17 October 2010

Better educated than Christopher Pearson

Christopher Pearson is a conservative, he's friends with Tony Abbott and he's none too fond of Julia Gillard. All well and good/Whatever: the content of his latest piece underlines his argument by revealing the inadequacy of his own education and his wish to spare a new generation of Australians any anguish that being wilfully ignorant might exclude them from positions of comfort and influence.

The most telling element is the use of insistence where explanation is impossible. Stalin prefaced his most tendentious ideas with "It is well known that ...", forcing his underlings to establish that premise retroactively by any means necessary. Pearson does it twice, both times when making what he seriously believes to be his most telling points:
... common sense must tell her that no country can afford a great education - as opposed to an adequate one - for all of its children and that it would be wasted on many of them anyway.
Most sensible people understand that until relatively recently, degrees were designed for a small percentage of the population who were particularly gifted. The currency of higher education is already debased and the strategies proposed by the Bradley report, which Gillard commissioned, will only make matters worse.
Nowhere does he define "great education", and if he'd had one himself (or even an "adequate" one) he must have known this is essential to engage in the sort of debate to which he fancies his ability to contribute.

Degrees have always been conferred on those with little talent and denied to those who could have made much of them; the idea that people might make good use of a degree without necessarily having come from a background where education was valued or applied well is a novel one historically, but one that has reaped great rewards for Australia in material as well as non-material ways. Getting yourself a degree in still the most substantial investment an Australian can make. His sweeping dismissal of the work of Professor Bradley is so insubstantial as to be absurd. Each of these is worth an article at least: to make such assertions and to expect that they be taken on face value is ignorant to the point of impertinence.

Those assertions, couched in bluster in the hope of not being challenged (does pointing out the truth about degrees mean you're not "sensible"? Does any sort of waste in education represent a failure of "common sense"?) go to the heart of Pearson's contention that educating as many as we can as well as we can is more trouble than it's worth. To be fair, though, his article starts badly with a clarion call of idiocy that signals its sloppiness:
FOR the past three years Julia Gillard has told us that education is her great passion. The other day, on her first overseas trip ...
Her first overseas trip? She's been out of the country well before the last few weeks. If she hadn't been overseas before a few weeks ago she'd still be Welsh.
It's arguable that someone in authority needs to check on primary schools' methods of teaching children to read, for fear that instructors still wedded to the discredited "whole word" approach are condemning thousands more youngsters to functional illiteracy.
I come from a family of teachers, and most of them adopt the "whatever works" approach: whole word, syl-lab-les, whatever it takes to get the class on the same page (so to speak). This is culture war at its most flatulent. Where are the right-wing males stepping up to teach primary school, rather than write press releases?
[Quoting Gillard] "The 40 working-class secondary schools north and west of the Yarra, including the schools in my electorate, managed only 84 between them. The students from my electorate are not any less intelligent than those from Higgins and Kooyong but their educational opportunities are not the same. Certainly this massive discrepancy would be lessened if we as a nation were prepared to seriously tackle the inequality of opportunity that exists in our education system and create a high class state school system."

Admittedly the speech was made in 1998, when she was still a Fabian and Jeff Kennett was in power. Some axe-grinding would have been expected of the new member for Lalor.

But I don't think it's anachronistic to note that, for someone interested in education, she was strangely silent on how the state system might have been improved. She had nothing to say about the urgent need for some selective schools in Melbourne's western suburbs, nor about raising the standard of teachers' professional attainments. She said nothing about rewarding the best teachers and encouraging them to stay in the classroom, let alone the contentious issue of giving principals more authority to determine which teachers taught what in their schools.

When did Gillard change her tune on the educational reforms that now enjoy a fair degree of bipartisan support?
It is hard to accuse her of changing her tune when her previous tune was silence.
I can't think of any other prime minister or Labor leader who has written so little and so pointedly declined to participate in the battle of ideas. (Paul Keating may not have been especially literate but he had considered views on policy and had the sense to employ Don Watson as his speechwriter.)
Not on education, he didn't. Simon Crean was not much chop on this front either. Labor leaders who offer anything other than platitudes on education are the rule, not the exception.

Having failed to get his facts straight, Pearson lurches straight into snobbery:
For an educated person, it has been a decidedly one-dimensional transformation. She's a self-confessed bogan: a philistine who doesn't participate in any aspect of high culture and whose reading tastes are, at best, middlebrow.

In March she told The Australian Literary Review her most recently read nonfiction work was Drew Westen's The Political Brain and her favourite was Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree. I guess the bookshelves in her Altona home were almost as bare as the fruit bowl.
Leave out the bitchy final sentence and that could be the sort of thing John Howard would have read, which of course would have made him an ordinary fellow in touch with ordinary people.

Following that is the odious begging of questions discussed earlier, interspersed with this:
To pretend otherwise is to pander to people's fantasies about their children's futures and to class envy about how their own lives might have been had they had more equal opportunity in their younger days.
Firstly, parents drive education policy in any democracy. Second, Pearson's political upbringing on the left is showing in his assumption that politics drives social mobility, when it's the other way around.

In pre-democratic Europe, the church and the military had monopolies on education: ploughboys became cardinals, tradesmen's sons became admirals. The coming of the industrial age required everyone to have the sort of education once reserved for church and military. Once people could read their Bibles, newspapers and other tracts they demanded, and got, political rights. All well-functioning organisations need people from a mix of backgrounds and educational experiences.

It isn't class envy that makes people value education, or resent it being wasted on oafs (oaves?) like Christopher Pearson. From such a position, what could one make of Chifley's comment that "I'd rather have had Mr Menzies' education than a million pounds"?

Pearson's final paragraph is a sorry drizzle of piss and a relieving end to this nonsense. It's all too hard, my girl, don't even try. However pleasing it might be for those who can't stand Gillard and Labor, the fact is that such verbal flatulence cannot help the country nor individuals within it address their own future with any real hope for success. This reactionary approach, airy complacency hiding a steely reverse-envy, has nothing to offer in terms of protecting those who share his view, and encourages opponents through its sheer vacuity.


  1. The PM may well be trying to clothe herself in a bogan image, but as an Adelaidean Pearson should know she grew up in Mitcham (a wealthy, leafy suburb roughly similar to, say, Prahran or Brookvale) and went to Unley High School, one of Adelaide's top public schools, the sort of school people move near so they will be in its catchment area).

    That raises questions about the PM's authenticity, but makes Pearson's snobbery even worse.

  2. I don't think it does raise questions about the PM's authenticity. It probably says that SA has (or had) a better school system than Victoria, although the fact that Pearson is a crow-eater probably negates that.

  3. David Irving (no relation)24/10/10 6:47 pm

    David Jackmanson, the area Gillard grew up in was a working-class suburb 40 years ago. It's subsequently been gentrified.

    My best mate Ian is about 10 years older than Gillard and also went to Unley High School. He's a well-educated and highly intelligent man who describes himself as white trash.

    Please get your facts straight in future.

  4. Is your piece satirical?
    Between the ad homenim ramblings and the poor logic I'm not sure whether you're satirising poor education or genuinely a victim of it.
    This sensence sums it up for me: Labor leaders who offer anything other than platitudes on education are the rule, not the exception. Your tone and positioning suggest you think you're saying that Labour leaders usually have poor education policy, but you've actually said the opposite.

  5. Neither: I meant that Labor (sp.) leaders generally have poor education policy, and I disagreed that Keating was an exception. You've tried to read something else into it ('tone and positioning' - good luck quantifying that) and failed. Then you expect to be taken seriously with statements like 'ad homenim ramblings and the poor logic' - no wonder you're not sure about what people say to you. Please look up a definition of 'satire', which does not mean: something longer than a tweet which I, Moz, find confusing.

  6. David Irving (no relation)27/10/10 11:08 pm

    David Jackmanson should also be reminded that, 40 years ago, Prahran was a slum. (I recall staying with some hippies there when we went to Melbourne to see Pink Floyd in about 1970.)

  7. 'It probably says that SA has (or had) a better school system than Victoria, although the fact that Pearson is a crow-eater probably negates that.'

    Nope -- born in Sydney, didn't come to Adders till he was twelve or thereabouts. Also, private school, what can I say.