By KATE HUNTER
Mark Latham, former leader of the ALP is one of those ex politicians who likes to throw grenades.
It’s exciting to stand back and watch the fallout knowing that really, nothing bad can happen. In fact, Mr Latham may have pricked some ears. Who knows, he might even be asked on Sunrise. That wouldn’t have happened if he’d written a cookbook.
Anyway, love Latham or loathe him, there’s no denying he’s a highly intelligent man with something to say.
And he said it in an explosive piece in the Quarterly Essay.
In a nutshell, Latham believes that unless we follow the ‘Asian example,’ of prioritising academic excellence above all else for our kids, we will be the “poor white trash” of the region, quoting former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew’s dire prediction.
With all the talk of Gonski reforms and the ‘education revolution,’ the idea that Australian parents are soft on our kids – just happy for them to be happy – makes the conversation one worth having.
“Asian parents are highly devoted to the education of their children: assisting with homework, organising extra tuition, forever encouraging excellence.”
Difficulties faced by students from non-English speaking households don’t appear to be holding them back at school, possibly because of the value parents place on education and hard work.
“Sydney’s selective school figures indicate a different trend in social mobility, with Asian parents using school-aged education as a springboard for the next generation. Their sons and daughters are moving quickly into middle-class professional jobs.”
Latham believes it’s the kids of white, English speaking Aussies who will be stuck in dead-end jobs, unable to escape a cycle of poverty.
“The problem of immobility is greater among families from an English-speaking background, especially those on low income. Visit any suburban public-housing estate in Australia and this debilitating trend is obvious,” Mr Latham argues. “‘Lee Kuan Yew’s prophecy has found a new resonance.”
If you’ve read Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother by the Chinese-American author Amy Chua (and I recommend you do – it’s warm and funny as well as fascinating) you’ll understand why many second and third generation Chinese people in countries like the USA and Australia are pushed so hard to succeed.
“Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. The reason for this is a little unclear but it’s probably a combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents have sacrificed and done so much for their children.
The understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud. By contrast, I don’t think most westerners have the same view as being permanently indebted to their parents.”
If it all sounds a bit hardcore, wait. Amy Chua adds that it’s all about faith in kids.
“Western parents are extremely anxious about their child’s self esteem. They constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test. Chinese parents are not concerned about their child’s psyche. They assume strength, not fragility and as a result behave very differently.”
A couple of interesting questions come out of all this.
Are things so good in Australia that those of us who’ve been here a few generations take a decent education and comfortable lifestyle for granted?
Do we want our kids to be at the top of the class all the time if the pressure makes them unhappy? Surely happiness is the ultimate goal.
Latham would argue that you can’t be happy if you don’t have a decent job and your family eats two minute noodles for dinner. And Chua says happiness comes from making your family proud. Each generation is expected to be wealthier than the last. Her greatest fear is ‘generational decline.’
There are some things about raising my kids that keep me awake at night, but ‘generational decline’ isn’t one of them. But you have to wonder whether the celebrated relaxed Aussie attitude will be celebrated for much longer.
Do you agree with Mark Latham?