Oct 23, 2009

Review: Noel Pearson’s Radical Hope

Noel Pearson's new essay could have given been a compelling argument for a new education approach. Instead, he indulged himself in a new airing of old obsessions.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


In the days before email, every editor would regard the pile of mail submissions on the desk with a shudder — what fresh horrors awaited? After a few years, you could tell the maddies by sight. They preferred green ink, their submissions were an inch thick. Should you venture into them you would find that they all the did the same thing in different ways. They attempted to explain current reality — everything from tariff protection to urban planning — in a theoretical extravaganza that began with either the Big Bang or a theory of neural operation, and proceeded from there.

Noel Pearson is no green ink maddie, but he comes pretty close to sounding like one in Radical Hope, an essay ostensibly on education, equality and race in Australia, but which manages to take in the question of whether quantum mechanics supersedes Engels dialectical materialist approach to dualism, how cognitive science has disproved Lockean rationalism, and how Western education would have been thoroughly transformed had the world listened to an obscure educationist named Engelmann.

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7 thoughts on “Review: Noel Pearson’s Radical Hope

  1. Victoria Collins

    And Pearson’s protege, Tania Major, is supposed to be running in the next federal election for the National Party. Says it all about that crew. They finally realise that education is important in improving the lot of our Indigenous people, but the path they follow is one which runs through the land of religious indoctrination & boarding away from their home and cultural influences; also, when it comes to choosing the most appropriate political party to run for, they choose the one with the longest history of racial intolerance and bigotry towards Aboriginals.
    It’s been obvious to me for some time that Pearson & Co. are being used by the Right in this country(we only have to peruse La Albrechtsen’s latest piece about Pearson to realise he’s having smoke blown up his rear-end by her type), in order to give a veneer of respectibility to the policies which the Howard government were laying the foundations for, should they have been elected again(and which would have proven to them that their brainwashing of the Australian people was complete and successful); which, up until then, included the Intervention and removal of the Racial Discrimination Act, to see where their real agenda was heading. That Howard co-opted a couple of Uncle Tom’s, such as Pearson, only made this more plain to see.
    If only Pearson would realise that the Quadrant crowd will only fill your head with self-serving rubbish, then there might be some hope for this obviously talented Aboriginal man.

  2. Guy Rundle

    I don’t agree with the Uncle Tom line for a moment Victoria. Pearson, Major et al are entitled to make whatever argument they like – and we’re entitled to contest it. The Uncle Tom charge is wrong – and coming from a white person, as you seem to be, pretty patronising in itself. I made a coupla cracks about Pearson in the article, but they’re part of the general run of politica rgy-bargy. Let’s leave the charge of being a ‘dupe’ out of it.

  3. Kit

    I believe that Mr Pearson has a lot of good things to say about indigenous disadvantage and we should listen carefully to his wise words. However, we should not think that simply because he is an indigenous person that he speaks with authority that is divorced from his own cultural and social bias.

    An example of this was revealed in an interview Mr Pearson did not so long ago about indigenous education and disadvantage. He said words to the effect of “I send my kids to private schools because I can, who wouldn’t want to do that if they could”.

    Well, Mr Person I wouldn’t.

    I don’t believe that we should structure our educational system around a concept that puts decent education up for sale. A system that routinely disadvantages kids due to their socio-economic status. A system which makes parents feel they are denying their children a start in life by not sending them to a private school. A system that sees fathers trying to hold two jobs to pay school fees simply so that their kids can succeed. A system that entrenches advantage and entitlement.

    As an aboriginal person, Noel Pearson was subject to disadvantage that others can only imagine, and his perspective on both his own experiences and those of his people are an invaluable resource for those of us far more fortunate – the ignorant white majority. However, as an educated person, his approach to educational solutions can be as biased as the next man and should be assessed that way.

    To truly measure the worth of Mr Pearson’s words, we need to respect his heritage and experiences but also understand that he is a privately educated man in a white world with his own white-man biases.

    Mr Pearson is disparaging of the progressive left, but as the disadvantaged in white Australia will surely attest, the system of private education established and protected by the conservative right will not provide the answer which he seeks.

  4. William Fettes

    Good piece, Guy. IMO Pearson is still a valuable voice in Australia’s intellectual landscape and his writing is usually thoughtful and sometimes contains flashes of true clarity. However, he also has an annoying tendency for bombast and oversimplification, often recycling material from American libertarian think tanks and personalities whether it fits the Australian context or not. I have no wish to defend educational holism here, but I think your expression of regret at the lack of evidence and close argument in the book fits with Pearson’s past record in that regard.

    He is well read on a wide range of subjects, certainty, but he is hardly adequately engaged with the academic literature across the plethora of fields he so often seeks to adjudicate definitively. Maybe that’s not a fair expectation, but some more modesty in his approach would go a long way to defuse the problem. After all, even a true pragmatic, libertarian polymath such as Richard Posner — who makes many real academic contributions in a wide variety of fields — cannot avoid charges of his lack of depth in pure economics or pure jurisprudence; And Pearson isn’t a Posner by any means.

    Pearson tends to fill in the gaps in his approach with narrative – latching on to specific personalities and creating goodies and baddies from what he finds. Sometimes these narratives arrive with some real sensibility about them, but other times they are little better than square-peg-in-a-round-hole agitprop. His farcical article on Obama and Shelby Steele is a head-desk case in point of the latter.

    I think sometimes Pearson has carried the mallet of rugged individualism around for so long that he can only really see do-gooder left-liberal moles to whack, real or imaginary. That’s definitely a real blind spot, and it dampens his ability to cut through on the issues, which can be magnificent when it is aimed and calibrated properly.

    There’s also this funny political obstinacy I get about him which strikes me as somewhat petty and counter-productive. Now, I don’t pretend to really understand what it must have been like to manoeuvre through successive governments, deal with all the actors who have contributed to the failure of indigenous policy fail over the years, including the stereotypical naïve lefties who are his bete noire. However, I really cannot fathom how he became so ensconced as an apologist for Howard right-wing zeitgeist in the Liberal Party, alienating so many potential allies with indulgent attacks, which look plainly foolish in light of Rudd’s then imminent ascendency. In that sense, he shares a certain degree of self-inflicted lost-in-space political irrelevance with someone like Christopher Hitchens.

    Agreed on the moratorium on the slur ‘uncle tom’ — it’s unhelpful and unfair — don’t use it.

  5. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    Noel Pearson has used the “Uncle Tom” crack himself. He even used it in the title of an Australian article More Uncle Toms than meet the eye:

    There they were, two Fridays ago, these Uncle Toms, Aunt Jemimas, Steppin Fetchits, Jacky Jackies — you come up with the term of abuse and I will hurl it — hobnobbing with federal Communications Minister Helen Coonan at the gala launch of the National Indigenous Television network.

  6. jungarrayi

    Horses for courses. Education like Religion is so complex that just about any opinion or theory can be justified or dismissed.
    When Noel Pearson rightly complains about how the Education system has failed Aboriginal Australia, we can but nod our heads and agree with him. When he comes out with opinions and suggestions based on his experience, intellect and passion we owe it to him to listen and think carefully about what he says (or writes).
    Lets not however fall into the “one size fits all” trap. Lets not lose sight of cause and effect.
    When we talk about truancy we should remember that as well as pushing children into a school we could also attract them into it.
    When talking about the assimilationist imperative of “giving Aboriginal children the opportunity of learning English so they can then succeed in society” (by getting-a mostly non-existent- “real job”), lets not blame underfunded sabotaged bilingual programmes for the failure to achieve this.
    Lets remember that at its height only a small proportion of remote Northern Territory schools ran bilingual programmes. The “4 hours English only policy” which is based on faulty logic, has now effectively killed off the few remaining such programmes.

  7. Phil

    It’s a shame a man like Pearson undermines his own intelligence by siding with the worst in human nature politically. But I suppose it’s to be expected. A study of traditional Aboriginal cultures, its laws, practices and punishments and you’ll find they don’t sit well with progressives or enlightened societies. It’s more at home with the fundamentalist rightwing mind that longs for the nonsense of the good old days. Let’s not forget the mindset that divided and enslaved his people and would again if given the chance. If Noel was privately educated this would explain his stance and the colour of his old tie. It’s by his works he shall be judged and not his words. If you think money can buy you or your children an education you’re never going to be rich enough.

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