Noel Pearson, Radical Hope: Education and equality in Australia (Quarterly Essay Nº 35, Black Inc 2009)
Our household is the kind where people yell at the television. When Noel Pearson came on screen recently to talk about the subject of this essay, there was yelling. The aroma he acquired from cosying up to John w Howard in a previous era hasn’t yet dissipated, so them that yelled weren’t about to give him the benefit of the doubt when he seemed to be denying the effect of, say, foetal alcohol syndrome of school results. And Pearson’s regular attribution of a multitude of Aboriginal ills to what he calls the middle-class Left isn’t designed to win friends.
It’s harder, though not impossible, to yell at the printed page, and a sustained piece of writing stands a chance of being more carefully reasoned than a TV sound bite, so I approached this Quarterly Essay with cautious optimism. And indeed, there’s a lot of very good stuff in it. There’s quite a bit of deliberate provocation as well, such as:
Over the years I have often told people that there is a rough rule of thumb when it comes to examining the nostrums and prescriptions of the middle-class Left (black and white): whatever they say our people should do, we should look at approximately the opposite, because that will usually be the right thing to do.
I’ve always found it hard to read straw-man arguments, and surely that’s what this is. Coming to the essay pretty much ignorant of current educational debates, I am in no position to evaluate the detailed heart of its argument about what is to be done about Aboriginal inequality in education. I hope that beneath the occasional pugnacity, it plays a useful role. I know nothing, for instance, about Siegfried Engelmann’s Direct Instruction approach to education of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, in which Pearson places great theoretical and practical store. Pearson portrays him as a lone, successful evidence-based educationalist crying in the wilderness of vested (middle-class Left) interests that constitutes the educational establishment. He may be right. How would I know? Yet Pearson’s account of the DI approach sounds awfully like the explicit and systematic approach to literacy of the National Literacy Strategy., which as far as I know is being assiduously promulgated, even prescribed, by that same educational establishment. It makes me wonder if the lone voice strategy might not be counter-productive, as well as a little disingenuous. As Pearson writes, on page 77:
Many debates about reality and its characterisation are relatively healthy and rational and we can readily agree that they should submit to scientific resolution. It is when interests are strong that irrationality and ideology come to hold an awesome sway, and science, even when it offers illumination, is gamely denied.
Pearson’s interests are strong, and it would be weird if they weren’t. His concern to transform the hideous circumstances facing Aboriginal people on Cape York and throughout Australia is palpable. This essay’s faults come at least in part from that passionate concern. It’s confrontational, demanding and sarcastic, as well as erudite, personal and engaged. While its main thrust is practical, it often broadens out in surprising ways. I love this, from the final paragraphs:
The Enlightenment was not and is not at its core a European illumination: it is a human illumination. Its origins in Europe should not blind us to its human meaning and implications. The Enlightenment forced the Europeans to change their societies and cultures in fundamental ways. It forced societies and cultures beyond Europe to make the same change. The Enlightenment never mandated deracination or ethnic or religious assimilation or cleansing – all societies that have made this change have left space enough for religion and social and cultural diversity. […] Radical hope for the future of Aboriginal Australia … will require the bringing together of the Enlightenment and Aboriginal culture. This reconciliation is not of necessity assimilation: just ask the Jews.