Australia’s timid heart

It wasn’t until I’d lived outside Australia for awhile that I realised just how anti-intellectual my homeland is. One of the worst things you can be back home is a “wanker” which more times than not is used to refer to someone who thinks too much. Oh, the horror!

At most of the schools I attended it was far better to be good at sports than at schoolwork and no one ever admitted to studying hard. “Oh this? I only started it ten minutes before it was due. Don’t know what the teacher was thinking giving me such a good mark.” Roll of eyes.

I’m still not sure what we were afraid of. Well, yes, the scorn of the other students—no one wanted to be seen as a swot. But why? Why was a love of ideas and learning scorned? What’s wrong with being smart?

At the time, I never questioned it. I barely even noticed it. It was just the air I breathed. Hiding that you were smart, underplaying your intellectual achievements, that was just what you did. Or tried to do. Some of us were crap at it. We were the wankers.

During John Howard’s eleven-and-a-half-year reign the anti-intellectualism grew. When I went through school we were taught about the dispossession of the original inhabitants of Australia by the English invaders; I keep meeting people much younger than me who were not. I keep meeting Australians who cannot comprehend that admitting Australia was invaded does not wipe out the achievements of those invaders, those early settlers. You can be an invader and you can be a brave settler. At the same time.

In The Guardian Richard Flanagan, a Tasmanian novelist, reflects on the Howard legacy:

In the wake of his defeat the attacks on Howard’s legacy will turn ferocious, but at their heart will be an unease, a ritual exorcism of something deeper that Australians would perhaps rather not admit. For a decade Howard’s power had resided in his ability to speak directly and powerfully to the great negativity at the core of the Australian soul—its timidity, its conformity, its fear of other people and new ideas, its colonial desire to ape rather than lead, its shame that sometimes seems close to a terror of the uniqueness of its land and people.

Its conviction that real life is going on somewhere else.

What Flanagan says is true. And it’s also not true. The tension between the two is a lot of what it means to be Australian. I think of how proud I was when Paul Keating gave the Redfern speech so many years ago. My pride, too, in John Howard’s immediate introduction of gun control laws following the Port Arthur massacre back in 1996. The horror I felt as the babies-overboard scandal was unfolding. Not to mention Tampa. And, of course, Howard’s continuing promotion of racism and intolerance: in the last days before the election he declared that the two things he was most proud of were the undoing of political correctness in Australia and renewing Australia’s pride in its Anglo-Celtic heritage. What of those Australians who do not have an Anglo-Irish background? What of the indigenous peoples of Australia? The immigrants from all over the world? What of their extraordinary contributions to Australia?

I don’t believe that each nation has a particular character. Or that all Australians are the same. Yet I cannot deny what Flanagan says about the Australian soul (whatever that is). We are a nation deeply suspicious of education and learning, who have produced an astounding number of prominent intellectuals, scholars, scientists and writers. Who, more often than not, go elsewhere to pursue their careers and contributions to learning and knowledge.

I am extraordinarily relieved and happy that John Howard is gone. I can’t imagine that Kevin Rudd will continue Howard’s legacy of anti-intellectualism, racism and intolerance. I could be wrong though. Those things existed before Howard took up the Prime Ministership and they’ll continue to exist long after him. It remains to be seen whether the new government will be as dedicated to improving the intellectual and moral climate of Australia as Howard’s government was to destroying it. The promise to say sorry is a good start.

But governments have come in before promising much and then delivering little. We’ll see, won’t we?


  1. Tim on #

    Very interesting, Justine. To combine this topic with another of your interests, I ask this (mostly ignorant) question: do you think more racial diversity in Australian sport will help? I know that not every wearer of the Baggy Green is lily-white, but I wonder what the effect would be of an Aboriginal version of Allan Border or Ricky Ponting? (Then again, beyond cricket, a smidge of swimming, and the fact that Ms. Goolagong once played tennis, my knowledge of Australian sport is nonexistent.)

    If I haven’t asked the right question, feel free to substitute the one I would have asked if I knew what the hell I was talking about. 🙂

  2. Edwina on #

    I couldn’t agree more.

    this year i was in year 10, and my god how my grades have dropped in all my subjects except year 11 japanese, in which my marks have improved beyond belief.

    and now i realise why:
    in my japanese class we have a positive learning environment… you do well, and its the best thing and your peers congratulate you. hi 5’s all ’round.

    i took on a too-hard maths for me to be able to cope, and so I couldn’t be bothered with learning.

    i’ve realised the errors in my thinking and next year is going to be different. grades actually begin to count and im doing subjects that count towards my vce mark.

    please let kevin rudd be the school systems saviour.

  3. Lizzy-wa on #

    hehe. wanker. sounds like winker….

    -Lizzy-wa OUT! 😉

  4. Kenina-chan on #

    People shouldn’t judge the people of a different country by the person who is in “charge.”

  5. Justine on #

    Tim: Yes, it totally does. In fact the dominance of Indigenous athletes in Australian Rules football has had a profound effect on the culture of that sport. I’d love for the Australian Cricket Board to be actively introducing the game to indigenous communities. That would be awesome!

    Edwina: Yup! I had the exact same experience in high school and university.

    Kenina-Chan: Absolutely. I’m always defending the US of A to friends back home who are convinced all USians are bad or stupid or something because of their president.

    But the rulers of a nation are able—to a large extent—to influence the culture. That’s what I was trying to talk about.

    I certainly don’t think Australia is a more racist nation than any other. I don’t think there’s a country in the world without a history of racism.

    And I don’t think all Australians are evil or racist. I mean, I’m Australian. As is my whole family and most of my closest friends. But there was a darkness in the last eleven years that really upset me and made me less proud of my country than I had been. I hope that makes sense.

  6. leinad on #

    I am a little annoyed at Flanagan for hyperbolizing in that article; for christ’s sake, one old, overweight man having a heart attack in the middle of some argy bargy with a pedestrian who he sprayed with water does not constitute ‘people have be[ing] murdered by neighbours for watering gardens’ – that’s the sort of ridiculous exaggeration that posions the otherwise accurate points he made.

  7. Justine on #

    Leninad: That annoyed the crap out of me too. Because it makes it very easy for people to dismiss everything else he was saying.

  8. Jessica on #

    Given our convict roots i’m not surprised by our anti-intellectualism. However, i can’t help but think this will soon change with the somewhat recent (past 50 years or so) change to immigration policy.

    A lot of people who come to Australia seeking out a new, safe country in which to live and bring up their children often bring their fantastic work ethic and keen desire for their children to do well at school. When i think back to my school days it was often the children of migrants or children who had recently come to Australia themselves that totally blitzed through school and did exceptionally well. Because their parents valued education and knowledge and knew that to get anywhere they needed it!

    These kids will grow up and run this country. They’re already growing up. Give it time and this could totally change Australia’s culture and how we view and value learning, knowledge and our intellectuals. Maybe we’ll even be able to actually retain some of those intellectuals too!

    I’m glad we have someone in power now who is a bit younger, a bit more savvy, has valued education himself and has, like many people here, many of them migrants (even though he isnt), built himself up from not much (no silver spoon) to do things no doubt he would have been looked down on for.

    I’m still a bit of a cynic, and i’m not going to hold my breath for change, but man, he isnt Howard or Costello and i’m grateful for that!!

    (Ack. Sorry for the long comment. i just get passionate about these things.)

  9. janet on #

    My first thought reading this is that a lot of what you say could also be said of the U.S. What’s your impression of the level of anti-intellectualism in the states compared to australia?

    as for the situation of the invaders and the aboriginal peoples, I think sometimes of the incredible courage and determination it took for my ancestors to leave — forever! — their homes and families and everything they knew to cross the ocean and make new lives for themselves, and to forge a new society — and how this was based on heinous crimes against the Native americans and the equally heinous barbarities of the slave trade.

  10. Herenya on #

    Having gone away and thought about it, I don’t think I’d say we were anti-intellectual… I won’t pretend I think the education system without fault, and it is not that I’ve never met people who were, well, anti-intellectual. It’s just that they didn’t give that impression of our society as a whole.

    I’ve been brought up in a family where education is seen to be really important, and formed friends with similar values. Yes, when I was 15 I had classes where those interested in learning were in the minority. I hated it – the combination of teachers who didn’t want to teach and students you didn’t want to learn. But I always saw that as a reflection on the age we were going through, as it definitely changed as I went through high school. i don’t remember pride at having barely studied, I remember self-disgust at procrastination or doing other things which meant one barely studied.
    I had an unintellectual-ish english class in yr 12, but there was an understanding that if we didn’t do the work, it was our own choice and we would face the consequences. Those of us who put in effort weren’t looked down upon, or ashamed to admit when we did well, and we had some fantastic group discussions. I certainly never felt I had to hide that I was smart.

    I guess I’m just interested to see what impressions you’ve drawn, and wanted to say that wasn’t my experience. so maybe there’s hope for us… (sorry ’bout the long comment)

  11. MooseGuy on #

    They say the best thing an artist/writer can have is a tragic childhood. I sometimes, rather stupidly, worry that maybe I won’t be good enough because nothing really bad has ever happened to me. But maybe being an Australian smart kid is bad enough…

    I did a speech on poetry last week, in front of my entire year level. it was part of a public speaking comp. The judges loved it, twenty or so students thought it was okay, but the other 120…

    being surrounded by ignorance really gets to me sometimes.

  12. Sash on #

    break out the red wine justine. you can sit at my dining table any night. i so agree with your comment on anti-intellectualism. my family preferred to call me a ‘snob’ rather than a wanker though. i still love learning, they still think i’m a snob and presume i vote liberal because i’m a professional. it really saddens me how little people know of our government and economy and how it all works. i’ve been stunned each time this government got back in since tampa. very few human beings who hop on a leaky boat for an uncertain future do so without being in a pretty desperate situation. why did australians believe them? this government has corporatised our culture and so many of us have put our mortgages before our ideals. i don’t think it’s a sign of anyone thinking any more deeply that labor got in. everyone just got scared when the water situation started to affect them personally. let’s hope we actually start thinking about things now. (as a small note, i have already broken out the red wine tonight so i hope this makes sense.)

  13. Justine on #

    Janet: If you click on the first link in my post you’ll see my comparison of anti-intellectualism in Sydney versus New York City.

    Herenya: Not all Australians are anti-intellectual. Of course not! I grew up in houses groaning with books and both my parents have PhDs. But there is something very disturbing about the overall culture and it’s far worse than anywhere else I’ve ever spent time. In Buenos aires many of the streets are named after writers. The taxi drivers love to argue philosophy. It’s just a whole other world.

    Mooseguy: I’ve been there! I so feel your pain. I have Australian writer friends who’ve published many novels and are well respected who are too embarrassed to admit that they’re writers when asked what they do.

    Sash: That’s exactly how I feel! (Right down to the love of good red wine.) Fingers crossed that it’s going to change.

  14. tole on #

    I like kevin rudd because he gave the MP’s homework!

    On his first day, he told every MP that they have to go to one private school, and one state school, and check out what they were actually like (i believe with an eye towards computers)

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