Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Success and Meritocracy: Individual Effort vs. Socio-cultural World

For the public embarassment of Jamie Rochfort. You're awesome, mate.
Check out his website at rochieinchina.com

Life cannot happen in a vacuum. Success, whatever that is, requires a synthesis of a student’s individual responsibility and effort, consideration of their socio-cultural background and present, and most importantly a focus on who that person wants to become: what they consider success.

The education system offers individuals ‘equal opportunity for social mobility based on merit,’ by being a free, secular and compulsory vehicle to such success. Minds like Ken Robinson, Jeremy Rifkin, and the education department of every country world agree that it is failing.

The institution of education constrains or rewards students based on its inherent socially constructed economic and cultural/class-based assumptions and judgments. The greatest of these is the ‘popular discourse’ itself, which a) calls ‘academic ability’ success and elevates it, b) suggests that individual effort is the means to achieve it, and c) if the student is gifted in other ways, values different things – individually, socially or culturally – then that student is worth less than the academic prodigy with the O.P. 1.

The institution of education is obsolete. As Ken Robinson argues, it was created to meet the needs of the industrial revolution, shaped primarily by liberalism and capitalism, and so places emphasis, at the exclusion of everything else, on the kinds of academic ability and disciplines that were useful for work in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In Australia, most of what Henry calls the middle/ruling class value more highly those traits of individualism and competitiveness that better enable them to achieve ‘academic success.’ The fact that these people have most of the wealth – financial capital – and that they are mostly white, and part of the dominant culture, suggest that they have formed generational belief structures which remain because they work. At the other end of the spectrum are the ‘working-class’ and ‘ethnic’ families, who generally value community, family, and practical work. The majority of people who will control the cultural and economic capital of the future, such as teachers, doctors, civic and business leaders, come from the former background, and so perpetuate the paradigm, and are inclined to impose their constructed beliefs in individualism and competitiveness onto everyone, potentially prejudicially and ignorantly, and often to their detriment. This trend is growing. Surveys conducted in the 1992 International Social Science Survey and the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes indicate that the current paradigm of academic intelligence is still dominating the distribution of rewards. The risk here is that we end up with a class system that is less mobile than the one before it. The new upper class, the educated, pass on privileges to their children, as before. But with dwindling jobs for the less skilled, and still more restricted through ‘unnecessary credentialism,’ it is harder for the under-privileged to haul themselves up.

Worse, those at the top believe that they deserve their privileges, making them more arrogant than the old upper class who realised that they were there partly or entirely through luck and/or their exploitation of other people.

That said, however, in the end it is all about the individual experience of life. Success should not be defined as a high I.Q., O.P., or graduating at the top of the class. I have an I.Q. of 134 but an O.P. of 12. I went to an elite private school from years 1 to 12, graduating at 16 and am now, at 25, in my first year of University. I struggle emotionally and mentally, due to a family background of trauma, abuse, suicide and poverty. My individual effort, aptitude and willingness were all outstanding, in the academic setting, but socio-cultural considerations have stunted what I used to think of as the only avenue to, and aspect of, success. I have come to see myself not as a failure, but as an individual who chose to accept the difficulties posed by my socio-cultural experience, and am taking the best path I know how – through my own effort – forward. I consider the totality of my experience of life thus far a success, because though I have high human and intellectual capital and not much else, I have actualised what I have in spite of my difficulties.

Failure should not be defined as the opposite, either. I’ve a friend who is academically useless; he failed Grade 10 and comes from a working-class, community-oriented and supportive family. He used to think himself a failure, but he now is heading up at least one English language school in China’s Tangshan province. He is married with a son (you can only have one in China, if you didn't already know) and content. Both him and I would consider ourselves a success through our individual choices and efforts and consideration of our socio-cultural realms. Circumstances don't matter, only state of being does.

Note: O.P. refers to Overall Position, the ranking system for secondary school (grade 12) graduates here in Queensland, Australia. 1 is the highest, 25 the lowest. For me, 12 was a huge achievement, considering the circumstances, but at the same time, I felt a failure for getting anything below a 4. Times change :)
Note: I.Q. refers to a formula filtered through an aptitude test that is supposed to measure academic/abstract/spatial intelligence. Scores measure on a bell curve, with 134 making me in the "smartest" 2% of people. It's really not all it's cracked up to be, and not just because academic prowess is not the be all and end all of life.

Monday, 22 October 2012

What's Wrong With Colour Blindness?

Colour blindness in the classroom is an exercise in taking standardisation and homogenisation to extremes that will never work, primarily because socio-cultural constructs and prejudices will always exist, everybody needs an identity, which their culture and race is a part of, and extremism does not work in practice, and is unhealthy.

One of the primary flaws in the idea of colour blindness in the current school environment is that, when deployed as a policy, whether it be institutional or casual or anything in between, it plays out, in practice, as a kind of polite and shallow appreciation of minority cultures, alongside a blanket ignorance of the dominant. Policies of colour blindness fail because they try to ‘level the playing field’ by truly levelling – that is, razing, it.

On this flattened field, students will play in the rubble, explore their identities, and new constructs will develop. The attitudes, human compulsions and social habits that created the constructs that colour blindness demolished are still present, and will exert themselves over the razed landscape. But these will be rudimentarily expressed in the image of the socio-cultural paradigms that stood, perhaps on the same spot, crafted from the debris strewn about, before the policy of colour blindness knocked it down.

Australia is a very 'multicultural' place. There are children and families from many hundreds of different racial and cultural backgrounds. The constructs that have developed have been stunted by the institutional red-tape-noose of colour blindness, and taken the form of a politically correct and shallow ‘appreciation’ of different foods and festivals. This does much to undermine appreciation and integration, for these reasons and because it is a primitive expression of othering. Children recognise different minority cultures but gain no knowledge or skills in integrating with them. They gain a measure of comfort with their own cultural/racial identity, because these ‘appreciation days’ construct rudimentary symbols to which they can attach. Pre-colour blindness, alongside the racial and cultural apartheids, there existed comparably well-developed opportunities for development of empathy and selfhood. These have now been lost.

The main group to suffer out there on the homogenously razed playing field are the ‘dominant’ culture. That is to say, the Anglo-European males; ‘white boys.’ Post-colour blindness, they are all too often assumed to not only have a well-established, healthy and mature culture, but also a similarly spiffy identity within, and understanding of, that culture. Which culture, by the way, does not need to be recognised because it is so dominant at the expense of all the others. White guilt, anyone? This is an assumption that is creating major developmental problems for these children, as nobody has thought to champion or craft a symbol for them to rally to, and neither actualises nor permits them to build one themselves. The Indigenous do, the Indians do, the Muslims, the Polynesians, the Christians, the Vietnamese, women, the GLBTQI and the rest, they at least have been given chance to build their symbols to identify with. However primitive such symbols may be - thanks to colour-blindness - they are better than nothing. All that the white children - boys in particular - have to identify with is ‘white trash.'