OPINION: Nigella Lawson understands education better than the government

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High school teacher Sian Gammie isn't happy with the federal government's changes to higher education fees. The change will see the cost of Arts degrees double. She is afraid education might be out of reach for young people who can't afford the increase.

I have a mug at work that says: I love my teacher… but not the homework.

Students always say to me, “I bet you bought that mug for yourself ay Miss?”

Rude.

Mug remarks aside, the second most common things students say to me is: “When will I ever use this information at my job?”

Sadly, this is exactly the way Education Minister Dan Tehan wants my students to think. A career-focused approach. “Industry aligned”, they call it. With university fees set to double for students wanting to study humanities, the government is sending my students one message:

Education is a means to an end.

When we encourage students to love learning for the sake of learning, and teach them that learning is not just about getting a job, Minister Tehan is in the corner of the room rolling his eyes and making spit-balls.

What an insult that is to our brightest and most interested young minds, who are capable of contributing so much to society – if only we gave them the chance.

When students fall in love with learning, it changes their world. They learn to love reading and questioning and reasoning.

Miss, if Othello is so old, how come we still have racism?

When they love learning, they are granted access to so many worlds. They can think compassionately, they can wrestle with ideas, they can debate and they can listen.

But none of that is a bullet point on a CV.

When you stand at the front of the class dictating from a textbook, they slide out of their seats like overcooked spaghetti. But when you read out something beautiful – something they get – suddenly you see teenagers transform into thoughtful, ardent young adults who have forgotten that career-paths even exist.

Will they quote a poem in a job interview? Probably not.

But are they more likely to empathise with others who are a different colour, shape or creed to them?

Absolutely.

So then, why does the government want to hold this type of learning so far out of reach? How come only rich kids get to do the Arts degree that so many of us relied on to teach us the basics of how the world works?

In a time of race riots and major political unrest around the world, I can only assume that the government wants to limit access for young Australians to engage in disruptive thinking.

They’re scared of the thoughts they might have. And of the power that comes with that knowledge.

Instead, let’s tape their minds shut and funnel them into careers where they can service our GDP.

The state of our education system is this: the highest ATARs are usually the result of $100/hr tutoring sessions and $30 000 p.a. school fees – and often all they’ve learned is how to memorise and regurgitate an essay.

I teach 16-year-olds who work at Maccas to support their family, live in households with no books and still have a better grasp on the state of current affairs than most adults. I want to bring them around with me, little human contributions, just to show people: See? This is what good humans should be like. Thoughtful and caring and open-minded. Not frightened, reactionary and intolerant.

So when students like mine decide they have fallen in love with learning and they’d like to do some more of it – we’re telling them no. Learning about the world is for the wealthy. Learning how to think is a luxury.

We don’t want you to become a better person. We just want you to work. And pay your taxes. And be quiet about it.

And so, the cycle continues. Another slammed door in the face of people whose choices are already stymied by their lack of privilege. Another blow to the Arts industry, which helps us to understand the rapidly changing world.

Years ago, when my Arts degree was teaching me how to write and how to think, Andrew Denton interviewed Nigella Lawson. He asked her whether she found much use for her degree in Medieval Languages from Oxford.

She responded with a look of horror. “That’s a very vulgar way to think of education,” she said.

And he laughed, because he knew she was right.

Sian Gammie has been a high school English teacher for seven years, and blogs at The Sian Show.