Archive for January 27, 2009

Dear Australian Parents,

Stop freaking out about finding the perfect school for your precious progeny. Parroting the answers to standardised tests is not a form of intelligence, and tends to impart the lesson that memorisation is more important than comprehension, let alone independent thought. Kids at their best are creative, explorative, curious . Encourage their interests, but don’t regiment them – the best way to teach is to make learning fun, not to take something they love and make it joyless. If you really want children who are bright, articulate, interesting and well-adjusted, then learn with them: buy them books you’ll read together, play with them, ask what they’d like to do and, where possible, make it happen – but don’t just farm them out to a stranger for rote-learning.  

Not every child is a Rhodes Scholar waiting to happen, and that’s OK. Encourage them to do their best, help them if they struggle, but understand that no amount of money thrown at private tutors, schools or remedial programs will make them any happier or healthier. I understand your concerns, I really do: the world is a difficult place, and especially in times of economic turmoil, it’s natural to want an advantage for those you love best. But education, sadly, has become a commodity, something we buy and sell without anywhere near enough thought as to its intrinsic value. Our society has fathomened the letter of schools, but lost their spirit. When almost everyone finishes Year 12 and a vast majority attend uni, what sets someone apart isn’t their improved marks, but their genuine hunger for knowledge. And that, assuming it can be taught, is a much more subtle lesson.

Parents, let out the collective breath you’ve been holding. Love your kids – teach them, guide them, help them – but remember: they won’t be kids forever. The more you have to force them into something, the less fun they’ll find it. And all too soon, when they shoot up into rebellious, awkward teenagers who storm out, sulk, cut class and answer back, the very best you can hope for is that they want to learn, regardless of whether everything they busy themselves with is part of the curriculum. Like gumtrees that start out in verandah pots, you’re teaching them to be bigger than the space they’ve known. You’re helping them grow up. Whether you send them to public or private school, if they have a tutor or not, it’ll happen. They’ll cease to be meek, but they will inherit the Earth.

So don’t mould them after the system. Teach them to change it.

I watched Mississippi Burning last night for the first time since school. It’s based on real events following the murder of three Civil Rights workers by the Klu Klux Klan in 1964,  and as the date flashed up onscreen, knowing what was to come, I had a series of wrenching thoughts.

First: My mother was fourteen when the killings took place. She remembers Freedom Summer, and segregation, and protest rallies. And she remembers being in Darwin as an adult – not too long, even, before I was born – and still seeing segregation between the white and Aboriginal population: on buses, in the cinema. Enforced, but unspoken. Present. And even now, in that instance, I wonder how much has changed.

Second: Men and women who were young Klan supporters in the sixties are still alive today. How many of them raised children, now adults, in their beliefs? Not long ago, they even reared their heads. I find it sharp, strange, to think of these people living and breathing on my same Earth, who aren’t part of history, but alive now. 

And, third: Barack Obama was three when these killings took place. Forty-four years after the state of Mississippi refused to try Klan members who’d murdered three civil rights activists, America elected a black man to be the forty-fourth President. There’s a certain lovely symmetry to that.

And as remembrance of these things moved through me, I looked up and thought: How far we’ve come. And then I thought: How far we’ve yet to go.

But go we shall.