Private choice of education provokes public race debate

Sydney Morning Herald - 23rd April, 2001
Author: Sally Loane

Children learn racism from their parents, but the best kind of school will teach them that discrimination is wrong. I first saw Marcia Langton 11 years ago, at a reception for Nelson Mandela.

He had just been released from jail and had, in his words, come to Australia to thank us for our support of sanctions against the apartheid regime.

Marcia Langton was waiting behind some silk ropes with a handful of other prominent Aboriginal men and women who had been selected for a private meeting with Mr Mandela. I approached her with my reporter's notebook and asked her if she would give me a few words on the great man and this event.

She dismissed me without comment, waving me away angrily. I watched her, fascinated. This tall, proud, handsome woman was shaking with the emotion of the occasion and was not going to waste words with a mere reptile of the press.

She was clearly different. Her bearing and ferocity reminded me strongly of Pat O'Shane, whom I witnessed, a decade or so earlier, startle a Brisbane luncheon audience of smartly frocked ladies with an uncompromising speech about the plight of her people under Joh Bjelke-Petersen. O'Shane stood her ground as a cacophony of very unladylike hissing and booing grew louder and louder.

I had never seen anyone quite like her, black or white. I have followed the careers of these feisty and outspoken women with great interest ever since.

Marcia Langton , now chair of indigenous studies at Melbourne University, broke a few sacred cows last week with her passionate defence of private schools. The reason she sent her daughter to a private school, she told the Australian Education Assembly meeting in Melbourne, was twofold to protect against racism, which she said was rampant in public schools, and to give her daughter the highest standard of education in the country.

Langton pointed to a number of Aboriginal leaders, including Noel Pearson and Mick and Pat Dodson, who were educated privately, and said that if there were enough Aboriginal children educated in private schools there would be a generational breakthrough that would turn the tide of racism in Australia.

One thing that is a given is that whenever the words "private school" are mentioned, people rush to their ideological positions and start firing.

The big confusion with this story was that an Aboriginal woman had said something that was against the politically correct grain. One of the first callers to my program accused Marcia Langton of elitism. How shocking a black woman being uppity! We can't have that, now, can we? Let's keep Aborigines where they belong, in the public system. A young Aboriginal woman, Yvonne Weldon, had been educated in both systems, public and private. Her early years at Cleveland Street High were a disaster, she told me. She was abused by both black and white kids and her grades and her behaviour nosedived. When her mother, Ann, a senior public servant, was given short shrift by the school when she raised the problems, she moved Yvonne to a private school, St Scholastica's College, in Glebe. As Yvonne began to talk about her days at St Scholastica's, her voice changed. This was the period when her life turned around. It was the place, she said, where she would love to send her own daughters.

Yvonne Weldon's and Marcia Langton 's experiences are not universal, of course. One caller told me a private school experience for her adopted Aboriginal son was not happy, but the public school she moved him to was.

Pat O'Shane defended public schools in the wake of Langton's attack, saying some private schools have an ingrained culture of racism and bullying and nothing is done about it.

There is some truth in all of this, but Langton has a point. Many private schools, particularly those run by churches, have a commitment not only to pushing students to their best academic achievement, but to social justice. Kids learn racism from their parents, and they take it to school, public or private. Some schools in both systems try to stamp it out; others turn a blind eye.

Marcia Langton is fortunate she is able to shop around and make a choice.

Whether you agree with her or not, the more Aboriginal voices we have like hers adding to debate that rages around education should be warmly welcomed.