their mob. That doesn’t make you any less Aboriginal; it’s actually a very common Aboriginal experience.”
Although being estranged was a high price to pay, Mark counts himself as lucky. A stone’s throw from the convent was the Ballarat Children’s Home, which housed many Aboriginal youths who had been declared wards of the state.
“Most of my Aboriginal cousins were there, and it was only by a twist of fate that I wasn’t there with them,” Professor Rose says. “Instead, I was in the convent being taught by these dedicated women, getting a good education and living a relatively safe life.”
He still carries the burden of guilt that he escaped what his cousins went through.
“Lots of non-Indigenous people look at my career and they say to me, ‘Gee, your people must be so proud of you’. And I say, ‘Well, I was fortunate’. I’m really proud of some of my cousins, who because of their circumstances and the colour of their skin weren’t afforded the same opportunities that I was, and yet they approach life with great peace and optimism. That takes real guts; I’ve been lucky.”
A born educator
Mark Rose was still in his early teens when he got his first taste of teaching.
“I was in year 8 and one of the nuns fell ill, and bear in mind this was in the 1960s, but there was no emergency teacher, so I volunteered to take over teaching the class for a day and a bit,” he says.
“That ended up being the first class I ever taught, and in hindsight, teaching came naturally to me. I didn’t know it at the time but a lot of my Aboriginal family are in education, so it was in my DNA.”
In 1967, Mark’s mother died suddenly after a seizure, which brought his father further suffering, and he soon ceased providing financial support. Mark, who was then living with his grandmother, was forced to fend for himself through years 11 and 12, which meant working in factories at night to pay his school fees.
Despite this hardship, he gained entry to the Mercy Teachers’ College, a forerunner college of ACU in Melbourne, and within five years of graduating was appointed as principal of Sacred Heart School in Casterton.
“There were 90 kids, stables in the back and a whole lot of tiger snakes on the school grounds, which was pretty interesting for a city kid,” he says.
After a decade as a principal in both primary and secondary schools, Mark pursued further study and moved into academia. He has since served in various teaching, research and leadership roles both overseas and in Australia; most recently at Deakin, where he became the university’s first Pro Vice-Chancellor for Indigenous Strategy and Innovation, and before that at RMIT, where he was a Professor of Indigenous Business and Enterprise.
In recent years, he has contributed his expertise towards advancing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education agenda. He says that two critical issues need to be addressed.
“The first is the teaching of our people, because we keep seeing these dismal Close the Gap statistics showing that Aboriginal people are way behind in the areas of housing, justice and health, and while all of these social indicators are important, the silver bullet is education,” Professor Rose says.
“The second is the teaching about our people, because change cannot happen until Aboriginal people are seen and heard in the curriculum. The standard non-Indigenous person knows very little about Aboriginal perspectives and issues, yet they constantly make professional decisions – whether they’re doctors, lawyers, police or social workers – that affect the lives of Aboriginal people.”
The gaps in this area are what Professor Rose has termed “a silent apartheid”, referring to “the gaping hole in the nation’s narrative”.
“For many years the curriculum hasn’t included Indigenous culture and knowledge — it’s been overtly suppressed — and so non-Aboriginal people have been robbed from linking themselves to the land that they’re now living on,” he says.
“If they were taught about Aboriginal culture, the nation would have a fuller and more mature view of itself, and that would benefit all of us — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.”
Cultivating a connection
Like many Indigenous kids who were cut off from their community, the young Mark Rose knew little of his heritage.
It was only when he started teaching that he became connected with his Aboriginal family. He learned he was descendant of the Gunditjmara people of southwestern Victoria, and that he was a relative of Lionel Rose, the first Indigenous person to be named Australian of the Year.
“I was greeted by a really loving community, a very inclusive community, and a community of great humanity and great resilience,” says Professor Rose, who has since gone on to play an advocacy role for 33 Aboriginal communities in Victoria.
“The fact that I had a couple of university degrees at the time, it put me in a really good position to forward the Aboriginal case, and so it was a win-win all around.”
In recent decades, with community endorsement, Professor Rose has sat on five ministerial advisory committees, including the Victorian Implementation Review of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
He was on the Vice-Chancellor’s Indigenous Advisory Council at Charles Darwin University, chaired the Batchelor Institute of Tertiary Education, and has led Indigenous knowledge programs at Deakin, La Trobe, RMIT and Melbourne University.
The inclusion of Aboriginal knowledge and history in the national curriculum has become his life’s work.
As one of the original members of ACARA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group, Professor Rose has been a fierce advocate for the issue, arguing that the teaching of Indigenous culture goes “way beyond political correctness and compliance”.
“When I was at school, there was nothing … I remember being taught that Aborigines can’t live in houses, because they rip up floorboards and burn them to light fires,” he says.
“We’ve come a long way from that but we still have a long way to go. We have an opportunity for all Australians to understand who we are, where we’ve come from, and how we can move forward and work together in a common national interest.”
As for the ultimate goal of improving the educational achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Professor Rose is convinced that “the progress is happening”.
“Aboriginal people sit at all levels of universities – we’ve got doctors, we’ve got lawyers, teachers, businesspeople, scientists – and we’re going to amazing places,” he says.
“If we are the world’s oldest living continuous culture, then by inference we must be the world's oldest living continuous intellectual tradition, and our people are bringing into their professional communities a great sense of humanity, a fined-tuned emotional intelligence, and a great spirit that we can all learn from.”
Professor Markham Rose was the winner of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Award in ACU’s Alumni Awards 2020.