Wednesday, 7 August 2013

How white are you, how close to the centre of the city?

I have spent some of the last day or so working through some interviews I did last year with history teachers and  - mostly from curiosity, though perhaps there is no real distinction between research and curiosity - have been putting what teachers have said about their students against data available in a My School search.

I'm not about to embark on a new career as a sociologist of education, but every time I use the My School website (which is not the proper way to do it - were I doing a full study of schools I'd apply to ACARA properly) I am struck by the ways education and socio-economic advantage map so readily to one another. And this time - because our social inclusion work is increasingly focused to regional Australia, the way it is also about both race and distance from the metropole.

Being a historian and spending so much time with the linearity of language seems to have sapped all my ability to think spatially, but there must be some sort of diagram with quadrants of ethnicity and distance from Centrepoint tower or... OK, lets forget the diagram. But all the evidence points to the more anglo you are and the closer to the centre of the city, the easier you will find it to access educational and professional advantage. It creates a complex set of relations between class, wealth and ethnicity that is not easy to untangle, for (very crudely and generalised) a white person away from the city might have less advantages that a not-white person close to the middle - but certainly fewer (in general, statistically, that is) than a not-white person 'remote' to Sydney - and their remote designation tells us a whole lot about the way words and ideas and material reality work together, too.

Seeing the numbers, looking at the results and putting them against the stories teachers were telling me put knots in my stomach and tears in my eyes at the unfairness of it all - that such uncontrollable things in your life, like where you live in Australia and your ethnicity will make it easier or harder to reach your goals - or even to set them.

We know what this means for inequality, but what does it mean for history? In some ways the question, compared to the consequences and symptoms of disadvantage, seems trivial. But we also know that being able to place yourself in the story of humanity and the nation is what enables you to take you your place a citizen, with all the things that citizenship offers yourself and the world.

So when teachers from these schools tell me that they couldn't 'take for granted' the things they had expected their students to know or be able to do, that also tells me NOT that they are bad teachers - history teachers are AMAZING - but that the way we think about history itself has biases built into it. History in school and university, often also in books and on TV I reckon, in Australia does NOT imagine its audience, its authors, its essay writers, students to be the students these teachers are working with - if it did, there would be a different set of assumed knowledge, another set of skills valued, a different narrative to tell the world and oneself. This is not (only) about school curricula but is mostly about what we think of as historical merit.

There are so many implications it is hard to pick the most important one and this probably is not it. But the concern that has been driving some of this is that if HISTORIANS are a fairly homogenous group, picked out because 'merit' has something to do with where you live, the colour of your skin, the language you speak at home, the types of conversations at your dinner table - what does THAT do to the story of humanity and the nation that historians are tasked with telling?

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