April 2006


The middle-class steeplechase

By Malcolm Knox
The middle-class steeplechase

My dear Callum and Lilian,

You entered our hearts identically, 15 months apart, as affirmative lines on a pregnancy test in your Uncle David’s bathroom in London. Your mother sat amid black-and-white chequerboard tiles, crying. We only need to practise one method of birth control: never return to David’s bathroom.

When we found out we were expecting you, Callum, we had been overseas for a year. Once upon a time we were adventurers, though you will see us as unchanging monoliths, more geological than human. That is partly the nature of childhood; it is also partly the nature of parenthood.

The positive test gave us no reason to rush home. By the time we arrived in Sydney, your mother, 14 weeks pregnant, was told she was too late to choose a hospital and doctor for the birth. You still had half a year in the womb, but already we’d left you behind the eight-ball.

I have to qualify this. Being too late to choose a hospital and doctor is no great disaster. Cars screech to public hospitals every day and women deliver their babies under the best of care. As a matter of principle, we support the public health system. Yet when it came to the delivery of our first child, we did not support it. People pulled strings for us. I can offer many reasonable justifications – we didn’t want to burden the public health system, we had paid private health insurance – but I can’t deny that the real reason was that we were scared. The ironclad link between parenthood and fear revealed itself to us.

I know a doctor who works in and advocates the public system, but when his child needed surgery, he went private. “The thought of hospitals,” the doctor said, “brings out the coward in all of us.” But I don’t need to apologise to you, Callum, of all people. As it turned out, yours was a difficult birth. You had second thoughts about this world, and had to be cajoled with a vacuum pump that left a purple blister on your crown the size and shape of a yarmulke.

We didn’t learn our lesson. We gave insufficient thought to the future. We both stayed home and looked after you. It would have tortured me to leave for work every day. But we paid no heed to planning, and by the time your mother was about to deliver Lilian, and I had to work again, we had made no provision for child care.

Callum, when Lilian was born you pushed her crib on a trolley around the hospital corridors, tottering along, barely able to keep your balance. You were so little. Shouldn’t we have kept you at home every day? Putting young children in care is often seen as risky, if not negligent. Around us, the air is thick with advice. It starts with old ladies in the park telling us to cover you up in your pram. It ends with everyone telling us where to send you to school. It covers every smallest issue in between, from breastfeeding to appropriate toys to the choice of your footwear. Current thinking, as they say, is fluid. You don’t need to worry about having been born into a society that didn’t care how you were raised. On the contrary: it can seem that this society cares too much.

This week, as I write, the care of children has been on the front page of the newspapers every day. A company raised questions for the way it acquires childcare centres and runs them for profit. Childcare centres were found to have breached their licence conditions. Kim Beazley – a name that will resonate for you, I sense, in the way Arthur Calwell does for me – visited your centre this week to announce a policy, and every TV station was there. (You didn’t get on.) Three children died, hit by a train while they were playing on the tracks. Not just a simple tragedy, this terrible accident was a spark to the ever-ready touchpaper of community concern about how closely we supervise children. We are nostalgic for a time when children could roam without fear; but when children are allowed to do precisely that and something goes wrong, the parents are condemned.

You are not coming into a society that is confident about what it wants for its children. Mothers are split between those who stay at home and those who work; each makes the other feel guilty. Women are split between those who have children (‘selfishly’) and those who do not (also ‘selfishly’). It is very hard for a young parent to feel they can win either way.

Callum, you were a typical 15-month-old: big engine, no brakes. When your mother was breastfeeding Lilian, you used to launch yourself at her like a missile. You would choose the moments when Lilian required most attention to fall off a chair or throw a tantrum or need a drink. You’d reached the age when you were looking to other children for fun and companionship, and you needed more stimulation than could be provided by a mother with a newborn. A one-year-old can’t wait: he gets bored easily. You liked other children. It seemed that to keep you out of child care would be cruel. And when you, Lilian, got to 12 months, you took to child care with your unique ebullience. We benefited as well. Self-preservation was a motive – I won’t pretend otherwise.

Places in childcare centres were like gold. You both had to sit on long waiting lists. (We were running late again. We should have booked you in at conception, if not earlier.) We moved home, then moved again, but couldn’t move you from one childcare centre to another, so life became a daily commando course. It soon emerged that one of the greatest mistakes new parents can make is to remain mobile. Everything presses you to remain in the one spot, making and fulfilling long-range plans. Life is easier that way. Most children like stability and routine, too: you are no exception. The pressure to stay put can seem like an unspoken conspiracy between banks, corporations, government and babies to keep parents on the job, heads down, working hard for the future.

Never was this more apparent than when we started thinking about your school education, primary and secondary. Again we had failed. We were meant to book you in when you were born. We’re late, feckless, irresponsible.

Callum, you have just turned four and in one year you will start school. You won’t believe how shaky with pride and sadness this makes us. Our boy in a school uniform. And a year later it’ll be Lilian. There is no way to describe this feeling. It seems impossibly far away. And yet, it seems, we should have been thinking about it when you were still rolling around in your bassinets.

I don’t know why I feel so apologetic about these failures of punctuality. Since when has the choice of a primary school been so achingly important? Since when has it come to pass that if we don’t find the very best for you – in child care, in primary schools, in clothing, in educational toys – we are condemning you to a life of mediocrity and unhappiness? Since when did every decision begin to seem so crucial?

Part of it owes to our prosperity. I was born, it seems, on a lucky streak. Being white, male, raised by happily united parents, and well-off by Australian standards – which are themselves unimaginably high – is pure luck. It’s only natural that I should want that lucky streak to continue for you. Yet when people prosper, they tend to think increasingly of what they could lose rather than what they might gain. This is another feature of the society in which you will find yourselves: prosperity tends to make people defensive. It makes them territorial and ungenerous to outsiders. Not always, but that’s broadly the way our community has moved in this age of expansion.

Your mother and I have become conservative in everything but our voting intention; we are liberal, even radical, in everything that does not directly affect us, yet in what affects you, we take no risks. Political analysts rarely seem to recognise that the individual’s swing to conservatism goes hand in hand with parenthood.

In the first Australian election after you were both born, a man named Mark Latham was condemned for speaking the language of class: of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Yet the man who defeated him, John Howard – a name that, I fear, will be your Robert Menzies – has been waging class warfare for ten years. Howard has harnessed the energy of class resentment. The rich vote for him because he promises to tax them less and keep down wages. The middle classes vote for him because they give him credit for their rising house prices and job security. The deserving poor vote for him because he feeds their antagonism at the undeserving poor. And the whole delicate balance is held in place by a shared refusal to acknowledge the existence of class.

But our confusion about what to do with our children is all about class, isn’t it? We are scared for you because we don’t want you to slip down the ladder. We want to keep the lucky streak going for you. We want you to be in the lucky class, whether we ourselves belong to it or not.

If we lived in a classless society, how could we have two strata of school education?

I have a confession: we haven’t ‘booked you in’. You have reached preschool age and your hopeless parents still haven’t chosen where you will do your HSC. ‘Choice’ is a mantra of our times, a convergence of the religion of consumerism with the forces of politics. We are lucky enough to regard your education as our choice, and we bear the responsibility for the consequences. We may, of course, be wrong.

The whole middle-class steeplechase stretches before us. Where to ‘put your names down’. Where to enrol you. Where to train you for entrance exams. (In America, I have just read, children as young as three are being tutored for selective-school entrance exams. The only problem is that at three, you’re much better at memorising than at logic. When one child was asked what two minus one is, he replied, “One. I remember that from before.”) How much should we set aside for the fees? Should we book you into multiple private schools or just one?

I need to tell you a little about your paternal grandparents, because these questions close in around them as much as around us.

They both went to single-sex private schools in the 1950s, when families of genuinely modest means could have their children educated privately. When they had your uncle and me, they didn’t move far from home, and it was logical for them to send us to the school our father attended. My mother went back to work specifically to fund my brother’s school fees. With me, they were luckier. I won a scholarship, without which, they said, they wouldn’t have been able to send me to the same school. I doubt it. Knowing them, they would have made more sacrifices.

They believed in private education because it offered the best opportunities for us to fulfil our potential. They didn’t research this belief by, for example, visiting the public alternatives; it was an article of faith. Your great-great-aunt was the principal of a private girls’ school for more than 30 years; our family was steeped in private education. There was not a little snobbery involved in this. Never spoken, but always beneath the surface, was my parents’ belief that we would emerge better all-round individuals from mixing with the other children at a private school.

This surprises me, because for much of my schooling my parents were also warning me against being led astray by my friends, who were much richer than I. If we went ‘off the rails’, my friends always had ‘family to fall back on’, whereas I ‘had nothing’. My parents guided me clear of the threat of associating with low types, but they didn’t want to over-steer me towards high types either.

I enjoyed school. I had a good education, even though my English teacher in my final two years walked out on the class because we were teasing him. Each period, we received an assignment written on the blackboard. He would collect and mark them, but he never materialised. In the end, though, our marks were good enough and we felt we’d won both ways. None of our parents, to my knowledge, ever found out. I can’t imagine the same happening nowadays. The demand for value for money would probably see the teacher sacked and the school sued.

My school did enable me to fulfil my potential, within the school’s confines. But I enjoyed it most of all because of the friends I made – high and low – and the thing about school friends, as someone has said, is that you can spend 12 years in a prison and still make some great friends. Who you become friends with is a matter of blind luck.

The harm in my education took longer to emerge. Quickest was my absolute bafflement with women, which I still haven’t entirely outgrown. I emerged from school with not the faintest idea of how to talk to a girl. And then there was my bafflement at anything outside the school environment. Private schools are very good at creating big fish for small ponds. If you can remain in a small pond for your whole life, you will profit. If you open your eyes to a larger world, however, you can find yourself lost. It is a common experience for people from private schools, and it was mine. It took several years to find out what I really wanted to do, just as it took several years to get closer to working out the other sex. These are important things. Undoubtedly, my schooling set me back by several years.

My brother, your uncle, differs on this point. He believes he owes his professional success, prosperity and happiness to the fact that he just scraped into the university course he wanted to do. He thinks that if he hadn’t gone to a private school, he would have missed out on becoming a vet. My brother’s grim alternative life is one where he didn’t go to a private school; mine is one where I did what our private school expected me to do.

The saddest part, I think, is that our parents, your grandparents, think they owe our education to the private school. They take little credit for what they did themselves. Your uncle and I enjoy the more-or-less happy lives we have because of the education we received at home, not at school. We owe the chief source of our happiness to the way our parents brought us up, and they should take the credit. I find something tragic in their modesty.

Tragic, yes, and increasingly irritating, because it pours onto you, my children. Your grandparents used to ask where we had ‘booked you in’. That is, what secondary schools we had decided to send you to in 2014 and 2015. They have stopped asking, because they don’t want to provoke a confrontation. They show their innate kindness by restraining themselves. But it plagues them. Their friends ask them where you are ‘booked in’, and your grandparents don’t know what to say. They would love to announce the name of a top private school, because that would affirm that we are doing well materially, that we are giving you the best we can give, that I appreciate the private education I received, and that your futures are assured. It is a social pressure that weighs more heavily on my parents than it does on me, but I can see that, in the future, that weight will shift down a generation.

Our plan is not to send you to private schools. We won’t be ‘booking you in’ unless it’s an absolute last resort.

Your mother didn’t go to a private school. Her upbringing was far removed from mine. While my family only moved house once, your mother went to several different schools and lived in several different parts of the world. While I was cocooned by a regular nuclear family, your mother lived as an only child, with her itinerant mother – your maternal Grandma – seemingly never unchanging or conservative. Your mother was not born on a lucky streak, except in one respect: she had a mother who loved her and cared for her as the most precious thing in the world. That’s what your mother and I have in common: we were both raised in loving homes.

When I look around, I see constant contradiction of the idea that private education produces better people with better opportunities. Leaving aside my friends from school, I scarcely know anyone who went to a private school. Most of the friends I’ve made since the age of 18 were publicly educated. Most of the people I respect went to high schools. Your mother is still good friends with her high-school English teacher; I wish I could say the same about any of my teachers. None of my teachers was as good a man or as smart a teacher as this friend of ours. Private-school people tend to be wealthier, but their parents tend to be wealthier to begin with. Aside from that, I can’t detect a single scrap of evidence to show that privately educated children turn into happier or more successful adults.

So how do we reconcile this? On the one hand, we fear that a ‘bad’ high school will start our children on the road to perdition. On the other hand, there’s little evidence of this in our adult lives. How do we explain the difference? Ah, we say (they say): it’s all different now. The difference between a private and a public education is infinitely greater now than it was twenty years ago.

Is it? I visited my old school a little while ago. It now has more buildings and owns more property. It certainly has more computers, and its teachers probably earn more. But does it offer a better education? Measuring it by its HSC results, it has slipped from the top ten in the state (our headmaster used to boast, with typical spin, that we were the “top non-selective boys’ school in the state”, and we were) to the top fifty.

But I don’t think that’s the best measure. The best measure is how the boys turn out. And I have a pretty strong feeling that they turn out much as we did: nice, well-groomed, mostly obedient, unworldly, conservative. There can’t be that much difference. And yet the fees have risen from $1000 a year to nearly $20,000. If they’d stuck to the inflation rate, they would be about $6000. Nobody can tell me that the education the schools offer is three times better. The fees have gone up purely in response to demand. A social change has occurred, whereby frightened parents ­– many of whom did not go to private schools – have mystified the properties of a private education, and now insist on giving their children one. They want the best, and they think they can buy it. This is what drives fees up. I object as a matter of principle.

But should I be applying my principles to your future? This is the unspoken argument from your grandparents: “It’s all very well for you to be against private education, but do you need your children to be your guinea pigs?” I am meant to feel guilty if I don’t buy into the myth of private schooling for the two of you. I am meant to be afraid of what terrors might befall you if you are, god forbid, sent off to mix with the wrong types in a public school.

Guilt and fear. That’s all it is. Guilt and fear.

You’ll notice that I’ve talked about money. I’m meant to feel guilty about this, because parents are meant to spare no expense for their children. To say no to private education is an act of stinginess. I wonder if you will hold it against me. But you have to understand that at this time private schools are not simply educational institutions. They are middle-sized corporations prospering on their high fees and government subsidies. Their prime interest is not you. Your education is important to them, but not as important as their self-perpetuation.

That will sound tough, even offensive, to the people who belong to private-school communities. But it was always the case: we were drilled in the idea that the institution is greater than the individual, and we bought into it. In the twenty-first century, private schools’ management of their wealth is far more sophisticated, because the relation between school and parents is not the old relationship of clergy to congregation, but more akin to a business contract. Parents pay money; school provides product.

The sense that children are commodities, sent to school for improvement and renovation, has accelerated. Heaven help the school that does not give parents what they’ve paid for. I have a friend who is responsible for discipline at a big private school. Students have been known to offer him a few hundred dollars to get them off detention. If bribes don’t work, their fathers threaten legal action. The more it costs, the more private education follows the laws of commerce rather than of pedagogy.

For parents who are scared of education and don’t have the confidence to participate in their children’s learning, the overwhelming desire can be to transfer that responsibility to a school. There’s always been a myth that private schools are for parents who want to participate, and public schools are for parents who want to opt out. I wonder about that. I wonder if it might be the opposite.

Yet there is always the fear. And so, despite our noble intentions, despite our determination to play an active part in your education, we still find ourselves looking at the attractive private-school brochures. I was thinking that choosing a private school feels like shopping – the comparison of attributes, the weighing of brands, the question of value for money – and I realised that shopping is precisely what it is. Education as another form of consumerism. We want to reject that. To choose private schooling seems a loss of nerve.

We seem spoilt for choice, but our real choice, as parents, is quite simple: do we make you items in an exchange, or do we protect you? Is your education, and its implications for us as a family, to become part of a commercial transaction, or do we make our home a sanctuary from commerce? How do we best ready you for the world? How do we love you? Will our love be something itemised on the invoices for your clothes, your toys, your schooling?

The moment you were born, both of you, we were hit by two lightning strikes. The first was how immediately we fell in love with you, and how all-consuming that love is. The second was the somehow startling realisation, which only parenthood can reveal, that you are not extensions of us but two independent people, almost strangers, who have come to live with us for the first part of your lives. In time, you will make your own assessments of what we have done. I hope you forgive us for holding to our resolutions; if we falter, I hope you forgive us for that, too. And I dare to hope that you find cause not just for forgiveness but also for the kind of gratitude that your mother and I owe to our parents.

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, and has won three Walkley awards for journalism. His books include Jamaica, The Life and Bluebird.

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