Education with higher expectations


Australian Indigenous Education Foundation Tertiary Experience Days 2015

In a talk to launch a report by the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation recently, Tony Abbott spoke of ‘the tyranny of low expectations’.

The elegant phrase rightly encouraged students and schools to set themselves high goals and to trust themselves to reach them. It is indeed a tyranny to settle for the mediocre.

But such well-crafted and sweeping phrases always raise deeper questions. We need to ask why people have low expectations. The reasons often have to do with culture and not simply with the individual.

Low expectations are rife in impoverished communities that are lacking in material and educational resources, excluded from social participation by race, poverty or distance, with few mentors and little say in the decisions that affect their lives. What else would we expect? So low expectations cannot be addressed solely by exhorting individuals; community disadvantage needs also to be attended to.

‘The tyranny of low expectations’ is an evocative phrase that invites more general reflection on education and public life. I believe that the Australian approach to education does indeed impose a tyranny of low expectations. The expectations are framed in economic terms, and are focused on the individual. So high expectations are usually defined by economic achievement and its attendant wealth and status, and the goal for schools is success in enabling students to participate economically.

The controlling educational metaphor is economic, where costs and benefits are assessed in financial terms, students are assessed by competitive exams that dominate the curriculum, and schools measured by quantifiable results. Both schools and students are players and pawns in the educational market.

The tyranny of low expectation, confined to economic participation and performance, leads to a pervasive sense of failure among those who cannot compete and competitive relationships between the successful. This in turn weakens the trust needed for a vigorous economy. People are trained to compete in given structures, not to think outside those structures.

These expectations sell human beings short. The good of society and the growth of young people depend on the encouragement of wonder, of reflective gifts, of creativity. It requires nurturing the sense of other people as other - not as competitors but as fellow human beings whose flourishing is integral to one’s own good.

These qualities also underpin a healthy economy, since they foster innovation, loyalty to a common enterprise, a questioning attitude to conventional institutional arrangements, and a readiness to set aside one’s own interests for the common good. These are the building blocks of a self-sustaining economic culture.

Nurturing of qualities of this kind will also prepare the members of disadvantaged communities to struggle together for a better life, rather than luring their most able members out of the communities.

Higher expectations will encourage a different style and emphasis in education. It will emphasise the communication of wisdom, encouragement of curiosity, and development of character. It will embody cooperation rather than competition, and prepare people both to participate in economic life and to question continually how far the economic relationships in a given society serve or undermine the common good.

The tyranny of low expectations in education is matched by a similar tyranny in political leadership. Political parties see the task of governance through the lens of an economic metaphor. They preside over competing individuals, each of whom seeks economic advantage and so contributes to the national wealth. They see their role as negotiating between competing interests, which in practice means sustaining an economic framework in which the gap in wealth and power between the rich and the poor continues to grow.

This model of governance has consequences. It fosters resentment of those who do not or cannot contribute to the economy. They are costs in the national economy, and are regarded as valueless. So the government will force them to participate by cutting funds on which they depend to live, or require that they fulfill humiliating and meaningless requirements designed to prepare them for work that is not available.

It also leads to the squeezing out and weakening of community groups that represent people who are disadvantaged or stand in the way of wealth making. They are forced to compete with one another for funding and are restricted in their right to advocate. Remote Indigenous communities will be forced off their land to live individual lives at the edge of towns.  

All this leads to alienation from the political process and resentment. People know that they are more than economically competitive individuals. They want more from governance. So political leaders should free themselves from the tyranny of low expectations, encourage the bonds that bind people together through strengthening community groups and consulting them in decisions hat affect their members. They should also look to the common good, building a society in which the good of each member, and particularly the good of the most vulnerable is ensured.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 

Education image by Shutterstock.


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Tony Abbott, education, governance, economics



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Existing comments

Thank you for this article, which reveals the chasm between prime ministerial rhetoric and the fiscal actions of a government bent on reducing the assistance rendered to marginalised and disadvantaged Australians. Low expectations? It would be a sensible measure to look initially at low social service delivery targets, and budget cuts to essentials such as emergency relief. Andrew asks ‘What else would we expect?’ when impoverished communities lack ‘material and educational resources’ and are ‘excluded from social participation by race, poverty or distance, with few mentors and little say in the decisions that affect their lives’. As he adds, ‘low expectations cannot be addressed solely by exhorting individuals; community disadvantage needs also to be attended to.’ New national research from the Salvos released today, addressing more than 2,400 welfare clients surveyed at 260 centres, shows 53% of respondents were from single persons’ households with children. These are people on welfare benefits that can’t purchase essential items for their children, including: ‘out-of-school activities (65%), an internet connection (62%) and fresh fruit and vegetables every day (34%). Without these basic life essentials, The Salvation Army is concerned that the future prospects for these children are likely to diminish and lead to increased poverty, lack of opportunity and chronic disadvantage.’ Why do children have low expectations? Because when you slash billions out of welfare provision to the most marginalised Australians you are not just bashing single parents and pensioners; you potentially set a seal of societal neglect on a generation of children; kids whose odds of escape from poverty are stacked heavily against them well and truly before they attend their first day of schooling.

Barry Gittins | 27 May 2015  

Thanks Andrew for such great insights! A few years ago I was working in a government role supporting community development projects in Caboolture, a suburb north of Brisbane, with some history of low socio-economic issues. One day I met with the principal of local primary school. That day she had a 9 year old boy sitting in her office for misbehaviour. In conversation, she asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. His reply astounded her - "Nothing's Caboolture you know." Perhaps reflective of his own familial experience, but also of his community, where educational and employment expectations were low, I often wonder where he is now and what he's doing. How do we change such communal experiences of mediocrity and low expectations? The current wave of neo-liberal thinking and policies will have a further detrimental impact on communities like Caboolture, and increase the blame levels. Whole of government, community and family response is required to shift from mediocrity to a higher level of expectations. Leadership at all those levels is required. It appears that hope is springing in many communities from the NGO sector as always rather than any government lead response. Social bonds and capital developed and nurtured locally is a way forward. Let's hope the common good is remembered in the machinations of politics.

Lawrence Wray | 28 May 2015  

Thanks Andy This is in my opinion one of the most important issues of our time. The Education System is used to under-pin the economic system we operate on and thus is the basis of the growing inequality that exists today. It is not really an education system, rather it is more a vocational system to train people for the market place.

Bill Armstrong | 28 May 2015  

I have been listening with interest to some of the innovations taking place in the U.K. one of the slogans being put forward is that "learning should be fun" which means that there should be a " bottom up" approach not just a "top down" approach that so often happened in the past

john ozanne | 28 May 2015  

This insightful article invites a sense of hopelessness and a sense of a bottomless vortex of despair.However a visit this week to Doveton College has provided me with fragmentary hope. this is a school where 87% of the students come from a welfare recipient household. The school is a state, federal & private foundation funded establishment, now 3 years in operation,with student services from prep to year 9. I invite a visit to its website for a positive turnaround as to what is possible in an economically & socially disadvantaged community.

alan roberts | 28 May 2015  

Thanks very much, Andrew for your wonderful insights and your focus on the common good.

Alan, it's encouraging to hear about the school you visited. But, as you yourself say, this kind of education needs massive investment from all sectors of society.

As well, there needs to be meaningful, properly-paid employment for all students when they leave this school, regardless of academic achievement.

It's no use building up young people's expectations if there are not fulfilling work opportunities for them. And this requires much more investment from government and industry so that jobs can be created for all.

Sadly, I don't think current mainstream political and business thinking believes this to be true.

They believe that the market will solve the problems. However, the market is purely focused on economic return for shareholders.

No, as Dr John Falzon, CEO of St Vinnies says so powerfully, Governments must do what markets cannot.

robert van zetten | 28 May 2015  

Exposure of students to the best of what's thought and said, and encouraging them to discern what qualifies as such through the study of languages, literature humanities and religion would, I believe, be a step in the direction of liberation from the "tyranny of low expectation" and the restriction of education to the merely ideological and pragmatic that has diminished western schooling and culture for several generations. Time was, in living memory, when students from poorer economic backgrounds could access such learning and the opportunities of enrichment (not only economic) it offers - a possibility that has atrophied significantly through the financial costs of schooling and the dilution of academic curriculum.

John | 29 May 2015  

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