Noel Pearson’s Hopes

Much as I am inclined to, I sometimes find it hard to argue with Noel Pearson. I was nearly finished reading through Pearson’s recent Radical Hope: education and equality in Australia (Black Inc, Quarterly Essay no. 35, 2009) when I was alerted (thanks, J) to Inga Clendinnen’s response to it in a recent issue of the Australian Literary Review (“The Pearson Solution,” December 2, 2009). As usual, I found Clendinnen’s combination of clear-eyed personal reflection and acute critical perception convincing, and made me want to believe even more strongly in the arguments that Pearson puts forth. As someone once remarked about Pearson, one wants so badly for him to be right. And yet doubts remain; I have a sense that all is not so well, or so neat, as Pearson wants us to believe.

Yet more than many of the essays that I have thus far sampled from Pearson’s collected writings in Up From the Mission (Black Inc. 2009), Radical Hope represents a truly compelling argument. Part of this effect stems without a doubt from the brilliance and the beauty of Pearson’s rhetoric. (And here I use rhetoric in the non-prejudicial sense of “the art of effective or persuasive writing or speaking.”) He captured my heart immediately in his Prologue, with its stories of the indigenous American Crow leader Plenty Coups’s struggle to bring his people through a profound cultural dislocation and transition and with his retelling of W. E. H. Stanner’s encounters with Durmugam in the 1930s and 1950s. From there Pearson takes us straight to the example of Barack Obama and the American President’s determination to encourage the African-American community to take responsibility to lead its youth out of the trap of social, economic and educational disadvantage. By the time Pearson turned his argument directly to the plight of Indigenous Australians, I was already rooting for his success.

The main thrust of Pearson’s arguments is not new. Education is the critical, fundamental solution to Indigenous disadvantage in Australia. And while he places his faith in a particular strategy, that of Siegfried Engelmann’s “Direct Instruction,” buttressed by examples of other theoretical and practical educational reforms now taking place in America, the solution at its core is simple and not at all novel. Teachers and students must be held accountable for learning–teachers even more so than students. Discipline, a focus on the acquisition of the fundamental skills of literacy and numeracy, and a refusal to make or accept excuses for failure or substandard performance are the bedrock of his approach. Clendinnen’s reconstruction of her own primary education (without the theorizing, and with heavy doses of stringent discipline) endorses the efficacy of Pearson’s recommendations, a story that might be called “up from poverty.”

Equally, Pearson argues for the necessity of serious intent on the part of the Indigenous population. They must not simply apply the rigors of classical education techniques to the acquisition of the basic skills that will enable them to overcome poverty, dysfunction, and marginalization, although that is essential. They must equally embrace the daunting task of preserving the essentials of Aboriginal culture as they acquire the ability to thrive in non-Indigenous arenas. The fires of the “cultural hearth,” as Pearson calls it, must not be allowed to die out. This means preserving language, working within the constraints of familial responsibility, and maintaining the vast body of knowledge generated by and unique to the indigenous experience of the Australian continent.

Pearson is sensitive to the dilemma such a dual focus engenders. 

The education of a minority people obviously has great bearing on the cultural development of that people. What children learn during the most active hours of the most receptive years, the languages they speak and write, will shape their cultural identity and outlook. Children may receive informal cultural education in their family and community spheres, but it is hard to see how gradual cultural attenuation can be avoided if Aboriginal students’ formal education in no way contributes to maintaing their culture.

At the same time, Aboriginal Australian students have a right to a mainstream education that does not handicap them on their life trajectory through the modern world. There is a tension–not a contradiction–here that needs to be resolved (p. 60, emphasis added).

Clendinnen presents it more bluntly:

[Pearson] is also alert to a subtler, larger disadvantage: indigenous children are likely to lack the “implicit learning”, such as the disciplines of work and time, imparted to most Western children in the home. Even that, he believes, can be overcome by properly focused teaching, as it must be if indigenous children, wherever they are born, are to achieve a decent competence in the skills they will need if they are to choose the shape of their lives. Living as they do now, they have no choice at all.

Change has already come to the community. As Pearson noted earlier in his essay, 

Oral transmission is no longer viable for cultural maintenance. … Our people’s lifestyle have changed …[and] we have to confront the reality that our people will not return to the classical traditional lifestyle. My own view is that the way forward is to achieve a complete bi-cultural capacity. That is, for young Cape York people to be completely fluent in their own culture and the wider culture — and to move with facility and capacity between the two worlds. (pp.56-57).

But if the mechanisms for cultural transmission have been broken or swept away, how is this fully developed bi-cultural capacity to be achieved? Pearson has many times described his vision of young adult members of his Cape York “orbiting” between their native communities, where they can participate in the work of cultural preservation, and the “wider culture” where economic opportunity exists. As appealing as this notion is, it strikes me as a bit fantastic. It is not just of a question of “how ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree” or Sydney or Brisbane. It’s also a question of how are they going to pursue careers, economic advancement, and full participation in a wider culture that doesn’t respect the need to orbit back to Cape York, or to echo a century-old complaint about Aboriginal labor, if “the blacks go on walkabout.”

Although throughout Radical Hope Pearson has emphasized the requirement for Aboriginal people to take responsibility for their own success in school and beyond, in this issue of cultural maintenance, he finally demands similar accountability from the nation.

[P]olitical and ideological resistance, accompanied as it is by mainstream indifference and Aboriginal disadvantage, makes it unreasonable to expect Aboriginal Australians to ensure culture and language transmission is strong without government support. The cynical suggestion that the maintenance of Aboriginal cultures and languages is the sole responsibility of the peoples themselves–in a fashion akin to the efforts of recent immigrant communities–must be rejected (p. 69).

Pearson goes on to develop the argument for government responsibility, quoting the support for education in Sami languages provided in Scandinavian schools, and the salutary outcomes for identity that it has brought to individuals. But when he turns back to the Australian question, his argument staggers.

What might this mean in practice? In disadvantaged Aboriginal populations, as much time as possible needs to be devoted to numeracy and English literacy in primary school. Over the next decade at least, students entering schools in depressed Aboriginal areas will, on average, have acquired fewer of the building blocks of English literacy and numeracy than mainstream students. Aboriginal students cannot plausibly close this achievement gap unless all high-quality time–mornings and early afternoons–is devoted to instruction that is tailored to their needs and abilities. The enormous socio-economic gap between the peoples of Australia–unparalleled in the world–necessitates a sustained and intensified effort to teach Aboriginal students Australia’s majority language to mastery (p. 71).

I don’t want to argue with this proposition. Its truth seems unassailable. Pearson proposes a second “domain” (what he described above is “Class”) called “Culture” designed to “enable Cape York children to become literate in their own culture and languages.” Unfortunately, he has no concrete proposals, no theories of “direct instruction,” no blueprint for achieving the parallel development of this second (and clearly secondary) domain of culture.

And this is where I must abandon my belief in Pearson’s argument. His agenda for education, as I’ve said, is justifiable and strong. But it must, as he himself admits, lead to “cultural attenuation.” It fails to recognize a historical unwillingness on the part of the government and the “wider culture” to attempt to understand, let alone accommodate, the principles that underlie the values of Aboriginal society. Pearson argues that “altruism must be directed at igniting and supporting with maximum opportunity, the self-interest of the disadvantaged” (p. 97). But when has that ever occurred?

Even Pearson himself is willing to cast off the trappings of Aboriginality if they interfere with the goal of educational success and economic advancement. Reflecting on the need for black leaders to undertake “constant self-examination under a scorching light,” he demands of himself, “Why do I think that I need a job, to own my own home, to have sensible numbers of relatives visit me at one time, for sensible periods of time, and so on–but that others might not?” (p. 98). With that word “sensible” he shows how far removed he is from values that inform Aboriginal culture, where it is shameful not to honor the demands of relatives, despite the cost. 

As I said at the outset, I don’t want to argue with Pearson’s plea for the benefits that education and discipline can bring in the modern world. But nor do I want to pretend that such radical hope for the future will not irrevocably alter the fabric of the Indigenous tradition.

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