h) Culture, history and literature
Convictism and education
This article was published on Tasmania Times on 26.5.09.
Mark Sayerís recent comments linking convictism to Tasmaniaís poor educational and skill levels have met with a remarkable level of scepticism, from letters to the editor to kitchen table conversations.
In part, the scepticism is political; as a former Labor staffer Sayer has been accused of excusing perceived ineptitude in educational policy and administration.
But mostly the scepticism is historical; how can something that happened 150 years ago influence contemporary attitudes, many Tasmanians are asking.
What I find remarkable about this latter groups of sceptics is how many are happy to accept the influence of history in different circumstances.
For example, far fewer people would the contest the link between convict hostility to authority and Australiaís supposed egalitarian spirit than would criticise the link Sayer draws.
In Australia it is almost universally accepted that contemporary American moralism derives directly from the early puritan pilgrims, even though that link is far more tenuous than the Australian links Iíve mentioned.
What weíre seeing here, driving the common human failing of inconsistency, is the equally common failing of conceit. We legitimise what we like about ourselves, or dislike in others, by anchoring it in the past. We delegitimise what we donít like about ourselves by denying it any lineage.
What weíre also seeing is how superficial Australiaís acceptance of our convict past really is. Unless our convict ancestors can be embraced for bequeathing qualities we value, we isolate them in a past that was forever locked and sealed by the end of transportation Ė ironically, a typically nineteenth century response that is as strong as it ever was.
The same shallowness can be seen in the way we spin our convict forebears as industrialisationís innocent victims who became respectable breathing free, southern air. Contrary evidence that many were committed criminals, that many did not make good, and that many of those who did thrive did so by criminal means, is still too hard for us to hear.
Whatís particularly astounding about all this denial of historyís reality and influence is that it should occur in a place like Tasmania where our links to the past are so very close.
As a boy my father heard stories about chain gangs and hangings, lags and bushrangers from a great, great aunt who saw such things with her own eyes. When he was 12 she turned 100, placing her birth in 1846. Thanks to the violent political twists in Tasmanian history, convictism may seem like ancient history, but in personal terms itís yesterday. Perhaps thatís why we continue to cut off the past Ė itís too close.
Of course there are dangers in looking for convict provenances for every contemporary trait.
The first is reductionism.
There are many explanations for Tasmaniaís educational under-performance apart from convictism, including historical ones. I can think of intractable poverty, high unemployment, subsistence farming, persisting pre-modern attitudes, and suspicion of education in some religious sects. Iíve read at least one educationalist cite in-breeding, I hope tongue in cheek.
The second danger is simplification.
Sayerís portrait of ill-educated convicts kept that way by arrogant masters ignores the role convicts themselves played in shaping their own lives. Some convicts rejected the educational efforts of prison authorities because education and skill-acquisition were so closely associated with prison discipline, and because they wanted to preserve their own cultural values against the industrial-age values the convict authorities sought to inculcate. The same suspicion of the class room and the workshop is found in prisons today.
Sayerís portrait also ignores the duality of convict experience and influence. For every convict who shirked lessons and passed this disdain for official education on to his or her children, there was another who embraced education as the catalyst of, and symbol for, his or her transformation into a respectable citizen, and passed this immense respect for learning on to the next generation.
This contradictory convict response to education, to be found sometimes in the same community, the same family, or even the same individual, is how I begin to explain the extreme responses to education I have seen in my fellow Tasmanians my entire life. It is also how I map a way toward better educational outcomes for all Tasmanians: if we understand why suspicion of education lingers in Tasmania and at the same time foster the high esteem in which it is also held, we can move forward.
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