Sydney Review of Books | A Common World: Review of Bri Lee’s ‘Who Gets to Be Smart’

When I was a teenager, I was asked to do something no teenager really wants to do: watch my step-cousin perform in her high school production. At my cousin’s school this was called a ‘play’ and we went to the school ‘theatre’. At my school we had the ‘musical’ which happened once every two years in the ‘hall’ – and once the audience was inside, our deputy principal would proudly remind everyone that this hall was built on lamingtons. Before my cousin’s play, we walked through her school, a prestigious private school. It was the first girls’ school in Queensland and is the oldest secondary school in the state. Certainly nothing was paid for through lamington drives.

We looked out to the Brisbane River – I wrongly assumed all schools were as unappealing as mine – and someone mentioned my cousin was interested in rowing and debating. I didn’t realise Australian schools offered rowing; my school didn’t have a debating team. Against the pristine, heritage-listed buildings with the sparkling views of Brisbane’s Story Bridge, I remember feeling something hot, clammy, almost ugly. I had stepped into a private school and was quietly floored. This isn’t exactly unique: lots of public school kids have a moment, particularly when they travel to a private school to play sport or attend events, when they realise there are differences in education. Without even asking the price, I knew my single parent mother wouldn’t be able to afford to send me to a school like this. She couldn’t even afford my uniforms.

I didn’t necessarily like school but I understood what it wanted from me. My year level had 330 students, yet I managed to graduate as dux and received an equity scholarship at the University of Queensland which quite literally changed the material conditions of my life. I didn’t like telling people at university where I went to school or that I came from a single parent family that lived on welfare. I didn’t understand how some students talked so easily with lecturers. Class preparation was googling how to pronounce things like ‘Michel Foucault’. But this was water to tread, for the moral was that you never complained. It would be ungrateful.

I tell this story to explain a strange parallel and to preface a review. This high school of my cousin’s was also the high school Bri Lee attended. And, like an inverse parallel, or the superimposition of related yet divergent images, Lee begins Who Gets to Be Smart: Privilege, Power and Knowledge with a similarly flooring visit: except, she goes to Oxford.

To continue reading, please find the full article at Sydney Review of Books.

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