Tiger mothers and the social escalator

Observing the contrasting school experiences of the panellists on last week’s episode of Insight, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Australian ideal of a ‘fair go’ for all was all self-deception and no self-realisation.

While non-selective public schools are apparently under-resourced and blighted by underachievement, private schools and selective public schools seem to provide supportive and aspirational educational environments conducive to academic excellence.

Perceptions aside, Australia actually remains one of the most socially mobile countries in the developed world, according to a 2010 OECD report. This is consistent with a 2011 Smith Family study, which found that 29% of Australians whose father had stayed at school until Year 10 or less obtained a university degree.

Despite the relatively high level of social mobility, Australian children often go on to reproduce the socio-economic environments into which they are born. The same Smith Family report also found that 53.7% of the children with fathers who were managers and professionals become managers and professionals themselves, compared with only 27.9% of those whose fathers were operators, drivers and labourers.

However, a degree of social immobility is not necessarily cause for concern about economic opportunity. This is because social mobility is never exclusively a function of the opportunities offered by society; the values and aspirations of individuals are also crucial.

Assuming that the same material opportunities existed, a society of tiger mothers of the Amy Chau variety (‘Study hard, do well and do not date or drink’) would produce very different socio-economic outcomes from a society of Alfred Doolittles (Eliza Doolittle’s feckless father in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion).

Unsurprisingly, social capital often trumps economic capital when it comes to producing a healthy, meritocratic society. As the testimony of the students on Insight made clear, academic achievement is in large part the result of the values and aspirations of fellow students, parents and teachers, and not simply a product of the number of dollars spent on schooling.

While an austere regime of constant study and no play might seem all too onerous for children and parents alike, an emphasis on self-realisation and responsibility is arguably the best way of speeding up our social escalator.


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