The Conversation is running a series, Class in Australia, to identify, illuminate and debate its many manifestations. Here, Ken Gelder ponders whether the school you went to influences your path to cultural leadership.
On the ABC’s Q&A earlier this month, the federal ALP’s deputy leader Tanya Plibersek paid a sentimental tribute to Australia’s “attachment to egalitarianism”. It came out of wartime experiences amongst the diggers, she said, and was an “intrinsically Australian” characteristic.
But another panellist – Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service – was sceptical. “This is how we would like to see ourselves,” she said, “but I think we’re at a bit of a crossroads in [terms of] whether or not we are prepared to practise what we espouse.”
Plibersek went to Jannali Girls High School in the Sydney suburbs, where she was dux in her year. Her career path is shared by several Labor women, including Julia Gillard, who went to suburban state schools and then to university, rising through the political ranks to positions of leadership.
Pathways to political leadership
People who progress in this way can very well come to imagine – as Plibersek does – that we live in an egalitarian country, where everyone has pretty much the same opportunities.
On the other hand, Bill Shorten went to Xavier College in Melbourne, a prestigious Catholic school. Shorten’s battle with Anthony Albanese for the ALP leadership was often understood in terms of differences in class background and privilege, but Albanese went to St Mary’s Cathedral College, the oldest Catholic school in Australia. The educational backgrounds – and aspirations – of both men are remarkably similar.
Right now it seems that a well-heeled Catholic school education is indeed the pathway to political leadership. Tony Abbott attended St Ignatius’ College, Riverview, in Sydney. So did Barnaby Joyce. Its partner college in Adelaide gave Christopher Pyne his education. A surprising number of NSW Liberal politicians also turn out to be St Ignatius old boys.
No wonder the Coalition wants more independent schools: one’s educational pathway resonates for years afterwards, so much so that influential politicians can try to make the entire nation conform to the school experiences they once had.
An article in the Australian Financial Review earlier this year drew on a study by University of Melbourne economists, who suggested that, because students who attend Catholic schools are generally more advantaged, they “may have richer networks than public school graduates” and “higher payoffs in the labour market”.
The article went on to list the independent school backgrounds of Coalition and Labor ministers. It makes for fascinating reading.
Schooling cultural leaders
I wondered about successful people in the arts and humanities: what educational backgrounds do they have?
On January 26, The Guardian reported that younger British actors are increasingly coming from the “posh” public schools: Benedict Cumberbatch went to Harrow, Rachel Weisz went to St Paul’s Girls School in London, and so on.
Working-class kids struggle to get into the drama and art colleges, which are in any case held in low esteem in poorer, outlying state schools.
In Australia, we find that Cate Blanchett is a Methodist Ladies College graduate, while Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts both attended North Sydney Girls’ High School, a selective-entry school.
Russell Crowe went to Sydney Boys’ High School, another academically selective school with an extensive old boy network, which includes the director George Miller and journalist John Pilger. The late Heath Ledger went to Guildford Grammar, an independent Anglican school in Perth. Margot Robbie went to Somerset College, a non-denominational independent school on the Gold Coast.
On the other hand, Geoffrey Rush went to Everton Park State High School in the Brisbane outer suburbs, while Emily Browning went to Eltham High School in Melbourne. Chris Lilley, who scathingly parodies the private school girl as a type, went to Pymble Public School in New South Wales – and also did a stint at Barker College.
If class and education are not necessarily determinents of cultural success in Australia, they can certainly skew one’s perspective.
In his influential book The Uses of Literacy (1957), British cultural theorist Richard Hoggart talked about “scholarship boys”: bright working-class kids who gained scholarships that might take them to Oxford or Cambridge. Demographically, this is what we mean by “deviance”: when one leaves one’s family and community and ends up somewhere else altogether in terms of class and outcome.
I was a scholarship boy, sort of.
My family were lower middle class immigrants and I went to what was at the time the biggest and roughest state school in South Australia, only just scraping through. Later on, I picked up a Whitlam scholarship that took me to a suburban university. I barely attended anything until my third year in an arts degree. I went on to finish an MA, and finally got another scholarship that sent me off to a provincial university in the UK.
The idea of going to Oxford or Cambridge was as remote from me as going to the moon. Kids from state schools can be aspirational – but they have no sense of entitlement.
Australian novelist Tim Winton has written about his own, similar pathway: a working-class kid who was the only one in his family to finish school and who ended up becoming “bourgeois … by the power of the pen” (because the world of the novelist in Australia is primarily middle-class and metropolitan).
I still wonder how I managed to arrive where I am now at the University of Melbourne, an elite institution overwhelmingly populated by staff and students from the independent schools. Far from confirming some sort of egalitarian myth, it made me see first-hand how social advantage instills a sense of entitlement, one that governing classes take for granted.
The vice-chancellor of Melbourne University, Glyn Davis, went to Marist College, Kogarah, in NSW, and then shaped his career through the elite metropolitan universities.
This is a typical educational pathway for University of Melbourne leadership, and its students often reproduce it. The university’s national scholarships go to the state’s brightest kids: in 2014, typically, almost all of them went to students from independent and academically selective schools.
These are elite students who would probably go to the University of Melbourne anyway. But privilege reproduces itself, and entitlements remain in place.
The diggers Tanya Plibersek remembers may very well have shared what they had; in the meantime, so far as education, class and privilege in Australia are concerned, it is business as usual.
See the other articles in the series Class in Australia here.