My Brilliant Educational History

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Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 11/07/2013 - 1:25pm in

One of my tutors for this session asked us this week to reflect on how in school we were almost certainly berated by our teachers for being stupid. I can't recall that ever happening to me, although I can recall being berated for being smart.

My parents were (and are) very much children of the 50s, and terms like "validation", "self-esteem", and so on were foreign to them, as indeed they were to me until quite recently. Consequently, expressions of parental approval were mainly confined to reacting to displays of cleverness on my part. (If you know me, this will explain a lot.) So initially, I seized on school as just another opportunity to impress authority figures with how bright I was, and bask in their approval.

At about the age of ten, this congenial arrangement started to fall apart for a number of reasons. For the first time, I had a teacher (whose name mercifully escapes me) who, even to a ten year old, was clearly a buffoon. Also the satisfaction to be had from correctly completing pointless exercises was starting to wane. Although I am a remarkably vain person, being congratulated by an idiot for a wholly worthless achievement just isn't terribly motivating.

So I stopped bothering. No homework was done, save for the concoction of elaborate excuses as to why homework wasn't done. Precious little work was done in class. I became a master daydreamer. The odd thing was that this had absolutely zero effect on my academic performance. In first grade, at the age of six, I was placed in the top class, and I remained in the top class throughout primary school and high school, with one single brief blip.

If I recall correctly, it was in year nine that my reluctance to complete work became such a scandal that for one subject - chemistry - I was put down into the second highest class.

"What are you doing here, Davo?" boomed Mr. Riley as he entered class on the first day, "You don't belong here!"

Even with the self-obsessed gormlessness of a teenaged male, I knew that he was scolding me for the laziness which he held to be the sole reason I was not in the top class. However it didn't occur to me until recently that he was also sending a message to the rest of the class: "Look at this guy; he doesn't even bother to do any work and still he's better than you." No wonder I was such a popular target for playground beatings. I was put back in the top class for Chemistry the following term, after no particular show of effort on my part.

What struck me most (aside from the beatings) was the difference in the quality of education given to the top class versus the one below. There was no expectation that the kids one rung down could (or perhaps should) perform at the same level as their more privileged peers. With rare exception, no amount of disengagement could drop you from the top class, and conversely no amount of work could elevate you into it. Grading children in this way was clearly not a measure of performance, or even aptitude; it was simply a way of allocating educational resources to produce a batch of children 20% of whom were ready for higher education and/or managerial jobs, and 80% of whom were content (or at least resigned) to be manual labourers or factory fodder. I don't imagine things have changed much since the 1980s. Not for the better, anyway.

Throughout school, I was always assured that if I just kept my head down and did as I was told, the next stage would be more rewarding. Sure primary school was all rote learning and busy work, but at high school I'd be in my element. Then okay, junior high school isn't so great, but senior high school is an altogether different kettle of fish. Then, just wait till you get to university!

By the end of it I no longer entertained any thought of going to university. What's the point if I can't join Footlights and hang out with Peter Cook and the Pythons and Douglas Adams? It's the 1980s, for heaven's sake; even the best universities in Australia are little more than fancy vocational training colleges, anyway.

Later I realised that some of my peers who were hardly any less cynical than myself had done something rather clever. They'd actually learnt some of the things I'd haughtily dismissed. They'd learnt the maths and chemistry that were rapidly becoming irritating gaps in my knowledge. They'd acquired the second language that I'd started to wish I had. They knew the system wasn't what it pretended to be, but had seized something valuable from it regardless.

Twenty-five years later, I'm starting to feel that I may be approaching the level of maturity of those children. I may be, as m'colleague rightly says, on the shittiest campus of the shittiest university in the country (or near enough to it), but I'm going to see what I can do with it. To quote Douglas Adams, "It's either that or back to the dole queue on Monday".