Welcome back Bakunin - Life chances in Australia: some notes of discomfort - Page 3
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 3: Webs of Power
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Frank Moorhouse
O AUSTRALIA: Why is it that I do not in my heart believe that this question is dead or that the battle is over? Maybe I skipped my medication.
Yet we are a self-critical and self-correcting liberal democracy and choose to see ourselves in a certain way – oddly, against all evidence – as fair and egalitarian. What can be done? If, that is, anyone is inclined to hearken back to the great Western aspiration of égalité.
The good thing about increased government funding of private schools is that it gives potentially greater control over these schools (on average about 54 per cent of the spending of non-government schools was financed by government grants).
I am not an expert on education but we are all experts on egalitarianism (even if there are no easy ways to bring it about). King's College Cambridge – where I was writer-in-residence four years ago – was formerly the preserve of sons of the alumni (and then daughters also) and those educated at Eton.
When I was there, the fellows boasted that King's in its intake now reflects the socioeconomic, ethnic and gender demographics of England. Maybe we should insist that all schools up to high school (oh, hell, why not high schools also) reflect the demographics of their natural catchment – or the demographics of the state.
Maybe we should use a lottery to select the student intakes for highly desired schools, with no reserved places for children of the alumni or "legacy places" – the ultimate extension of privilege from right of birth – as charming as the idea is for parents.
Maybe we could eventually transform all high schools into independent schools run and owned by their parents, students, teachers and the local community, but partly financed and supervised by some sort of "educational fairness commission". Maybe the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission could have a look at the fairness of the competition among schools.
Maybe, once we have identified disadvantaged schools, we could redress the inadequate spread of options, teacher quality, even simple things such as computer access (50 per cent of students don't have computers – let alone the money to pay for upgrades, repairs and internet connections), quality of book, film and music libraries, aesthetics of the buildings – and correct these by funding or by paying teachers at disadvantaged schools more. I know of some people who already try to redress the resources deficit voluntarily.
Maybe the distribution of informal resources could be better co-ordinated. For example, visits by artists, businesspeople, professional people, sportspeople and other role models and experienced human "resources" could be co-ordinated on a state, regional or district basis so that the rich schools do not command the stars. This sort of program shouldn't rest on volunteers and grace and favour. And the musicians, painters, jugglers and whatever should be paid to hang out with, say musically inclined students in the west, in the bush – not just one-off courtesy visits but programs of frequent visits so that the contacts have some depth.
Certainly the expansion of funding for professional development of teachers in public schools and for the development of network of public school alumni – even for ‘adopted alumni' where some of us adopt a disadvantaged school would be a start.
Gee, maybe people whose children go to privileged schools might give some of their time or money or books or music to the disadvantaged schools rather than to the schools to which their children go. Yeah, yeah, yeah – you can't make any society fully fair but you can make it fairer (especially for children).
One of the most encouraging things I have noticed when talking about these matters with people connected with privileged schools, either professionally or as former students or parents of students, is that there is either a sadness about the situation or a defensiveness. They know that something is not quite right.
BACK TO NETWORKING: Which brings me back to new networking, as distinct from old-boy and old-girl networking. New networking is a remarkable social phenomenon and may even be egalitarian.
There will always be informal networks and personality, luck and talent will always play a part in life chances. And then there are the other "old" networks such as the Freemasons and service clubs such as Rotary.
But the new networking is another way of making things happen – for enhancing life chances. Networking as a tool has now been "outed". Networking – consciously seeking one's advantage – which was hitherto secret, even shameful, or invisible is now formalised, boasted about, advertised. I get the impression that many of us still feel that seeking one's advantage is best done casually in an authentic context as a "natural" evolution of career or sense of self or from the blossoming of our talent. That getting into the "right circles" is an organic process and a reward for good performance.
That is, I think meritocracy (remember that?) is still a strong part of our ethos even if the elite private-school system distorts it.
Perhaps unconsciously, the new networking, which is transparent and non-exclusive, is an attempt to break through real and imagined cliques and privileged networks such as, say, the Cranbrook Old Boys' Union – a "revolt of the excluded", a form of self-empowerment. How effective the new networking is, whether it can break the elite networks, is still to be seen (say, by reversing privilege in recruitment policies in places of work that they, the excluded, sometimes control). For surely the elite birthright networks are the "enemy" in that they hurt the disadvantaged. Some who network may in fact see this as their reason for networking – to get their hands on some of the loot that privilege brings.
What goes on in a network? The caricature is that people in suits get together to exchange business cards and to "put faces" to voices or emails. They also exchange information and gossip about an industry group, about upcoming vacancies and other insider information. It can even be information about the elites and about malpractice. It can heighten awareness about discrimination in the workplace.
I'd rather see the new forms of networking, the open upfront versions, as an expression of egalitarian reaction and an attempt to compete with the impregnable networks of privilege gained through birth, exclusive connection and wealth – a reaction to what is perceived to be the growing evidence of insidious privilege in Australia.
FRUITS IN SUITS: Of the hundreds of new networks, Fruits in Suits, is a wonderful example – formed and publicly advertised by what were previously seen as "out groups".
The advertising for Fruits in Suits says "monthly networking after work for gays and lesbians within the business community. Held the 3rd Thursday of each month at different locations on the Southside. The emphasis is on providing a friendly environment for business & social networking."
And I love the Gay and Lesbian Police Employees Network that also advertises itself in a similar manner.
The remarkable Sydney facilitator and woman-about-town Virginia Gordon told me that if you want to network, the two best places to show up (using your special qualities, guile or money, or in some cases just by being interested) are the zoo or the arts support organisations. Business and politics and power, she says, meet at the zoo and at the arts.
PRIVILEGE IS BAD FOR THE ECONOMY, STUPID: "Business development consultant Mark Holden yesterday said large company collapses were often associated with old hierarchical board structures. ‘They are usually very blokey, old-school-tie, old-boys' networks with few women,' he said." – Paul Robinson, The Age, May 23, 2003.
To be opposed to privilege is not simply a soppy idealistic political position. It is a fundamental for an effective and vital economy. Simply put, privilege screws things up. Privilege is bad for the market economy because it ultimately means that incompetent people get the jobs, incompetent people get the contracts and the wrong people get to allocate financial and other resources and manage the resources.
That's what's wrong with corruption, also. It is not about "morals": it's bad for the workings of the economy and society. Incompetents become doctors and engineers and generals. The bridges falls down; the penicillin is diluted; we lose the battle. Businesses go broke, shareholders lose their money.
Educational privilege, favoritism, nepotism (let's leave aside small family businesses such as the Murdochs – don't get me started) mean that it is likely that a dumb person will get the job over a smarter person. That's the fact of the matter. Privilege is a tax on the rest of the economy.
Oh, another thing, I happen to believe that community schooling and the absence of privilege make for better civic life.
O LAWSON: "... There'll be higher education for the toilin' starvin' clown,
An' the rich an' educated shall be educated down;
An' we all will meet amidships on this stout old earthly craft,
An' there won't be any friction 'twixt the classes fore-'n'-aft.
We'll be brothers, fore-'n'-aft!
Yes, an' sisters, fore-'n'-aft!
When people work together, there ain't no fore-'n'-aft."
– For'ard, Henry Lawson
Why do I still cry when I read Lawson? ♦