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Public Education: Keeping Democracy Alive

Jane Caro
Social commentator and public education advocate

A t our New Educators Conference earlier this month, we were delighted to have Jane Caro deliver the opening keynote address. An author, social commentator and staunch advocate for public education, Jane shared some words of advice and encouragement, and told us just why she is so passionate about the work you do as public educators.

I’m going to start by telling you, I am not a teacher. I have never been a teacher.

So you will be delighted to hear that, almost alone amongst the non-teachers in Australia, I’m not going to tell you what you should do in your classrooms, or what you should teach, or what you should add to the curriculum, or what you should not teach or how you should teach it – I have a very, very old-fashioned attitude: I regard you as experts at your job.

You are new educators. You thought to yourself, I’ll be a teacher. I’ll have young people and children to educate, and nothing could be more exciting than opening up young minds to the world and helping them to learn how to learn, think critically, ask questions and skill themselves up so that they can be ontributing citizens of Australia.

If any of you thought you were doing it for the holidays, you won’t last long, but certainly none of you are doing it for the money, we know that. So usually there’s an idealistic basis – a sense of vocation, a sense of wanting to do something that matters and makes a difference. When people decide they’re going to go into corporate law, they tend not to have any idealistic drive or vision; that’s why so many of them are so unhappy and, interestingly enough, often become teachers later in life. They do a Masters of Teaching in despair, because they’re sick of spending all their time making rich people richer. People look for meaning.

I want to tell you why I’m passionate about public education, why it really matters to me. And I want to go back to when public education was established all over the world, in what was basically an outgrowth of the growth of democracy.

Way back when the UK, of which we were then a dominion, decided that basically every (male) citizen could vote, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston said, “In that case, we will have to educate our masters.”

What he meant was, if everybody’s going to get a say in how the country is run, then we need an educated citizenry. We need educated voters. So the principle of public education is nothing at all to do with creating worker bees for the military-industrial complex. It is, in fact, about making democracy robust, strong, rational and evidence-based, by making the citizenry educated.

Education existed before there was universal, secular, free and compulsory education for every child, paid for by the taxpayer. Private education is the easiest thing in the world to provide, and it’s been provided ever since kings and noblemen could hire a tutor or teacher of some kind for their sons (it was usually their sons).

Religious organisations have run schools for some time. But the truth of it is, very few people got an education. And when people lord private education as something special, they know nothing of history, they know nothing of democracy, and clearly went to a private school, because if they’d gone to a public school, they’d be much better educated.

Because it is the easiest thing in the world to create a highlyeducated elite. Every tin-pot dictatorship creates a highlyeducated elite. That is no kind of a goal. What is difficult, and what is the mark of a civilised society, is a highly-educated general population. And that is what you’ve signed up to do.

Private education does not, and has never, shouldered the responsibility for the education of all children regardless of who their parents are. There is a huge difference – and I’m putting my marketing hat on here – between the ‘customers’ or ‘target audience’ of public schools and those of private schools. Public schools are primarily about children. That’s not because they’re ‘nicer’. That’s because they have a legal obligation. Every single child in Australia has a right to a place in their local public school, in their own right, as a citizen or resident of Australia. It is virtually the only right that every child has: a right to a place in their local public school.

That is why the children are the focus of public education. Because they are who you are created to serve. No child has a right to attend a private school. They either gain that right through their parents’ ability or willingness to pay fees, or they may gain it by passing some exam, or having some special talent the school wants.

Private schools, therefore, have their focus and concentration not on the children who attend the school. It’s on the parents of those children. It must be. That’s just sheer marketing. It’s the parents who make the decisions, who sign the cheques, who donate to the sinking fund – it’s the parents who must be pleased and catered to.

This is something for you to be proud of. You are educators in the system which is about children and young people. The great thing about that is that it actually increases your skills. It’s not easy to just get rid of a child from a public school. If children have disadvantages of any kind – behavioural, psychological, emotional – public schools have to stick with them. And that’s how you learn to be a really good teacher.

Because it’s easy to teach the well-behaved. It’s easy to teach the motivated. It’s easy to teach the ones that come from families with high social capital and lots of books in the house. That’s downhill racing with the wind behind you and a motor on the back of your skis.

Where you get your skills is in having to struggle with the kids who don’t have those advantages. Who are harder to teach. Who do need more input, do need more of your time and more of your devotion. And by the end of it, that’s why you will be more accomplished teachers. You’re giving yourself a greater test.

However, I don’t think every child in a private school is a goody two-shoes. I don’t think that because I live on the lower north shore of Sydney, where virtually all my friends except me sent their kids to ridiculously expensive private schools. We sent ours to local public schools from kindergarten to Year 12. It was ok in kindergarten – that was regarded as only mildly neglectful. But a public high school? Basically, you were condemning them to a life of crime, drug addiction and, if they were girls, prostitution. Apparently they’re the choices for graduates from public education.

Occasionally, along the way, my daughters went out with boys who went to some of these very posh schools, so I’d get a bit of an insight into just how much of a goody two-shoes their boyfriends were. And the answer was: not at all. In fact, some of them were a really, seriously bad influence, despite the money being thrown at their education by their desperate parents.

My daughters are now 29 and 26. If you lined them up now next to the children of those friends who spent $30,000 a year sending them to high-fee schools and tried to pick out which ones went to private school and which went to public, you couldn’t.

There is no bloody difference. They’re just kids; some of them are doing well, some of them are doing not so well. That’s right across the board. I sometimes wonder, what did my friends get for the hundreds of thousands of dollars they spent? You know how you sometimes see those cars with little stickers on the back that say, ‘Riverview Mum’? Sometimes I think that’s what they got. The world’s most expensive bumper sticker.

And bragging rights at dinner parties. They could sit next to me and when they heard where my children went to school, they could think, “She’s a bad mother!”

There’s a reason these parents think this way. No-one likes to feel they’ve been conned. When you hear rumours about the school in which you teach, always remember: if the negative talk is from people who don’t send their children to your school, but send them to a feecharging school, there’s a really solid reason why they have to say your school is inferior. If you’re spending thousands of dollars a year for something you could get for virtually nothing down the road, then you have to say the school down the road is absolutely ghastly, otherwise what kind of an idiot are you?

It’s worth pointing this out to people. The talk about public education in our community, particularly by people who don’t choose it, is self-serving. It is to justify what they’re doing. And it is very damaging, and has been damaging to the children you are teaching. One of my daughters is now in her eighth year of teaching. When I asked her what advice she thought I should pass on to you, here’s what she said.

“Pace yourself. Don’t be hard on yourself. You’re learning, and that’s perfectly fine. Turn to your more senior colleagues for advice, help and support. Teaching is an incredibly emotionally demanding job. It asks of you not just your brains, not just your physical energy, but your heart and your soul. There’salways more work you could be doing and that feeling can keep you awake if you let it.”

We live in a world now which tries to tell teachers they are derelict in their duty if they don’t go the little bit extra for every child in their care. But the thing is, you’re human beings. You need to relax; you need to turn off from your workplace; you need to sleep; you need to look after your own health and your own safety. And sometimes that may mean you need to prioritise your needs ahead of your students’ needs. It’s the same lesson that feminism keeps trying to teach women about parenting: you are a better mother if sometimes you are a ‘selfish’ mother, because it means you have more energy when you return to the task of mothering.

Same with teachers. You are a better teacher if sometimes you are a ‘selfish’ teacher, because you have more energy when you return to the task of teaching. It is not about turning yourself into martyrs.

You should be proud of working in public education. You are keeping our democracy strong and alive. You are the reason it continues to operate. Lose teachers in public schools, and we lose our democracy. The two things are indivisible. This is missed by many of our politicians; they seem to believe democracy is about freedom to choose in the market. That is not what democracy is. That may be part of what democracy is, but to reduce it to that is to reduce it to some sort of economic commodity, and it’s bigger than that.

Choosing to be teachers in public schools means that you have a vision about how the world could be bigger than just an economy. You see that it is a community, a society, and that, to some extent, we all have a responsibility towards one another if we want this society to operate as effectively as it can.

I think your job in terms of what society wants from you, is to turn out people who can think. Who know how to think. How to find out, how to learn, how to be curious, how to ask questions, how to hold authority to account.

Somebody asked me the other day, “Why do our politicians seem to hate public education so much?” I said it’s because public education teaches its students to ask questions and hold authority to account, and to be critical of authority, whereas private schools teach students to be the authority.

It’s much more vital to a robust democracy that we have people who will question. Who will not just accept what they are told by the powerful. That way lies autocracy, theocracy, totalitarianism, and deep danger for all sorts of people.

Once when I was on Q&A, a young man got up and asked the panel, “I’m a young person about to go out into the world. What do you think the most important thing I could do for my community would be?” I told him to become a public school teacher. There is no more worthwhile thing you could do than to open up young minds to the world of culture, education, thought, ideas, and debate.

Be assured there are a whole lot of young people out there who will be affected by the work you do. I congratulate you on your choice.

This is an edited version of the address delivered by Jane Caro at our New Educators Conference.

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