Harvard professor defies Australian class warfare

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Chris Johnston's illustration 'Education Class Wars' shows a caricature of Tony Abbott favouring rich schools over poor schoolsDavid Sinclair's final piece of advice to students at his alma mater could well have been directed at Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, whose maiden Budget had threatened in one fell swoop all the foundations of a vibrant democracy: welfare, healthcare, public education — and the implicit promise by publically-elected leaders that they would undertake their duty in good faith.

'The last thing I want you to know is that there's nothing more important in life than to be honest,' Sinclair told students gathered before him in a nondescript school hall in Sydney's suburbia. 'Never lie, always tell the truth and people will grow to trust you and follow your lead.'

It was a striking comment that percolated up amidst an atmosphere of public fury.

Dazed and betrayed, the electorate was slowly digesting the list of election promises that Abbott had already broken just eight months into his term: the cutting of funding to education, health, the disability pension, foreign aid, the ABC and SBS; the changing of the retirement age and the GST; the towing back of asylum seeker boats to Indonesia; the failure to reduce debt and return the budget to surplus; and — most paradoxically of all — the botched assurance that governmental accountability and transparency would be restored.

For keen observers of Sinclair's address, there was also the poignant irony that such words of integrity were emerging from the mouth of a man educated in the very public system the Abbott Government and its new budget measures seemed intent on undermining.

Standing at the lectern in a school hall built in 1964 and barely altered or updated since, he told his audience that to be there speaking to them had been one of the highlights of his life so far.

The magnitude of this tribute was not lost on the students: after all, Sinclair is a professor of genetics at Harvard University and one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world for 2014. He has spent his adult life researching ways in which humans might live longer, healthier lives, and had returned to Sydney to receive the 2014 Australian Society for Medical Research medal.

Amidst a whirl of media interviews and meetings, Sinclair was asked if there was anything else he would like to do while in his hometown. He didn't hesitate: I'd like to visit my old high school, he said.

Perhaps Sinclair understood implicitly that the students — schooled in a deeply under-resourced, under-respected system, and shepherded by an education minister who acknowledges his government has a 'particular responsibility for non-government schooling that we don't have for [state] government schooling' — needed all the inspiration and encouragement they could get.

After all, he had grown up just down the road, attended the state primary school next door, walked into the high school science lab each day and leached such invaluable knowledge and wisdom and guidance from his teachers that one day his scientific findings would reverberate around the world.

Perhaps, in asking to visit his old school, Sinclair had wanted to reassure its students that the class warfare manufactured by the current government was just a smokescreen aimed at winning conservative votes; that, in truth, public (state) schools are not the repositories of children too impoverished or unintelligent for the alternative, that they are, in fact, the living manifestation of democracy, egalitarianism, multiculturalism and ecumenism, because they educate a rich diversity of all-comers; that the gross output of public schools benefits society at a far greater and more equitable rate than does that of its private counterpart.

Perhaps Sinclair realised, as he stood up on that stage with hundreds of pairs of attentive eyes fixed on him, and later, when he answered students' questions which were, he said, 'better than [those] I get from some of my scientists', that it might be far harder for these children to prosper, that their potential might not be as successfully cultivated as his had been almost 30 years earlier.

Since then — indeed, since 1970, when non-government school funding was introduced as a concession to the struggling Catholic sector — successive governments have redirected increasing sums of precious education funding so that the once financially-autonomous independent system has now become wholly dependent.

Australia's once robust, inclusive public system has been infused with a culture of deprivation, neglect and fear, so that too often parents are condemned to make the same choice as their peers: to flee the apparently sinking ship, and in so doing to make the ship's fate a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The final, sad chapter of this country's educational story will be written when the newest raft of budgetary changes — the deregulation of university fees — completes the transfer of high quality education from the demos into the hands of the rich.

But if Sinclair's intention was political, his message was oblique. It contained the sort of advice that, if followed, could turn any student — no matter their postcode or the colour of their school blazer — into just the sort of independent thinker that electioneering, panic-mongering, sheep-herding politicians fear the most.

'There are certain personality traits that can really help you in life, and one of them that I found very useful was not paying attention to the dogma,' he said. 'Don't listen to what everyone tells you you have to do. Follow your own path. Be rebellious. Take risks in life.'


 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer. She is the president of the P&C at Professor David Sinclair's alma mater, St Ives High School.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, David Sinclair, education, private schools, state schools

 

 

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Wonderful article.
Jim Jones | 27 June 2014


This is a good article about state education, but the rhetoric about Sinclair overcoming disadvantage is a bit overblown. St Ives High School is hardly in an underprivileged area of Sydney.
Judy Redman | 27 June 2014


Well resourced public education is the only way forward for a brighter Australia that dares to take a stand. Catherine, I finished reading the article with goosebumps and a sense of urgency that this message is spread far and wide.
Megan S | 27 June 2014


It would be interesting to know how much energy and effort the Catholic Schools Commissions around Australia invest each year in lobbying for underprivileged schooling as opposed to pushing exclusively for a greater share of the funding pool for their own schools. How do Catholics measure inequality in education? Are they only interested in their own back yard? More to the point, what do they really think of the policies of their own products in the Federal and State politics.
Joe | 27 June 2014


The great shame of Australia's education system is not its thoroughly democratic pluralism, but the fact that the biggest gaps in opportunity are between the various public schools. Sadly or wonderfully, the absolute predictor of a school's capacity to improve a child's life is the commitment to that school on the part of the parents of its students. This applies to both public and private schools.
Steve Etherington | 27 June 2014


Does this concocted "class warfare" apply only to independent as opposed to a government run school or does it also apply to a state high school in St Ives as opposed to a state high school in Redfern, Mt Druitt or Alice Springs/
john frawley | 27 June 2014


Judy, I think you need to differentiate between underprivilege in the area around St Ives High School and among the students attending; they could well be quite different. And the article's message is surely on the difference between then and now, not on Sinclair's overcoming disadvantage. Successive governments of the left and right have been under-resourcing and belittling the free, secular, compulsory and egalitarian state education systems for decades. Gonski had the potential to correct this, but Abbott and Pyne will make sure this never happens.
Ginger Meggs | 27 June 2014


A worthy article as does any that supports a strong public school system as a central element in creating and maintaining a just an equitable society for all. And Sinclair’s career success provides a powerful endorsement of such a system. But his idealistic call for students to “Never lie, always tell the truth…etc” is worrying. Dispensing such naïve advice to impressionable young minds is questionable to say the least. We all have to lie at times, ranging from white lies to save vulnerable people’s feelings to those endless lies that an under-cover policeman must constantly tell to trap gangsters. These are just two of the endless exceptions to Sinclair’s noble injunction. But if the young have to always learn this from bitter personal experience, premature cynicism results. Much better that they be told that while honesty is a noble virtue it often comes at a high price, especially when voicing unpalatable truths. The practice of all virtues, including honesty, always requires sacrifice. Better for Sinclair to have said - Tell the truth by all means but know what price you will pay. The only total honesty which we can and should practice is with ourselves. That leads to self-knowledge and hopefully wisdom. It would have been preferable for Sinclair to have quoted Socrates “know thyself”!
Dennis | 27 June 2014


The 'class warfare' to which this headline refers is not concocted John Frawley, and it's not restricted to independent schools vs state schools on the north shore. It's about rich independent schools anywhere to which this government panders and public schools everywhere which this government would be happy to see destroyed.
Ginger Meggs | 27 June 2014


Although I would be happy to see private schools taken over by the state, I was a little concerned to see the author write that: "Australia's once robust, inclusive public system has been infused with a culture of deprivation, neglect and fear". In W.A. at least there are many terrific state schools and though not resourced like the elite private schools there shouldn't be a culture of fear and neglect. Maybe the teacher unions go a little too far in their campaigning and drag down morale. Let's keep campaigning for Gonski funding of schools (and make the ALP commit to a full Gonski, not a watered down version) but meanwhile be proud of our schools and model pride in them to the students.
Russell | 27 June 2014


As a Victorian state school teacher of thirty years standing I can only say "Thank you, thank you" for Catherine Marshall's article and David Sinclair's words.Education for all- not just the rich.
Anne Ramsay | 28 June 2014


Thank you for this article. In response to the question about the Catholic Education Commission.... The 'poor parish schools' were always the Trojan horse. The tragedy for Australian Education - as Wyndham knew in the late 1960sm that the opportunity to put All our chidlren into public schools was lost once WHitlam gave State Aid. Anybody who stood up to the Catholic church was labelled sectarian, or worse,threatened - . And the State school reps fell for the 'Needs'policy. After all, there were jobs in it... Any 'needs'policies have quickly become 'greeds'policies for the private sector. Only the public system is accessible to All of the children All of the time.
Jean Ely | 02 July 2014


Do Australian churches have any policies on justice in the funding of schools?
Murray Seiffert | 06 July 2014


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