Interview: Bri Lee, ‘Who Gets to Be Smart?’

I had the chance to sit down and have an interview with Bri Lee, the author of Who Gets to Be Smart? Our chat took us on a journey through modern education, how it privileges some and discriminates against others and the legacy of slavery and racism.

I was left questioning how we can fix an education system that seems so fundamentally biased.

I wanted to start by asking you about your own education in Australia and how you came to writing this book?

In Australia I went to this high school which I found to be quite conservative and religious. There was a huge focus on results, at all times. I remember growing up, I was always aware of how well I was doing compared to my peers, and I found it to be an unhappily competitive environment. We all thought we were making decisions but with hindsight, we were very much little fish swimming along pre-established socio-economic currents.

So, then I went to university, and I did a Law / Arts dual degree. Then got a job as a judge’s associate and worked in the law for about a year. Well for exactly a year, and then for many varied reasons stopped doing that and started writing.

The book Who Gets to Be Smart? begins with me visiting my wonderful friend Damien, who had just been named a Rhodes Scholar, and I went over to visit him at Oxford, when he was in his first year. That’s when I started asking questions about the flow of power and privilege in our educational institutions.

Right, so you grew up with the idea initially of education as a meritocracy, and then something shifted? You write about your first visit to Oxford and some of the experiences that you had there. What was your first impression of the university and the kind of students you encountered?

Oh, first impressions it’s like, I mean it’s amazing, and it still is, it’s an amazing place. I’m a writer and I still am now doing a PhD and I just love reading and writing and research and talking about ideas and books, and so I found Oxford to be just this exhilarating intoxicating bubble.

I wanted to have a valid reason to hate the people I met there because I was so envious of them. Everyone I met seemed lovely, of course. And so, I really had to sit with the fact, I think I wrote in the book, that I had a tourist visa to a place in which I wanted to live. This was several years ago and yet at the time I really struggled to find the words to articulate why it made me feel so insecure and why I was so extraordinarily enamoured with that world, to the point that it blinded me to the sort of political realities of it.

You write about how some people weren’t over the top about the situation, and in fact that was part of the culture [at Oxford], that that they wouldn’t say it was very difficult to get there or that we’re very privileged or something like that.

Yes, there was a level of comfort, a level of comfortability in those spaces, that is the opposite of the way first-in-family students talk about the university environment. Certainly, the opposite of the way people who come from low socio-economic backgrounds talk about the university environment. Just the kind of social mores, that code switching and signals. They had the sense that university in general, and specifically a place like Oxford, was for them.

There seems to be a lot in your book about things almost being pre-planned in a certain way, that there’s a path that people follow based on their backgrounds and that’s carved out for them by the institutions?

What the data shows is that people’s lives run along relatively predictable socio-economic trajectories. There are streams and currents. And at the heart of this book is my belief, my perspective, that an education system should be an opportunity to further equality. Whereas, very egregiously in the Australian context specifically, but I can imagine it would also be analogous in the UK, the education system just exacerbates that kind of social stratification by splitting people into very separate tracks along which their logs are allowed to run.

Two small questions about Oxford. A couple of interesting points you raised, one was that you went to a college where children weren’t allowed, and that raises all sorts of questions about equity and access. The other was the age limit on the Rhodes Scholarship. I think both examples point to the same thing, which is that you can get to these places at a certain point in your life, but you can get too old, or you can have a child and then, the criteria slips you by?

Definitely. If in any place, let alone any sort of organization or institution, if it’s not child friendly typically that means that it’s not woman friendly. And if children aren’t allowed, typically, it’s sort of a chicken and egg effect of a women not really being allowed or certainly not made to feel welcome.

I think the age cut-off for the Rhodes Scholarship is also a sort of chicken and egg part of this package of how we glorify an image, and an idea of a young genius, and that can be in an artistic sense or in an academic sense. Overwhelmingly, of course there are always exceptions but overwhelmingly that’s the type of person who comes from a sufficiently supported background.

With the Rhodes Scholarship you need to be able to prove things like sporting achievements and community service, etc. And so, what you’re automatically striking out is anyone who has any kind of caring obligation to siblings or who has to shift their weight around to help at home. Anyone who has to have a part time job when they’re 14 and nine months to be able to contribute to the family unit.

If you have an age cap, then only people who can access an extraordinary amount of money and privilege are able to do it, essentially at a time in their lives when they have always been looked after by their parents. Then you are precluding anyone who has not been sufficiently quote unquote looked after by their parents, from ever being eligible to try and run that race.

One point of contention, is the sense that, particularly when we’re talking about elite institutions… there’s a natural cut off in terms of numbers. Do you believe in that cut off, or do you think that there is a way to kind of broaden that style of education to everyone?

What do you mean?

I only know the figures for Sydney University. I think it’s 50,000 students. Do you think that the correct way to go is towards a mass education system where universities enrol substantially more students or do you think that the cut off is maintained, but that students become more representative of society?

That’s a really interesting question, and a good question. I think what I’m interested in is that, I mean, you can speak in generalized terms, the vast majority of equity students at the university level in Australia don’t go to any of the sandstone universities.

So, when we’re looking at people who come from small or regional areas, people from low socio-economic postcodes, people who are first-in-family students, people who are mature age students who have had caring obligations and can finally have a chance to go to university and pursue their intellectual dreams, the vast majority of those people don’t go to any of the big main sandstone universities. I think that there is a way in which the sandstones cultivate a sense of exclusivity and create an image of superiority by excluding certain types of people, even though year on year they take a larger number of students.

So, I would say it’s a complex question. And what is also related is that it used to be the case that there were all kinds of white collar professions that you could pursue, I’m talking three decades ago, that did not require a university degree. When I was a research assistant to a barrister there were people in chambers who’d been practicing law for decades, who didn’t have degrees because they came up through work experience. Those types of professional avenues are no longer available.

I think because of the tenor of the book, we should really talk about power and privilege. At one point, you called academia a pyramid scheme. And you introduced the word Kyriarchy from the Greek ‘to lord over’ or ‘to rule and dominate.’ Could you expand on that?

I didn’t say it was a pyramid scheme, which, although that’s pretty funny, there is an idea called the Kyriarchy pyramid. So, Kyriarchy is a term first coined by the feminist theologian, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza to describe power dynamics in organizations. I find it a helpful tool for understanding how individuals and institutions interact, because it basically suggests that power in institutions can readily be understood often as a pyramid, where there are a very small number of people who sit at the top. The higher they sit at the top, the more their power is bolstered. They gain power by excluding rather than including.

When we apply that lens to education and knowledge-gathering and knowledge-sharing systems in Australia it becomes very obvious – the motivators are for the people who currently enjoy power and privilege.

Where does the student come into the power hierarchy? At times I feel like you’re saying that the student is responsible for their choices and at times I feel like you’re saying that the student is following the track that’s been set up for them. One interesting observation from my own research of law schools, for instance, is that most students start by caring about justice and the community. And by the end of their degree -you can track all the student surveys- they start to only care about money and prestige. There’s a huge shift. So how much responsibility can you put on the individual versus the institution?

I really hard, hard, agree with your observation. That was definitely my experience and the experience I’ve heard from other people who went to different law schools. You’ll start out thinking you want to do human rights law or be some kind of policy advisor for something you care about and then by the end you’re just competing for top-tier clerkships, that’s definitely been my experience.

It’s a really interesting question I’ve not been asked anything even remotely close to this. There is such an extraordinary variation between the positions that people arrive to universities with. If you’re a first-in-family student, the university opportunity represents an opportunity to really make a class shift. You could be the first in your family to go to university and you’ve grown up your entire life having parents who busted their guts doing manual labour to get you the chance to go to uni.

I think it’s fair to say somebody who comes from a family full of doctors may have different opportunities and therefore different obligations than the person for whom university is in their minds, some sort of lifeboat.

What I think people are not willing to do is acknowledge that if you gain anything from an institution, especially a colonial institution like the university… if you have opportunities, I think it’s fair to say that you have an obligation to try and figure out how to leave that system better than how you found it. I just think it’s not for me to make that decision for others. I am happy to encourage others to ask themselves that question for themselves.

You write quite persuasively about the issue of slavery and racism in Australia. That doesn’t really get a mention much in the national curriculum. Not to make it too political here, but the Prime Minister a couple of months ago said slavery has never existed in Australia. So there does seem to be a sort of a… a gap of knowledge or understanding. Where do you think that comes from?

Where does it not come from? I don’t even know where to begin, it’s part of the project, it’s part of us being a good little colonial outpost. This has been so long and hard fought for, obviously first and foremost by people who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. There’s just no doubt in my mind that the lack of truthful engagement with Australia’s violent colonial history, and the ways that colonization was not an event that occurred in the past, like the ways it actively continues every day.

There is no doubt in my mind that our country’s inability to find a shared language for that harm, and our country’s inability to engage in a sort of truth-telling, and inability and refusal to start proper truth-telling and healing. It’s just extraordinary to me that I can grow up with all of this random knowledge from primary school of very specific facets of Australian history and deliberately not taught about others and how consistent that has been, and how much of a fight it obviously is anytime there is any discussion about putting more truth-telling about colonization in the curriculum.

Of course, that’s deliberate. Absolutely, it’s part of the whole problem. Because the people who didn’t have the opportunity to learn about it in a kind of holistic healthy way, are always going to be resistant to the idea that people are telling them they don’t know.

There’s a quote that stuck with me and was quite impactful. You write: “if somebody wants your land or your body, the surest way to get it is by saying you don’t have a mind, or not a mind as reliable or developed as theirs.” That was in your chapter talking about Australia and racism and the history of what’s happened here. I don’t know if I have a question here, I just thought it was very interesting.

One of the ways I get to see what parts of my books resonate with people is by what they quote, passages they take a picture of and share on social media. The passage that you just read out is one of the two most shared passages, that obviously people read and feel strongly about. I guess it just kept coming up among various different groups – against indigenous peoples, against people with disabilities, at certain points in history against women. Full stop. That our willingness to conflate intelligence or whatever you think intelligence is, to conflate intelligence with worth has very interesting flow-on effects in terms of how humans have justified controlling other people, or controlling their bodies, specifically, or taking land, or taking things, or any combination of the above.

It really demonstrates some findings from the book Superior by Angela Saini. She makes incredibly compelling arguments about how eugenics and race science was very much in a perpetual handshake with colonization. Because the language and understanding of eugenics, that there are some people who are better than others, some people who are better able than others and it is genetic, etc. That just gives justification and credibility to being able to have one group control and take from another group. That quote that you read out is just sort of a combination of that, looking at the ways in which very powerful people in the Australian context specifically, just rolled out the same horrific ideas.


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