Monday, 23 December 2013

Merit and equity and conferences on same

I have been all over the place, geographically speaking, since the last book-draft posting. Broken Hill, Melbourne, Brisbane, a few trips to Orange on a combination of social inclusion work, research (archives and interviews) getting advice on chapters of the book (whole swathes of the drafts posted here are now scheduled for major renovations), on some family business and going to a conference.

Just so I feel like less of a slacker (in terms of writing) when I look at Hannahland, here is the summary of the conference I attended. This summary I sent to my office colleagues, who all work in equity in higher education, which was the theme of ANZHES - 'Education for all? Access, equity and exclusivity in the history of education'. Since I am in the middle of writing a chapter on this aspect of the history of universities, it was incredibly useful.

Richard Teese spoke about the ways the Victorian state school system was envisaged as a tool for democracy but he used a great deal of longitudinal data to show the concentration of academic success in private schools and, in the public system, in high-SES students. Over time, the stratification of schooling - through streaming and establishing selective schools function to structurally give up on low-SES students while putting the best resources into the students most likely to succeed and privileging the curriculum areas that high-SES students are good at, ghettoing them away from students who are 'destined' (by SES) to succeed. This, he shows, in fact draws the whole national average down over time, so it is not only bad for the people the system fails to educate, it is also bad for the nation. Richard Teese's book is Academic Success and Social Power.

Kay Whitehead talked about the longstanding attitude of teachers to 'other peoples' children' (OPCs!) as opposed to 'people like us' (which teachers tend to be). People like us are white, good looking and the children of educated families. Using teacher diaries and school reports, she showed a consistency in teacher attitudes to OPCs and the ways these attitudes result in teaching techniques that 'sift, sort and marginalise' OPCs. On the other hand, teacher diaries of people like us talk about 'pretty children' who are 'well behaved' etc. rarely taking into account in their pedagogical strategies the circumstance that might lead some children to be empty handed and empty-headed (and perhaps empty-hearted) when they get to school. She too said that curriculum and technologies of power (including the diary, the school report, but also excel spreadsheets of student behaviour etc) helped structure disadvantage over the length of education's history.

Tanya Fitzgerald spoke about leadership myths and women in the university, describing the ways women are pushed into roles of 'compulsive institutional housekeeping'. Even at high levels, female DVCs are more likely to be in the fields considered to be humane, nurturing or 'soft' (HR etc) while 'gendered images of success' are embedded in 'hard' leadership skills owned by the VCs (who make up 82% of VCs - and there are no female VCs in Go8 universities - and in the others, women VCs all come from 'high status' disciplines). Leadership training reinforces this, teaching women to adopt masculine-like skills, perpetuating a feminine other etc. These inequalities, she argues, are clearly historically constituted, so we have to use history to show how they are made and point to ways we might undo them. Go history! Her book is Women leaders in higher education: Shattering the myths.

Kay Morris Matthews told the story of two religious institutions for children, one in Australia the other in NZ. This paper was mostly about the ethics and issues in doing research with the victims of abuse in educational settings and telling that story in a respectful way. It was pretty harrowing and, by the end as people met their school friends in a way that seemed quite healing, very touching.

Craig Campbell gave a paper on the ways schools and universities have created the middle class, consistently serving the interests of some, but not all. Sometimes this works well for some people by supporting social mobility, but not as much as the rhetoric implies. He thinks we need a really good social history of the scholarship in elite schools and in universities, for he suspects they have achieved very little in any systematic way. Craig and Helen Proctor have just published the much-awaited History of Australian Schooling.

I also heard papers on the way 19th century schools set standards that defined children, for the first time, as 'normal', setting 'abnormal' against those. And another that described the investment of elite, establishment Sydney and Melbourne in both those unis.

I had useful conversations about ways to work with my book. I love colleagues.

I gave a paper on my research in Broken Hill, which summarised the themes of what I have found so far. More on this another time.

I have been thinking, as a result of all this, about the ways universities have always sought SOME access for poor people of 'merit'. Under an ideal of merit, if the university only had rich people it would be too obvious that more than merit is going on, so they make sure there is always someone poor (or black or female) to point to to 'prove' they are about merit not white male supremacy. Cynical? I think in fact there are always people in schools and universities who would like more equity, but that privilege nevertheless uses this to its advantage.

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