You've got to be carefully taught

Maurie Mulheron

Someone looking at the USA of the 1950s and 1960s from the outside would have seen a deeply segregated education system with terrible social consequences. After the famous 1954 US Supreme Court decision in Brown vs Board of Education that declared segregated schools unconstitutional, bussing was used by the US government in an attempt to integrate schools.

This met with resistance in some places, “Faced with the prospect of having their children sit next to African-American children in the classroom, eat with them in the lunchroom, dress and undress in the locker room, play with them at recess, compete with them at sporting events, and (God forbid) dance with them at the prom, many white parents developed a creative response. They abandoned and then sabotaged public school systems.”*

Ironically, today in NSW we use buses (and trains, boats, automobiles and planes) to send children by road, rail, sea or air away from their local public school. While the US tried to use transport to bring children together we did the opposite. And each and every year in NSW we spend many hundreds of millions of dollars on the transport subsidy scheme.

This is on top of decades of funding to the non-government sector and the denial of resources to public schools. Politicians have championed the spurious concept of choice over the need for greater equity. Consequently, Australia has now one of the most segregated education systems on the planet with one of the highest levels of school “choice” of any OECD country. What effect is this having on the post-war dream of a democratic, multicultural Australia?

A recent paper by Dr Christina Ho, senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, and published in the Australian Review of Public Affairs, is entitled “People like us: School choice, multiculturalism and segregation in Sydney”. It provides some answers.

Referencing the work of social geographer Ash Amin, Dr Ho argues that a more tolerant community is established when we create “micro-publics”, schools and workplaces where people of all backgrounds can meet, learn, interact and work together. By creating these spaces, intercultural understanding is fostered. But the relentless promotion of school choice has consequences that are as inevitable as they are dangerous.

“Schools are becoming more segregated in terms of both class and ethnicity. More and more students are going to schools that do not represent the range of people in their neighbourhood but rather a select group. Their families have chosen to enrol them in schools where there are more ‘people like us’.”

Dr Ho argues that this has serious implications for multiculturalism and social cohesion.

Further, she warns that a look at high schools in Sydney “... reveals a highly divided education system, with some elite private schools operating as virtually mono-cultural bastions of whiteness, while public schools, including selective schools, are sometimes overwhelmingly dominated by students from language backgrounds other than English”.

Dr Ho’s work builds on previous research she and others have released. An obvious consequence is the effect of school choice on disadvantaged students. In her paper she quotes from the oft-cited 2012 OECD report Equity and Quality in Education (p. 92): “Providing full parental school choice can result in segregating students by ability, socio-economic background and generate greater inequities across education systems.”

We have certainly drifted a long way from the ideals of Sir Henry Parkes who wanted all children to attend public schools, regardless of background, so that they may sit “side by side”.

“You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” is a song from the 1949 Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. Many of the same southern US politicians who opposed the integration of schools worked to ban the song. One lawmaker even declared it a threat to the American way of life.

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your
relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be carefully taught. Bringing children from all walks of life together into a socially representative public school is a most powerful lesson about life.

* Si Kahn and Elizabeth Minnich p.130: The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy