Bill Shorten is still thumping away about education as being the key issue for the coming election, For him it’s simply a matter of more money for schools. We have been hearing this for a long time. In the 1960s the great school, college and university building program began. Then it was about having enough buildings. Now, apparently, it is about having money for teachers, smaller classes, and so on. I’m sure there would be some limited good in flooding schools with more money, but I think Mr Shorten has lost sight of what education is about. What follows is a short version of a piece I wrote in honour of Phillip Hughes, one of the really important people in Australian education in the second half of the 20th century.
It is always possible to suggest incremental improvements to this or that aspect of any educational system. Nevertheless, I do not think that pouring money into education, setting aside how all this is to be paid for, will fix society’s problems. It is true that almost every human baby comes into life with immense potential, but not necessarily potential for good. The baby’s parents themselves, the nature and extent of their parenting, sibling order, sex, the circumstances of the time, the availability of extended family, the quality of schooling — all these factors will be important in the development of the human adult. Education cannot do everything, and should not be asked to. Indeed, schools are in danger of serving in part as therapy centres for children who are already strongly and sometimes poorly shaped when they reach school at age five.
Of course I agree that every child should have ‘effective, relevant, high-quality education’. How could one argue the reverse? But that goal comes with two major problems. The first is establishing, for a particular child, what kind of education will be relevant, effective and of high quality. The second is making it available for that child. For the moment we look at a particular child, rather than at children, we move into a new world of educational provision. Our current schools, at every level, our TAFE institutes and our universities, no matter how ingenious their provision of alternatives, are based on the ‘one size fits all’ principle. And it is plain to me, especially after twelve years in a university that prided itself on its capacity to give young people a second chance, that our educational institutions are not especially effective in what they do. There are just too many failures, too many uninterested kids, too little real learning. And that is not in any way to disparage teachers and their often Herculean efforts.
If we were to take seriously the notion that every child needs to be well educated, then we would organize education rather differently, I think. Howard Gardner, the Harvard scholar whose work has greatly affected my own thinking in this area, has said somewhere that the major advance in school education in the last thousand years has been in bringing children in out of the rain. Ideally, we would have much more knowledge than we now do about each child’s portfolio of skills and interest, and we would design a program for that child so that his/her development proceeded steadily. We would try to balance that development, so that we did not in the end produce lop-sided adults who were extraordinarily proficient in one field but quite undeveloped in others. Since we would not know what occupation that child would have we would do our best to prepare him or her for a variety of possible areas of life and work, recognising that even by late adolescence the future career path or paths might not be plain. The nature of ‘work’ and ‘career’ is also changing.
The child would still be in a school, but the school would have quite a lot more staff, both teachers and support people. It would be organized differently too. High schools might start after lunch, in recognition of the different circadian rhythms that come in adolescence. Some might be co-educational in part, but mostly single-sex in specific areas, recognizing that puberty can interfere with good learning. The desired outcome would be the development of skilled, self-confident, productive, altruistic adults who would in time be the parents of children whose development they supervised with encouraging, disinterested love. It’s not that today’s parents and our educational institutions do a bad job in this domain. In my judgment, and comparing now with the 1940s and 1950s, when I was in school, things are a lot better than they were. Every time I visit a school or a university I am encouraged by what I see, in some respects anyway.
To have a real ‘education revolution’ we would have to go past thinking of improvements to our schools, our teachers and the timetable, important though they are. We would need to start with the decision to make a new baby, the circumstances in which that baby will emerge into the world, and its likely course over its first five years. At once we face a major hurdle, because making a baby is regarded as an absolutely private matter, one in which the state ought to have no interest. And that is paradoxical, because the moment the baby is born the state moves to take notice of it. Why not start earlier? The Howard Government set up an initiative in parenting, and today there are most useful websites that are there to help new parents, if they know about them and are able to take advantage of their assistance.
But I think we are long way from a community understanding that every baby is a future adult, and that babies are not possessions, or someone to love who loves us, or achievements to justify our own lives, or warriors sent out into the world to achieve what we have so far been unable to achieve. More, it is doubtful that our community understands that those first five years represent only a little more than five per cent of the future adult’s life, but they are the most important five years of all. In fact during our own lives we will encounter our children mostly as fellow adults, not as small people dependent on us for almost everything. From this perspective we should be striving to ensure that our adult children are equipped to cope with life in a resilient, confident and helpful way, and likely to see us as special friends, rather than as ‘parents’.
This is a hard ask. Is it worth it? Australia’s prisons are vastly over-supplied with young men for whom the education system was not helpful and, in so many cases, for whom parenting was not very helpful either. The school cannot replace good parenting and, to repeat, it should not be asked to do so. Our social-welfare system consumes billions of dollars each year patching up problems whose genesis, in so many cases, can be traced to inadequate or indifferent parenting, or to the making of a baby at a most injudicious time, given the real needs of the growing infant. In my opinion, the making of a baby is arguably the most important decision we will ever make, and the consequences of that decision should be beneficial to the community in which we live.
Each of us has creative potential that is, in most cases, only poorly developed. It is true that human life is finite, and that even in a long life we will never be able to do all the things we would like to do, or have the capacity to do. To do anything well requires time and energy which will therefore not be available to undertake some other creative activity. Having said that, it seems to me that by concentrating on ensuring that high school graduates are ready for jobs, important though that is, we neglect the development of that part of us that leads to our having joy in creation, in having an art form that we can turn to when work is over, in having creative skills that lead us to others, and in possessing the right sort of self-esteem in our ability to do something creative quite well. To use the prison example again, the great majority of the young men in prison do not possess any developed creative skills at all, and have never been encouraged to develop them.
In sum, if we are to greatly improve the life chances of our children, in the next fifty years we would address the need for would-be parents to be prepared and ready to nurture the babies they create so that their child’s experience of the educational system will be productive and enjoyable. That is a huge ethical challenge, and we have hardly begun to debate it. Then we will need to recognize that the creative side of our potential is as important as the money-earning side, and that we need to develop mechanisms in our society that make it easy for children to acquire appropriate creative skills and develop them through adolescence. This too is hardly recognized at the moment.
There is, then, a long way to go. But I am not disheartened. When I left high school in 1953 only two per cent of my age-group went on to any form of further education. Today the proportion is some 60 per cent. In the 1940s and early 1950s most girls were not educated past age 15, on the ground that they would only marry and have babies. The money and energy should be devoted to boys. That is no longer the case, and the country is vastly better for it.