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Essay

Welcome back Bakunin - Life chances in Australia: some notes of discomfort

The first topic for consideration today is this: will it be feasible for the working masses to know complete emancipation as long as the education available to those masses continues to be inferior to that bestowed upon the bourgeois, or, in more general terms, as long as there exists any class, be it numerous or otherwise, which, by virtue of birth, is entitled to a superior education and a more complete instruction?

Does not the question answer itself?

– Mikhail Bakunin, anarchist, "Equality in Education", Egalité, July 31, 1869

[For "masses" read Australian children without financial or social access to elite schools and for "bourgeois" read those who have]

Answer: Does the question answer itself? Well, Mikhail, not quite, but yes. Well, YES.

 

BEGINNINGS: I BEGAN this essay as an exploration of what I call the "new networking" – the conscious seeking of advantageous connection – as a pathway for enhancing "life chances". But this led me back to older matters now almost unspoken, matters of egalitarianism and the fair go.

 

SOME CONTEMPORARY AUSTRALIAN sayings: I have written down some comments made to me recently by Australians about the nature of contemporary egalitarianism: It's not what you know but who you know (the most common saying about these matters that I came across)

Creating a level playing field

Insider trading, and "insider everything"

We got her into a good school

He went to a good school

Not in the loop

She's a good networker

She's an operator

Jack's as good as his master (now seldom heard)

And endless references to "the fair go". When did a fair-go society ever exist here? It probably did for a while after the cultural revolution of the 1960s-70s with feminism and gay liberation, awareness of indigenous disadvantage and other new awarenesses about the discrimination inherent in Australia. The fair go certainly did not exist before, regardless of much current dreaming of the time in the past when Australia was decent and believed in the fair go.

 

A YOUTHFUL PLEDGE: When I was a young journalist in Wagga Wagga, I made a pledge to myself not to socialise or befriend any publisher, reviewer or editor of a literary magazine until I had published my first 10 short stories.

I wanted to have my work accepted purely because of its quality and not because I was a friend or drinking mate of editors and publishers.

It seemed an "Australian" thing to do but more than that, I wanted to know if I could write and I wanted it to be a dispassionate and impersonal judgement.

Living in Wagga Wagga in the 1960s as a D-grade journalist, I found that pledge rather easy to keep.

 

GENERAL COSGROVE: "I am the senior military officer responsible for advising the Government on the Australian Defence Forces ... on the flight back from East Timor I told a staff officer who accompanied me that I looked forward to my posting as Land Commander Australia ... the beginning of what I thought would be the culminating posting of my career, [instead] I was appointed as the Chief of the Army and then to my present position as Chief of the Defence Force." – Major-General Peter Cosgrove speaking to the Sydney Institute last year.

General Cosgrove's words interested me. He seems to come from a tradition that does not seek promotion and, in fact, unless he is being modest, he does not even speculate on his possible promotions.

Throughout history, even in politics, this has been a traditional position: "I have never sought any office." Even if it is sometimes not strictly true, it is interesting that it is seen as a virtuous position. However, there is a tradition as old as this – and it may lead to more success – whereby a person seeks promotion and actively pursues it. Sometimes in our culture this person is called, disdainfully, a "self-seeker".

But the passive position implies a trust in "those above" to select the right person – that is, us. The tradition probably comes out of a belief in fate or destiny or divine order, and a belief in the fairness and judgement of our masters.

FORTUITOUS MEETINGS: "It was, admitted the head of Cranbrook's Old Boys' Union, a very fortuitous meeting. At a dinner organised in New York for US-based Old Cranbrookians, Sinclair Schofield (class of 1991) met Adam Bryan (class of 1983). Shortly afterwards, Schofield was headhunted to the Boston-based financial firm where Bryan was a senior partner."– Frank Walker, SundayLife, July 22, 2001

Cranbrook is an elite Protestant school in Sydney.

"Two lawyers, Warren Scott and Peter Noble, are visiting one of Australia's biggest companies, a household name. They are pitching for the company's corporate legal business. Scott and Noble are from Coudert Brothers, the US-based international law firm ... At the end of their sales pitch, the senior executive looks at Noble and says, 'That's a Joey's tie, isn't it?' Noble replies, 'It is.' The executive then turns to Scott and says, 'Warren, you've got the job'."– Paul Sheehan, the (sydney) magazine, November 26, 2003

Joey's is the nickname of St Joseph's College, an elite Catholic school in Sydney. I was interested in the coy protectiveness of not mentioning the company with the "household name".

On the face of it these anecdotes feel to me almost like a crime. But then, I'm hypersensitive.

 

NOT SO FORTUITOUS: Jodee Rich of One.Tel was a Cranbrook classmate of Rodney Adler of HIH. Adler introduced Cranbrook old boy James Packer and Packer put millions into One.Tel. It was a financial disaster. The path of privileged networks doesn't always run smooth (see PRIVILEGE IS BAD FOR THE ECONOMY, STUPID below).

It could also be that old school networks in life are slowly superseded by or evolve into or lead into talent/power networks where one's school recedes as a passport, becomes invisible, becomes the hidden platform upon which everything else rests.

 

WEBER 101 – "LIFE CHANCES": It was time to go back to Max Weber (1864-1920) the economist and sociologist. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Routledge Classics) Weber discussed the impact of parties, class and status groups on what he called "life chances".

"All communities are arranged in a manner that goods, tangible and intangible, symbolic and material are distributed. Such a distribution is always unequal and necessarily involves power. Classes, status groups and parties are phenomena of the distribution of power within a community.

"Status groups make up the social order, classes the economic order, and parties the legal/political order. Each order affects and is affected by the other. Unlike classes, status groups ... are determined by the distribution of social honour. A specific style of life is shared by a status group and the group itself is defined by those with whom one has social intercourse. People from different economic classes may be members of the same status group, if they share the same specific style of life. Criteria for entry into a status group may take forms such as the sharing of kinship groups or certain levels of education."

Having reached this point in my notes, my thinking went off to the elite private schools as status groups, membership of which is given to children by their parents.

 

WHO'S WHO IN Australia: How many people are really hurt, and in what ways, by having a discriminatory educational system? It is difficult to quantify the damage done to individuals because of educational discrimination – those left behind, the discouraged, the give-ups, the excluded – or the individual suffering, let alone the suffering and waste of misgoverned companies and resources. But I think we have to assume that there is personal, social and economic damage being done by educational discrimination.

In her classic study of privilege in Australia, Journeyings (Melbourne University Press, 1993), Professor Janet McCalman, head of the University of Melbourne's Department of History and Philosophy of Science, analysed where those in the Australian Who's Who 1988 went to school – the leaders in business, professions and politics. The older private schools dominate. Melbourne's Scotch College predominates. Who's Who, of course, reflects the outcome of the past 50 years.

If this is a true reflection of the spread of talent in the upper reaches of our society and not a result only of privileged networks – fair enough. If it is not, we are in real trouble as a society. Again, it could be that those who control Who's Who went to private schools. Maybe Scotch.

 

ARE KIDS AWARE of the existence of privilege? (You bet they are): A public school English teacher who chose to work in "front line" high schools (that is, in disadvantaged schools) told me that her students often asked her where she sent her children to school. She was able to answer that she sent her son to a public high school. She doesn't know what would've happened had she told them he went to an exclusive private school.

The same teacher said that going to a public school isn't always a disadvantage. She is able to put out twowheeled-garbage bins when the limit is one because her son, who went to the local high school, "knows all the boys who work on the garbage truck".

 

VERY BRIGHT KIDS will always succeed: There is a general belief that the very bright and talented kids will always find a way to the top (why then bother sending bright and talented kids to elite schools? They would do just as well at poor public schools? Yeeeah, right!) Anyhow, it is not only the bright and talented that we should care about. Isn't it really about "from each according to their talents"?

And bright and talented students who have educational handicaps will take longer to gain their speed and find their place.

O WHITMAN: "Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruit in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men and their beliefs – in religion, literature, colleges and schools."– Walt Whitman.

 

OF COURSE THE battle about all this is long over: These are not political issues anymore in Australia. The early battles for our aspirant egalitarian society were lost from the beginning when we permitted church schools and then gave government aid to church and private schools, and with the unspoken and undebated social authorisation of superior schools (along with hospitals and legal services) for the rich and inferior schools for the poor.

That it is no longer on the political agenda is well illustrated by how antique my quotations in support of egalitarianism are – Lawson, Whitman and, heavens, Bakunin (welcome back, Bakunin). As you can tell, I love them all for their antique lustre and their uncomfortable truths.

No longer do we hear of the level playing field for all children, an equal start in life, at least as equal as the decent human mind can fashion.

We will not hear about this battle again until it has serious social and economic impact and becomes a really nasty source of social friction and revulsion. Or more likely at first, some parents may take a state government to court for damages for providing an "inferior education" or may take a private school to court for unjust exclusion. We call as a witness: Mikhail Bakunin.

 

PRIVATE SCHOOLS AS the king status groups: The alumni of the older or elite private schools are almost certainly the primary status groups – or networks – in Australia, perceived to be the most effective and certainly the most easily identified. Certain old selective public schools also tend to mimic some of the features of the older private schools, especially in their use of alumni.

"Getting your child into" one of the elite private schools ensures that the child is given entry to a status group from which to gain superior life chances. This status group is composed not only of the student's peer group but also the teachers and the specialist talents that are employed by the school (musicians, athletes and so on), and, most importantly, the senior alumni.

There are other non-elite private schools – commercial, ethnic, church, experimental – outside the government-school system that are often without status and sometimes not very well funded or resourced. Some of the non-elite Catholic schools might be seen as disadvantaged (Catholic education is controlled by different orders of different status and resources).

The growth of fundamentalist church schools worries me too. In fact, the involvement of religion in schooling, generally, worries me. What has preached religion, as distinct from the study of religion, got to with education? Don't get me started.

At present, about 70 per cent of school students are in public schools (or what I would prefer to call community schools but won't), about 20 per cent in Catholic schools and about 10 per cent in other private schools. For more refined analysis all statistics have to be looked at state level where there are interesting variations – in Victoria the percentage of students in private schools is now 40 per cent. Spending per student in 2001 in public schools was $7633, in non-Catholic private schools $9927 and in Catholic schools $6740.

Back in the mid-1970s, public schools enrolled nearly 80 per cent of students. But since then, all the growth in enrolments has been in private schools (and this has also happened in some other Western societies). JK Galbraith has described the rush to the private schools as "the revolt of the rich" in affluent industrial societies against the standard of public schools. The elite private schools in turn had to dramatically expand and extend their schools (and boathouses, and private playing fields) to accommodate the new wave.

Some of my friends sent their children to old private schools because they themselves had gone to the schools. Others who had gone to public schools sent their children to private schools hoping to give their children every advantage and every privilege even if they had misgivings, feeling that they were betraying egalitarianism (some of the parents who had been to private schools also worry about this). And I know some of the public school educated parents argued and worried about this decision for years and were silently guilty and also quietly thrilled and relieved that they had gained sufficient status and wealth to get their children into elite private schools.

It is understandable that my generation – the well-off part of it anyhow – sent their children to private schools hoping to give them every advantage and every privilege even if they themselves went to state schools and even if they had misgivings. To do otherwise under contemporary conditions would have been to fall for the fallacy that individual decisions in this case will not change anything.

The decision to choose a private school over a public school was made partly because of a perception that the public schools have been allowed by governments to run down and that the backing of private wealth on top of government aid has given the private schools the educational advantage. After a massive burst of funding in both public and private schools in the '70s, the spending on private schools has gradually increased, along with the disparity. The public schools are sometimes, in some states, also saddled with bad bureaucracy and some anti-educational union practices (it is difficult to sack a poor teacher, for example) and, unbelievably, inadequate basic maintenance.

Some parents made the decision because they thought the old private schools gave a better academic education, generally speaking this meant better HSC results. This is a complicated statistical issue. On crude figures the selective public schools and some other public schools score highly along with the elite private schools in the 'top ten' HSC results but this has to do with the sheer numbers sitting the HSC from public schools. The HSC has come to loom so grotesquely in our educational system this is the central thing that private schools have to sell. Student performance is complicated and difficult to reduce to single figures or to statistics at all – education is more than the passing of examinations and this essay is about privilege, about whether we are doing enough to give all children the best education that the human mind can devise.

Some chose private schools for a fuller education, a wider curriculum, for the superior extra-curricular activities, richer horizons, and for more life options. Successful alumni from elite schools privilege their old schools by going back as role models and as "resources" for the students. Unsuccessful alumni are not invited back.

Others say these schools give the child "spiritual values", or ethics and morality yeaaah, right – such as those shown by the leaders of One.Tel and HIH Insurance Group, such as those shown by conservative Christians who teach that gays are a human out-group who can't be bishops and that women can't preach or be bishops – those sorts of spiritual values. I am not going to mention pedophilia or the efforts of the church schools to suppress information and to thwart court action against them.

I nearly forgot school tradition: perhaps better called "a sense of entitlement". The fundamental spiritual value that all elite private schools teach without having to utter a word – a sense of superiority and privilege. A conversation was reported to me of a father questioning the headmistress of an elite private school in Sydney. The father asked if there were girls other than Anglo-Christians at the school, and the headmistress replied, 'Most of our girls come from the North Shore line but I believe there are a few from the Upper Epping Line.' These are Sydney train lines and for Upper Epping read a different socio-economic group probably not Anglo-Christians.

Snob value probably drives some parent choices. Not so long ago, the private schools turned out children with a distinct Anglo accent. The principal of one of these schools told me recently that they now discouraged this and did not teach "elocution", but there is still something of a private-school accent. Finally, there is hard evidence that the alumni of elite private schools have a grossly disproportionate hold on power and privilege.

One assumes that the parents who worried about their decision to send their children to private schools explained it all to their children and quoted Weber and Whitman. And of course, for some children, the private-school education is as pointless as an expensive watch.

The key point to this essay is that for an elite group in Australian society it is not only the HSC pass but the school that you went to that matters, and may matter more. The school you went to is part of your HSC pass. In the revolt of the rich there is no one to blame – the parents are not to blame, they were doing their best for their children as they saw it, and certainly not the children who ultimately had little say or judgement in the matter.

But I can't see that we can go pretending that this is a decent society which streams children according to socio-economic factors. I do not see that a small-population, richly-endowed nation state has to be arranged this way nor that it is to the advantage or well being of the society. Education is constantly evolving. Public high schools as we recognise them were established only between 1905 and 1915 – mainly for 12 to 14 year olds. Since then secondary education has been redesigned a number of times but its current form is the result of odd social currents and without true debate. The 'school of the future' must be designed differently.


From Griffith Review Edition 3: Webs of Power © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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