Sunday, November 27, 2011

On Privilege (Education)

When you are born in a position of privilege, it can be easy to forget how much that privilege how much that privilege affects our opportunities in life. Especially if all those in your social group also benefited from the same kind of privilege that you did, it's not at all hard to fall into the trap of thinking that your experiences are normal, and that the benefits you receive are universal.

I was fortunate in a way to have been exposed to the fallacy of this assumption from a young age. At the age of five, I moved with my parents from the leafy eastern suburbs of the capital city to a country town, with a population of around about 3,000. Despite the fact that I had not even moved to a different state, the cultural differences were striking. During the half year of school that I had attended in the city, most of my classmates had, like myself, a fundamental knowledge of reading and writing taught to them by their parents before they attended school. "Problem students" - well, I suppose they existed, but I do not remember many. Most of my classmates from that school were destined to attend either a private school or one of the state's top public schools. Almost all had parents who valued education.

The school I went to once I moved into the country was a different kettle of fish altogether. While many of the students were good students from families who valued their children's education, there were also a significant number of children whose families just didn't care. These children were often disruptive in class, to the extent that many teachers had to spend more time disciplining these problem students than they did rewarding the good students. Looking back, I recall hearing the phrase "Mr So-and-so is on stress leave" more often than I really like to remember. At the time, teachers taking stress leave seemed normal to me.

The problem was not that the problem students were not intelligent. However, they didn't come from families where their parents encouraged education as much as mine did. This was obvious when I was in first grade. I was more than capable of reading the "hard" readers that we were given in class. I found them quite easy, in fact. Meanwhile, I had classmates who were struggling at the lowest level. A large amount of this difference in reading school was not native intelligence, but something far simpler: I had been reading since I was three, while most of the students who were struggling had not started learning the alphabet until they were five. In effect, I had a two years head-start on them. The "problem kids" usually came from this group of children. In retrospect, it's hard to entirely blame the children for their poor behaviour. The problem children struggle from the moment they start studying, often failing to master the basics during the allotted time. They then get forced to build on their knowledge without the proper foundation, and consequently understand less and less of what they're being taught as they go through school. If they lack a home environment where study is encouraged (as many do), then the ultimate point of school is something that is also lost on them. And who can really blame a ten year old kid for not understanding why he has to study? A ten year old has no real understanding of what's important in the future - especially when the preparation for the future conflicts with actual fun stuff like running around outside and playing football.

Yes, it was easy for me to see how my opportunities in life were greater than those of the problem kids.

There as another group of children who suffered from the number of problem kids in the town, and that was the perfectly normal kids. Quite a few of the problem kids were also quite charismatic, and with peer pressure being an important influence in children's development, many of my less problematic classmates ended up changing their behaviour to match those of the problem kids. If the problem kids could be taken out of the picture, these other kids would be fine, however with only one public school in the town, permanently removing the problem kids was not an option. It's all very well for people to say that the normal kids should have shown more character and not succumbed to peer pressure. I, for one, didn't succumb to said peer pressure, and I can tell you one thing: it sucked. I was bullied and ostracised, and spent one year largely friendless. (That was during the year when I had been placed in a class separate from my friends in previous years, with a particularly incompetent teacher who didn't even know the boiling point of water.) When given the choice between acting up and fitting in, or being well-behaved and friendless, well, I think it's perfectly reasonable for most people to choose the former.

This was a situation that I only had to deal with in primary school. Come high school, I won a scholarship to a private school, and my parents were willing and able to pay thousands of dollars every year in boarding school fees, and I got to go to a school with smaller class sizes, less disruptive students and less stressed teachers than I would have had, had I gone to the local public high school. Many of my new schoolmates were the daughters of some of the richest people in the state. Given the cost of school fees, it was obvious that none of them had come from families that neglected education. Come graduation, over half of my schoolmates attained a TER in the top 10% of the state. In my maths class, not one student received a result less than an A. Needless to say, the students at the local high school did not fare as well. True, with my school issuing out scholarships, there was a slight amount of selection bias going on, however ultimately, the largest difference between the academic performances of both schools was the environment that the students grew up in. While I feel confident that I personally would have received a good grade regardless of which school I had attended for most of my high school (I was a natural-born nerd), it would have still been harder for me had I attended the local high school, just as achieving good grades was harder for those I know who had gone to said school, when compared to those who went to the private school that I attended later.

After I came to China, I became much more keenly aware of how much I had been privileged growing up. I have a friend here from a peasant family. Her parents are both illiterate, with her father being a migrant worker. As she was growing up, her family did not have electricity, which limited the time she had to study, especially during winter. Her family's lack of education meant that they were unable to help her with her studies. Furthermore, her parents both held quite a traditional mindset, which meant that when she decided to become the first person in her village to university, she faced opposition from her parents, who thought that such education was not necessary for a girl. To her parents' credit, they started to change their minds on the matter once they started to see the advantages that her education was bringing to her life. She's now working in Beijing, using the knowledge she gained at university, and is currently entertaining a job offer with a German company.

When I compare myself to my friend, it is striking to me how much harder she has worked than I have. Yes, in a lot of ways I could be considered to have done more - I have studied more languages, I am now studying in one of China's top three universities and have been to more places than my friend has. However, all of this has come easily to me: My parents have never once spared any effort when it comes to my studies. My study here is supported by my parents, and my travel, too, is funded through spare money from my monthly allowance. So much has been given to me when compared to what has been given to her, and while I recognise that much of what I have done is an achievement, I feel unsure as to how much of it really is because of my own determination. The obstacles I have faced are of a very different nature to those of my Chinese friend, as well those who went to the rural public school that I avoided in Australia.

Ideally, the world would be such that the kind of privilege that I grew up with would be shared by all. In the absence of such a world, I want to at least draw a bit of awareness to how much privilege exists, because it is only with increased awareness that problems find solutions.

1 comment:

  1. That's one of the biggest peeves I have when it comes to kids: The number who are forced to be in school (legally), but who don't care, whose parents don't care, and who probably should be off doing an apprenticeship but are too young and so are forced to suffer through academia.

    The government is reducing funding to VCAL now, which is horrific. We'll have larger class sizes for that course in a lot of schools and some will have to scrap it altogether.

    I hate living in a place where the authorities don't value education, and particularly diversity in the education available.