Flat White

Do we overemphasise ‘smart’ ahead of ‘skilled’ or ‘practical’?

22 June 2021

6:40 PM

22 June 2021

6:40 PM

Living back in my hometown — being slightly starved of cultural content — I quickly bought tickets to Bri Lee’s discussion of her new book Who Gets To be Smart in the notoriously hippy (though today more alternative bourgeoisie) town of Byron Bay. Lee has become one of my go-to-read-across-the-aisle Australian authors. And so I eagerly purchased and read a copy before the evening. 

While her writing style is still such that I gobbled down each word, and for that, I would encourage everyone to read this book. However, the content for this former-lefty-turned-righty just seemed like one straw man after the other.

By far the most persistent straw man was the old ‘who funds you’ chestnut. 

Lee persistently dismissed the education research program at the Centre for Independent Studies as only serving vested interests, either that of the funders or of some party political apparatus. But believe me, for an idealist no amount of money can make you a mouthpiece for a cause or project you don’t believe in.  

At best, this line of argument meant that the substance of CIS research was summarily addressed, and at worse were given nefarious motives. This latter statement is best illustrated by quips like that in the epilogue that the kyriarchy — those at the top of the heap — is “best imagined as a dinner table with people like Rupert Murdoch, Tony Abbott and whoever funds the Centre for Independent Studies shovelling caviar into their mouths and occasionally vomiting so they can fit more in” or that conservatives want people to be dumb and uneducated because those people vote for rightwing parties.

As with research, money only speaks so much in education. One of the arguments often deployed by the CIS is summarised by Dr Scott Prassar as “quality and distribution of resources, not the quantity of money spent”. Lee prematurely rebukes this point as the second most stupid thing that she has ever read. 

Like the SMART Boards my public high school got but never used, money only goes so far. After certain basic needs are met, pedagogy and curriculum are far more important to a good education policy. This is why the curriculum wars have become so nasty. 

One of the best examples of how not more but flexible funding can bring up the disadvantaged in a society is that of the controversial, yet vindicated, Michaela Community School in the UK.

Another straw man built by this book is that right-wing education policy is a product of material privilege (or a private boys school education). Nothing could be further from the truth in my own case. Like the formidable Thomas Sowell who has become an authority on education policy on the right, I was not a beneficiary of privilege in terms of money but simply effective institutions that have since been eroded. A status quo bias is a reasonable disposition if you see that things, when revolutionised, don’t always get better but very often get worse. 

While everyone would agree that the evidence of private schools mishandling public money that Lee exposes should be a bipartisan issue, low-cost private schools in Australia help many receive a better education than they otherwise would. It is just unfortunate that not every student is a beneficiary. Policy wonks both left and right wish to solve this conundrum. On the centre-right policies like charter schools that attach the funding to each pupil are favoured, whereas the left tends to want to attach the funding to each school based on need in order to fix the public school system. 

The logic behind ‘school choice’ type policies that allow different types of schools to pop up and compete for students is that this is what differentiates the wheat from the pedagogical chaff. While it means that some students could find themselves in an unsuccessful experiment, surely it is better than some students to receive a better education than everyone to receive an equally terrible one, which is the result of funnelling everyone through a failing public system.

I am going to end with a point of agreement because there is one thing that this book gets very right. The question of who gets to be smart is incredibly contentious and important and prone to messy political spats. 

This is a shame because there is no issue more innate to humans — or any animal — than the care of the young which is essentially what education policy is. It is ok to be passionate about this debate – everyone is — but telling the other side of an argument that they are mere spokespeople for the “kyriarchy” rather than motivated by a desire to give Australian children the best education possible is counterproductive.

Perhaps if we would all simmer down a bit if we were as appreciative of skill and empathy as pieces of paper (or ornamental pots) from fancy universities. Lee makes this point and I wholeheartedly agree. 

I started by lamenting the lack of intellectual stimulation available in a small town. But since being back — and trying to do a van conversion — I realise how hopelessly impractical I am. I have had to rely on the practical men (and they are men) without law degrees, or so much as a high school certificate, to fix and create so much of what I need. 

For all my education I am not nearly as useful as the people who put food on the table, fix things, or can do all these things with neighbourly generosity.

Perhaps we all need to look at our values system that says that putting my child in the category of ‘cognitive elite’ is the most important thing in life rather than asking whether they would be better off or prefer to work with their hands in a skilled vocation or care for people as stay at home mums, nurses, or the very people we trust to make us smart — teachers. 

Dara Macdonald is the founder of a brand new organisation, All Minus One, and writes on Substack as The Conservative Vagabond.

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