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Rethinking education - Part one

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 15 April 2005


The great change in American educational policy, Howard Gardner once told me, was bringing the children in out of the rain. In the 1870s, having decided to do the same, build school buildings, and pay for teachers to teach all children, we in Australia missed the opportunity to educate Protestant and Catholic children together. In 2005 we're still grappling with the consequences.

In the 50 years of my working life, education policy hasn't changed very much. I learned quickly enough in the 1940s that children could be “bright” or “dull”. The bright ones were in the A classes, the less bright in the B classes and down you went. The uneducable were in a class called “GA”, which meant “General Activities”. I never found out what these activities were, but the kids in the GA class were often outside, which seemed pretty good to me some days when the rest of us were inside, our heads over some kind of exercise or taking part in drill.

The other quick discovery was that only a few kids were bright. Life seemed like this in other ways: only a few could draw, or paint, or play tennis well, or run fast. Certainly our schools were based on this supposition. Funnily enough, kids whose parents gave them a tennis racquet seemed better at tennis than those without such implements. Those whose parents read books turned out to be better at reading books than kids whose parents had no books at all, and so on.

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At university, in psychology, I learned that a test called the IQ test separated out the bright from the not so bright. It seemed perfectly appropriate that the bright ones were at university, learning about brightness. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which I was reading at the same time, portrayed a world in which there were five genetically ordered classes, with the bright ones, in command, being Alphas, and the dumbos, who fetched and carried, being Epsilons. It was good to be an Alpha.

I'm sending it all up a bit, but only a bit. The point of it all was being top, or on top - winning. Our schools were organised that way, and in this they only reflected the values of the broader community. I now recognise it is an essentially male phenomenon, embodying the ruling life metaphor for men - The Game - whose point is winning.

Fifty or sixty years later, I can see just how hollow all this was. I blame no one, for by and large what was done was done within what passed for knowledge. A half-century of work in education has shown me not only that it is wrong, but also how difficult it will be to change things.

In 1954 I was part of the 2 per cent of our age-group which went off to university. When I was a young academic the proportion had shot up to 10 per cent. When I was a professor it had passed 20 per cent. Today it is around 50 per cent, if you allow for the fact that some of today's cohort won't actually go to university until they are in their 20s or 30s. About 3 in every 100 Australians are at university right now, and about 3.5 million have been to university.

Take music. It's hard to be quite sure how many orchestras there were in Australia in 1950, but I'll plump for 20. Today there are around 200, along with 500 choirs, and more than 100 brass bands. Painting and drawing? No one knows how many paint or draw and sculpt or turn wood. Two estimates from people in the business range from a quarter of the population to more than half.

The sporting life? In today's Australia more than 7,000 organisations are involved in the provision of sporting and recreational activities; 750 actually administer sports. All told they earn $10 billion and employ 100,000 people, with another 200,000 plus acting as volunteers. Six in every ten Australians over eighteen claim to play a sport of some kind (walking is defined for this purpose as a sport). The Masters Games, for those of “mature age”, attract more than 11,000 people competing in 61 sports.

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Mathematics? Now that is surely reserved only for the intellectually elite. Well, actually, no. The Australian Mathematics Competition, run out of a trust at the University of Canberra, goes into two in every three high schools in Australia, and pulls in about half a million competitors each year. That makes it the largest event in Australia that is not a Federal or State election, and the largest event for which a fee is charged.

I could go on. Around seven Australians in every ten claim to read books for pleasure, and more than a thousand bookshops supply them with what they need. About eight in ten read a newspaper. While newspaper circulations are declining, the number of readers for each newspaper is much higher than it used to be.

The fact is that we Australians turn out to be educable, to be musical, artistic, sporty and curious - just about all of us. How can this be?

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First published in New Matilda on April 13, 2005. Part two can be found here.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, published in 2015, is Turning Point, the second novel in The Hogarth Trilogy.

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