An exercise in elitism


Dr Christopher Scanlon


This opinion was originally published in The Daily Life on 6 June 2012.

My wife and I recently attended an open morning at a private school. Some friends were horrified by the news. Their reactions had nothing to do with the fact that private schools reproduce inequalities, that their fees are ridiculous and they are recipients of obscene amounts of middle class welfare.

Instead, they were horrified we had left it so late. Apparently the best strategy is to go straight from the first ultrasound and then on to the open morning. Aged just 18 months, it seemed that our daughter had left her run at private school a little late.

When we arrived, we were met at the gate by two disturbingly articulate and well-mannered grade nine students. ‘Are you here for the opening morning?’ one asked. ‘Yes’ my wife and I muttered, fearing that our lower-middle class heritage might be sniffed out by the school’s hounds which would then be set upon us.

Given the students’ confidence, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that the girl had spent most of her holidays volunteering at the United Nations’s headquarters in New York and that the boy had just published his third literary novel to wide acclaim.

Advertisement: Story continues below After being deposited to the information room and taking our seats, the principal, an animated man with short cropped hair who wouldn’t have been out of place in a Lexus showroom, introduced himself and told us about the journey we were all embarking on together.

A presentation of images from the school’s activities played on a loop behind him as he spoke. Most seemed to feature high quality photos of students doing culturally sensitive things in exotic locations or pointing at expensive electrical equipment that would be the envy of any major hospital. 

One image featured a senior student standing on the precipice of a cliff, peering sagely over a vast plain of trees giving the impression that the school had just acquired one of the lesser-used State National Parks to be used exclusively in the outdoor studies program.

The principal told us all about the school’s ‘position statement’ which had lots of phrases like ‘respect for cultures’, ‘celebrating diversity’, ‘community engagement’, ‘reaching every child’s potential’, ‘self reflection’, and ‘encouraging awareness’. In other words, it was catnip to lower middle class people like who us who’d reached the upper middle classes.

If nothing else, the words and images made us feel a whole lot better about handing over $20,000 a year for education.

I came away from the presentation safe in the knowledge that the school had an outstanding heritage, combining equal measures of the best traditions of High Anglicanism and the recommendations of McKinsey and Co.

Then it was on to a tour of the school by our student guides. The principal farewelled us with the promise that they hadn’t been drilled to deliver a particular line and that we would get a ‘warts and all’ view of the school.

Our young hosts didn’t have much bad to say. Instead, their comments were littered with the articulate grade nine equivalent of ‘respect for cultures’, ‘celebrating diversity’, ‘community engagement’, ‘reaching every child’s potential’, ‘self reflection’ and ‘encouraging awareness’.

We were shown to something called the ‘Food Tech’ room. This is what used to be called ‘Home Economics’ or, more quaintly, ‘cooking’.  Now, apparently, students create dishes by breaking down food into its constituent elements and re-building it in a new, improved, form.

After a half hour or so of being shown performance spaces, gyms, pools, more performance spaces, chapels, aerobic rooms, labs, studios, dark rooms and still more performance spaces we were taken back for a cup of tea and cake where we could ask more questions of the principal and his team.

Putting the vaunted values to the test, I asked one teacher about the school’s position with regard to sexual orientation. She stumbled a little at first, and then said some things about ‘respect for cultures’, ‘celebrating diversity’, ‘community engagement’, ‘reaching every child’s potential’, ‘self reflection’ and ‘encouraging awareness’.

‘So if my daughter comes out in year eight and wants to take a girlfriend to the school formal, the school wouldn’t have a problem with that?’ I asked.

Squirming, she said something reassuring about celebrating diversity and respecting all faiths. I didn’t know what this had to do with sexual orientation, unless it was an oblique reference to George Michael’s 1987 solo album.

Eventually she confirmed that the school would be fine with this. To reassure us, she told a story about a student who had transferred to the school because it had a very good performing arts program. ‘Performing arts’ is, I surmised, code for homosexual.

Apparently, paying $20,000 a year for an enlightened education doesn’t extend to actually using the word ‘gay’.