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Australia the clever country? Hah!

By Peter West - posted Friday, 26 August 2005

Brendan Nelson, Federal Minister for Education, complains that education is different today than it was in our day. Yes, Brendan - you’re right. It’s quite different. Let me count the ways.

Most of us baby-boomers respected our teachers. At a Catholic primary school, we had the Sisters of St Joseph. The nuns were never seen to eat, and seldom laughed or did anything remotely human. They lived in those brown habits all day and night, as far as we knew. They had that air of iron-clad authority. I seem to recall that our class had more than 60 kids in one room. We looked at those nuns with awe. When we boys went to the Marist Brothers, Mum told us, “Those men gave up their lives to teach you”. God help us if we didn’t give them due respect. If we were caned without due cause - tough. We put up with it.

We knew we didn’t know much. The nuns and brothers sure helped us think we didn’t. But we wanted to learn. We learned that there were thousands of years of the Catholic faith, and thousands of martyrs bleeding all over the place who had been beaten and bashed and stoned to death. They had suffered all their lives so we could go to a school and get a good education. We learned about Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. We knew what it meant to be Australian and we were proud of it.


When we went to Sydney University, we felt we had hit the jackpot. Little kids from the suburbs going to uni! There was no other uni that we had heard of, except maybe Oxford and Cambridge. Some of our academic teachers were a touch eccentric. Germaine Greer would look around the Great Hall and stare people in the face, just to see how long people could do it before they had to look away. One of our English lecturers always seemed to have egg on his tie. No doubt some of these fellows were refugees from Oxford or Cambridge. But my God did we respect them! They were teaching us a body of knowledge; how Henry VIII began the English Reformation; why Napoleon was a great man and why he overreached himself; why some novels have more insights than others; how people made decisions and had to live with the consequences. An education was a tremendous privilege and boy were we lucky to get one!

How different it is today. Where should I start?

Kids today don’t know they are ignorant. They know it all already. A teacher I know announced the class was going to study Captain James Cook. Back came the answer, “He stole our land”. Let’s not even begin on that one, but I suspect that James Cook and Captain Arthur Philip could have been confused here.

Our teachers wanted to inform us, to teach the canon, the best that has been thought and known. That has now been challenged - it’s Eurocentric; it is too much about men; it excludes women and Aborigines; and so on. It’s all right for people to challenge it but only if they are informed. An informed critique of our history, such as Henry Reynolds' studies of the wars between Aborigines and whites, corrects and enriches our understanding of Australian history. But too often, people criticise out of ignorance. In rejecting traditional approaches, too often today young people are rejecting a precious heritage. And replacing it with - what? A few half-baked notions of what is fashionable. And so kids start and end with ignorance.

Respect for teachers has almost disappeared. Another teacher friend was persistently trying to make the kids work. One child complained, “You’re a pain in the butt”. Making children learn is not a fashionable idea. A mother told the same teacher, “I said to my kids that they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to”. Exactly. Everybody should do whatever they want. It sounds like a good idea, especially if you are ignorant and get your opinions from commercial TV every night.

Progressive education blossoms in schools, particularly state schools. Where the teacher unions are strong, it’s all about teaching “social justice”. Who could be against social justice, unless he were Adolf Hitler? The problem is, “social justice” means paying due attention to fashionable causes, such as women’s history or whatever else is in vogue. But you can’t make a career out of women’s history, unless you become an academic. And it’s hardly a well-paid career these days and there’s not a huge demand for it.


Traditional education has become the preserve of grammar schools and the coaching colleges that are mushrooming in the suburbs. They don’t have time for fashionable causes. It’s back to rote learning and learning the facts. These have many limitations; but at least kids are learning something. Even Bach and Mozart had to rote-learn musical basics before they began to compose. You can’t fast-forward a sound education.

Worst of all, too many kids today don’t want to learn. This attitude runs through our education system from about 2nd or 3rd grade to university level. “Hello, little boy”, said a teacher friend. “Did you come to school so you could read?” “No”, came the answer, “Only poofters read. That’s what my Dad says.”

We too easily give kids the idea that learning is drudgery. We will reward them with something wonderful - a day off school, some Ka Ka Donuts, or an outing to Maccas. After some controversy in another university, a professor’s classes were cancelled until further notice. I asked my university students what they would say if my classes were cancelled. Most of the students seemed pleased at the idea. If I have a video that doesn’t work, or something prevents the planned lesson happening- students say with a smile, “Oh, now we can go home”. Any excuse will do. If I make the mistake of asking a tutorial “What do you want to do today?” the answer is always the same. “Go home”. Students are certainly paying too much for their education, but I worry they still don’t value what they are getting.

We grew up with the Vietnam War. Governments wanted to conscript me and all the young males of my generation. What did we do? We held long seminars, we had conferences, we read and studied until we could understand the war and US foreign policy. Today we have another war in which the US has persuaded Australia to join. Where are all the seminars and conferences?

The learned professor at Macquarie is right. It’s the Asians and foreign students who are most desperate to learn. Many of them have come here from poorer countries in which an education at any level is a huge privilege. They have enormous respect for schoolteachers and university tutors, however lowly their status in Australia. But sending them back to their country of origin isn’t the answer. We must educate our students to think like they do.

Yes, Brendan, education has changed. The more I find out about Australian education, the more anxious I am about our future. “Australia, the clever country?” I wish I could believe it.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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