Education and aspiration keys to membership of an open society

Opinion Article

2011 April, 23

Larissa Behrendt is an Aboriginal success story. Like Barack Obama she is a graduate of Harvard Law,  except she gained both masters and a doctorate from the world's most famous law school.


Behrendt is a role model to young indigenous people in Australia. Putting aside whatever objections  one may have to her political orientation, she is the success Australians have been wanting for its native people for a long time.  


Behrendt is one of an increasing number of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are participating at all levels of the professions, academe, government, politics and the arts. She is the intellectual leader of a particular outlook on indigenous policy, but it is hardly revolutionary: it is the standard position of the academic Left who hold the commanding heights in academe.  


Where she is coming from is where most black and white people of her inner-city intellectual milieu  come from. She can hardly be condemned for holding views that are de rigueur in progressive society  and politics.  


If anything, one could be dismayed at the fact her intellectual and political framework is not different  from the legions of like intramural thinkers of her profession and class.  


The progressive nostrums that inform the views of those who have gone on to set up the Northern  Territory intervention as the next evil windmill that must be tilted are well known and tedious. The  ghost of John Howard must be kept alive to give a raison d'etre to a group of inner-city rebels  desperately deprived of a real cause.  


It is passing strange to me that people could choose to prosecute a politics that is aimed against some  great evil they perceive in the world, rather than some great good they seek. I would think it a waste of  time to reactively position against what someone else has proposed or done, rather than defining what  one proposes to do instead. But, alas, this is the nature of this politics.


The recent contretemps between Bess Price from Yuendumu and Behrendt from Sydney gave rise to  objections to Behrendt's appointment by the Gillard government to lead a review of indigenous higher  education in Australia.  


I have no objections to Behrendt leading this review but, in relation to the policies that are needed in  remote communities, I obviously support Price. What she wants for her people at Yuendumu is what I want for my Guugu Yimidhirr people at Hope Vale.  


In her review Behrendt will have an opportunity to reflect on the nature of the fracture in indigenous Australia at which she stands at the epicentre. 


She needs to read all the writings of Maria Lane, an Aboriginal academic from South Australia. Lane's career was dedicated to increasing indigenous participation in secondary and higher education, working in tertiary support services in Adelaide. She also produced important research about the changes in indigenous participation in higher education.  


In a 2007 paper Lane unveiled evidence of a surprising upsurge in education outcomes for indigenous  students. Between 1998 to 2006 the number of indigenous students completing Year 12 rose by 60 per cent, the number enrolling in Year 12 tripled, the number gaining their South Australian Certificate of  Education more than tripled, and the number gaining good Tertiary Entrance Rank scores quadrupled.  


Lane examined the social and educational history since World War II, paying particular attention to  intra-state migration and patterns of family formation. She concluded the indigenous population was splitting into two populations, which had kinship ties but were "each operating on completely different,  in fact antithetical, dynamics, ethics and paradigms".


One group Lane called the "welfare-embedded population", which was risk and work-averse, and benefits, welfare and security-oriented. The other group she called the "open society population", which was opportunity, effort and outcome-oriented. 


The origins of the open society population, Lane argued, were to be found in the 1940s and 50s, when  indigenous people started leaving settlements for the city. The economic upturn provided the first generation of indigenous city-dwellers with secure if menial work. Their children grew up with a workoriented ethos.  


The third indigenous urban generation, which came to tertiary age in the late 90s and in this century, is  participating in higher education at unprecedented levels. They enter university directly after Year 12 on the basis of academic achievement, without the aid of indigenous-specific policies or programs.  


The rise of this open society population explains, according to Lane, the encouraging increase in successful Year 12 completions and university enrolments.  


In the same half-century since World War II, many indigenous people did not move but stayed on settlements. The South Australian and commonwealth governments abolished discriminatory legislation and extended welfare rights to all indigenous people, and later instituted the Community Development Employment Projects "work for the dole" program, which provided further security for  rural and remote communities.  


A welfare-embedded population emerged, the members of which, Lane wrote, were "far more likely to  see themselves as passive victims, and to externalise all problems either as the responsibilities of white bureaucrats, teachers, doctors or social workers (who 'should do something about it') or as a product of  their biology ('and there's nothing we can do about that')".


The left-liberal ideology that informed government policy, Lane wrote, "may have been intended to be  collectivist, community-focused and independent, but degenerated into a protection for a work shy,  welfare-oriented population, an ideology that has become an individualist parody of its charter, parochial rather than communal, welfare-dependent rather than self-determining".  


Lane believed the improved education outcomes of the open society group occurred regardless of any indigenous-specific educational interventions and perhaps despite them.  


Behrendt and the scores of Aboriginal university graduates who have emerged in recent decades are the  products of this open society population that Lane celebrates as a great success.  


It is the children of the welfare-embedded population (such as at Yuendumu and Cape York Peninsula)  where Year 12 and higher education gaps remain yawning.  


Lane laid out a convincing typology of the class structure of Aboriginal Australia.  


At the bottom is the unclassed or declassed group, corresponding with what Lane calls the Embedded Population ("perhaps a quarter to a half of the entire indigenous population are still in this category. Ideologically, even more so. This is still the indigenous population on which is focused the vast amount  of policy attention, the population [that] is content to be dependent on welfare payments").  


Then there is a lower working class ("a small, breakaway portion of the Embedded Population, which  may be in irregular employment, and-or at any time involved in TAFE or even tertiary study, a  population . . . struggling to gain security and a more self-respecting way of life than is favoured by the Embedded Population").  


Then a working class ("which is in regular employment, often inter-married, future and goal-oriented,  ambitious for their children, but basically wanting to be left alone by indigenous policy-makers,  forming the initial core of what I am calling the Open Society Population").  


Then a lower middle class ("semi-professionals and tradespeople, often young graduates, in secure  employment and integrated into the Open Society, making sure that their children do well in school and go on to tertiary study - and keeping away from all policy-makers").


And finally a middle and upper-middle class ("usually professionals and established graduates, in permanent employment in government and academia, sending their children to private schools, thoroughly immersed in the Open Society but often seeing themselves as spokespersons and champions  of, building their secure careers on the backs of, and gaining their kudos from, the Embedded  Population").  


Anyone with a knowledge of Aboriginal society will find it hard to refute Lane's analysis. And, of course, it is her description of the most privileged middle and upper-middle class that cuts to the quick  of the Aboriginal Australian leadership malaise. It is the same problem that afflicts African-American leadership.  


I am as exposed as any one to the scarifying truth of Lane's analysis. One can only be assured about whether one's leadership is not parasitic on the misery of those in need by undertaking constant self-examination under a scorching light.  


Am I perpetuating victimhood? What am I doing to ameliorate people's present danger and suffering?  Would I suffer unto my children the solutions I propose for others? Why do I think I need a job, to own  my own home, to have sensible numbers of relatives visit me at any one time and so on, but others may not? Do I have a proper justification for any double standard or differential expectation? After all, I'm  an Aborigine, what's with the relativism?  


The essence of where Price is coming from is captured in her response to The Australian following  Behrendt's unfortunate response to her appearance on ABC1's Q&A: "I want what she has for my  children."


Noel Pearson is director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. The account of Maria Lane's research is from Pearson's Quarterly Essay, Radical Hope.

Education and aspiration keys to membership of an open society