Labor MP Lindsay Tanner has excited letter writers to the The Australian with his views on Australians and education. In a speech (pdf) to the Sydney Institute, and reported by The Australian yesterday, Tanner claimed that:
AUSTRALIANS are typically anti-intellectual, indifferent to learning and steeped in mediocrity and ignorance…
These accusations don’t accord with what Australians tell pollsters. Newspoll, for example, runs an occasional survey asking ‘overall, as a society, would you personally agree or disagree that Australians today are…?’ and then listing a dozen possible attributes. In the last of these surveys, late in 2005, 57% of respondents thought that ‘intellectually minded’ was a reasonable description of their fellow Australians. Perhaps by ‘intellectually minded’ they mean reading something other than the sport in the Herald Sun or Daily Telegraph – since it certainly can’t mean having acquired a university degree or reading one of the magazines aimed at intellectuals, none of which sell more than a few thousand copies per issue. But it does suggest that ‘anti-inellectual’ might be a bit strong as cultural analysis.
When Roy Morgan Research last polled us on our most important issues, in 2004, education was the second most important issue after health, with 56% of the population rating it as one of their top three most important issues for the federal government to be doing something about. To this we can add the revealed preference of the nearly one-third of parents who are sufficiently concerned about education to put their kids into a private school, and other research suggesting a third or more of parents with children at government schools would send their kids to a private school if money was no object.
I think Tanner is right that there are problems with educational aspiration among young people, particularly from welfare and working class homes. But the main debate isn’t about whether or not education in general is A Good Thing. It is about how we should go about the task of education – hence all the controversies about curriculum, teaching methods, and financing.