Saturday, October 25, 2008

Muck-up day: loving and leaving the institution

This week was the last of formal classes for Year 12 students in Victorian schools. Many have "muck-up day", which can involve anything from throwing eggs, flour and water around the school, to practical jokes, fuelled by less or more alcohol, and carnivalesque reversals, with kids imitating teachers and conducting assemblies. Sometimes there's just drunkenness, of course.

Sometimes the jokes are clever. There's a story going round that involves either three chickens or three pigs being let loose around a school, with the numbers 1, 2 and 4 painted on their backs, so that teachers spend the day looking for no. 3. At Joel's school last year the Year 12 kids blew up hundreds of balloons and filled the staircases with them.

But at one of the most prestigious Catholic boys' schools in Melbourne last week, things got radically out of hand. A rough game sent one boy (who had previously been the victim of bullying) to hospital with multiple leg fractures; and there are multiple reports of intimidatory behaviour around the neighbourhood, extreme drunkenness and damage to property. Debates in the newspapers and on talk-back radio have been intense; and the story has been picked up internationally.

Is it just the inevitable result of the pressures of the VCE, which are probably more intense in private schools, given the underlying economics of paying big money to get your kid a good result? Are private schools more likely to insist on uniformity that results in this kind of mob behaviour? These kids are next year's P-plate drivers who'll drunkenly kill or maim themselves or their mates, and be roaming up and down around King St nightclubs. Of course it's not just the private schools who produce this behaviour, but given that the public schools have been systematically stripped of funds that are then poured into fee-paying schools on the assumption that they teach better (viz. Christian) values, it hurts like anything to see my taxpayers' money being abused like this. Are these kids the ones I want to support? Is this bullying culture worthy of my hard-earned taxes?

By contrast, this year the Year 12 kids at Joel's public school, which is a high-achieving academic school with a brilliant music and drama programme, celebrated by grafitti-ing the wall, in big 60s letters, with the legend "skule is cool". This school has almost no grounds: the kids go over to the nearby park for breaks. It's an ugly concrete block with no assembly hall. When the whole school gets together, it's once a year for a mass photo on the outside basketball court. Yet the kids love it. I've spoken to other parents about this too; the very strong institutional loyalty this school somehow manages to command, and which Joel also shares in.

Of course, as the child of academics, he's grown up in a household where people love their work, and identify strongly with their workplace. Those traditions are radically under fire at the moment, though, given the structural problems of funding our public tertiary system. My arts faculty is still hoping to sack 15 staff members, and there are literally hundreds of redundancies planned for two other Melbourne universities. It's resulting in a climate where it's hard to maintain those feelings of loyalty and identification that have characterised most of my working life. Both policies (for the funding of secondary and tertiary education), I need hardly remind readers, are legacies of the Howard years...

I recently received an invitation to apply for a job in the US; and while I've said thank you very much, it's not possible at the moment, I do sometimes fantasise about working part-time somewhere else, in some kind of shared appointment. And I think a lot of Australian humanities researchers must wonder, as I do, how different it might feel to work in a better funded environment, in a university that is not so deeply constrained by national politics, where humanities management isn't under such pressure to conform to funding models that blatantly favour science and medical research models.

4 comments:

Suse said...

"It's resulting in a climate where it's hard to maintain those feelings of loyalty and identification ..."

You said it. People are reeling at my workplace right now as you can imagine.

Kathleen said...

I'm in a stranger position. We get people emailing all the time (such as your Babylonian/Melburnian exiles) asking if they can come and work with us. In any capacity: part-time, casual, whatever.

This is extremely flattering - people like what we're doing, and like the culture (and spirit) in which we do it - but then I can't help but think: we're the cherry on top of the cream on top of the ice-cream sundae. And if teaching academics aren't secure now...well...small research groups...

Kathleen said...

Sorry, "strange", not "stranger."

froginthepond said...

On the muck-up day at that school: I think it is a private school culture and one that's been around for awhile given the reflections of some alumni published in the papers over the weekend. Uniformity and the suppression of otherness can make for a frightening culture of intimidation.

I'm rather pathetically grateful to have received a two year research gig at the same university. I've been trying to crack into academia for eight years, after realising that really is what I was meant to do. But: the gig is not in my area, it's contract, and while I can take advantage of many opportunities, there are limits when you're on 'soft money'. And, as you say, there's precious little of that outside the sciences and medicine. There's nothing surer than at the end of my two years, I'll have to head overseas or leave academia. I'd love to teach in my own country but I don't believe I'll ever have that chance.