Australia's cultural heritage: parents who despise education

I have no doubt that the writer below -- Lex Borthwick -- describes a real phenomenon but I think he oversimplifies the causes of it. In some cases students will indeed not continue with their education because their families have a contempt for it but it could also simply be family tradition that causes families to discourage further education.

My father got only as far as Grade 6 in his day and his father did not go to school at all but was taught to read and write at home.  So when I finished primary school my father thought that was enough and that I should get a job.  That was simply the world he knew.  He was however persuaded to allow me to do two years of high school -- after which I did leave and get a job.

After three years of doing various things I was however persuaded that I should complete High School --  which I did.  And from there I began evening classes at university.

So despite lack of parental encouragement I went right through the education system to Ph.D.  I had the ability so it was not difficult, even though I received no parental financial support after those first two years of High School.

So I think we should distinguish between those parents who are actively hostile to education and those who simply don't think it necessary.  My parents were in the latter category.

And I am fairly sure that actual hostility to education largely emanates from those who don't do well at it.  And almost all of those simply don't have the ability for it.  All men are NOT equal. So hostility is a cover for failure.  I don't see much remedy for that.

I was talking to my son about this, however, and he said he despises education too.  He was privately schooled -- where he always did well, has a first-class honours degree in mathematics and is a well-paid IT professional -- so he is looking through what might be called the opposite end of the telescope.  What he dislikes about the educational system is how much it is dumbed down and how much it teaches things of little usefulness.  He does not yet have children but seems likely to home-school them when he does

Many studies show parents' positive influence on their children's education, but hardly anyone will discuss the opposite: when parents stymie that education and ambition.

It's not uniquely Australian, but sentiments unsupportive of education are part of our cultural DNA. We know about our sporting heroes, but who knows about our Nobel Prize winners? And worse, who cares?

I witnessed the consequences of these educationally-destructive factors when attending rural secondary schools in the '60s, and more recently when teaching in metropolitan schools.

In 2001, aged 46, I was first-year teaching at an outer-suburban government school. Expecting a new educational era accompanying the new millennium, I discovered little had changed since my schooldays.

Attending six government schools around Victoria before accessing university, my educational progress could have been derailed but fortunately my family was educationally supportive.

I received spoken and unspoken parental encouragement to stay at school and achieve my best. Soon, I was being paid more than my father.

Many of my friends back then were not so lucky. Hating school, contemptuous of teachers, they stopped learning early. Leaving school at 15, they saw no point trying as success was impossible. They drifted through the low-skill manual labour jobs possible then but nearly gone now.

These friends' parents mostly didn't support education, inducing or forcing their children to leave school early. Through overt or covert disdain for education, these parents condemned their kids to lifetimes of low incomes or unemployment, and the consequent problems, including social disaffection, crime, alcoholism, drug addictions, and family abuse.

But most of these parents were themselves victims of their own parents, caught in cycles of negative parental influence probably stretching back several generations.

In Britain, particularly England, the membership and future of the poor was largely predetermined by the wealthy. Further education wasn't an option.

In early white Australia, kids needed hunting, riding, deforesting, fence building, cooking, laundering, children rearing, and animal care skills, not literacy and numeracy.

With urbanisation, kids left school for low income jobs to keep their family solvent, requiring only basic literacy and numeracy.

No poor kid could afford further education. Trapped in this awful cycle, many developed increasingly negative attitudes towards education and teachers. Education only constrained poor kids from surviving in the "real" world, and was for rich scumbags incapable of "real" work.

Recent reports, such as Gonski (2011) and Bracks (2016), highlight education's significance to national success. Similarly, most parents recognise education's importance to individual success, offering a reliable escape from long-term struggle.

Training, education and skill development through apprenticeships, technical colleges, teachers' colleges and universities have propelled many families into financial security. And many newly-arrived migrant families clearly recognise the transformative power of education.

So why had things not changed by 2001 when I began teaching? In the 30 years since my schooldays, libraries of books about "perfect" educational systems appeared, gaggles of politicians prattled about making Australia "smarter", and endless "band-aid" reforms whizzed by.

But there they were still, the educationally destructive factors I witnessed in the '60s, evident in every class I taught: that same parental opposition to education, at worst comprising anti-education.

Partly because of this, schools are still failure factories for many students: only one-third of my year 10 students had year 10 or above literacy skills. The remaining two-thirds were mostly between years 1-6, with some at years 7-9.

Of the one-third, most were influenced by the two-thirds' oppositional culture, so only one-tenth of that one-third consistently submitted assessment work.

Unsurprisingly, the two-thirds' parents were those who rarely attended parent/teacher interviews.

Despite expectations, a teacher's chances of changing the trajectory of these students' lives are effectively non-existent, especially when in their teens, as they came to me.

Teenagers can be intensely oppositional to any adult's opinion, so why do these kids keep their parents' negative education cycle spinning?

From first hearing their parents' voices kids absorb parental beliefs, giving years for negative inculcation before teenagehood. If non-educational parents fail to teach the pre-school basics then their kids start school behind, struggle to catch up, label themselves as stupid, lose their self-confidence, mix with similar kids, and develop behavioural problems.

This is well prior to their teens, by which time their hatred of schools, teachers and education is cemented in. The cycle is running.

Add Australia's culture of valuing sport above intellect, the upheaval caused to many kids by family dysfunction, physical or mental illness, poverty, and social disadvantage, shake or stir, and the resulting cocktail can, if even sipped, greatly diminish kids' opportunities.

Unsurprisingly, many teenagers howl in fury and frustration at the world, with school and teachers the easiest target of their pain. Some howl loudly, others in dark silence.

Teachers want to help, but can rarely win kids' trust when they're only seen a couple of times a week with 24 other kids, most with their own problems. And the teachers? By day, they act the part. But at night, their frustrations often bring tears, mental health problems, and resignation from the work they once loved.

Our work was also hindered by the Education Department and many academics persistently feeding the media with incredibly simplistic tales blaming teachers for almost everything. The real causes, however, go much deeper, culturally and psychologically.

Is this worse than my schooldays? I can't truly say, but it's of such an extent, with such awful consequences, action is clearly needed.

A few articles when year 12 results come out, highlighting a few students' success, fail to begin to counter many parents' educational opposition, or Australia's anti-intellectual culture.

It's an insult to all the kids failed by our education system, and their teachers, when we won't examine the full causes of, and solutions to, the wasted lives and potential that is another enduring part of Australian culture. This must change.


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