Welcome to The Moment, our new fortnightly podcast with award winning social justice journalist, Ginger Gorman….
Scienta potentia est or knowledge is power is commonly attributed to 16th-century philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon.
Four centuries later, this saying is as relevant as ever, as demonstrated by award-winning writer Bri Lee in her new book, Who Gets To Be Smart; Privilege, Power and Knowledge.
“We have this old saying that knowledge is power, which for the most part I agree with. But what I wanted to do was ask some difficult questions about how much the people in power shape the knowledge, who gets the opportunity to be knowledgeable, who gets to be smart?’” says Bri.
Who Gets To Be Smart is a forensic exploration of knowledge, power and privilege and how these structures can limit the ability of people to reach their full potential.
The idea for this book was sparked in 2018 after Bri’s friend Damian was awarded a Rhodes scholarship. During a tour of Oxford University and Rhodes House with Damian, Bri began to question the role of elite institutions, the power structures behind them and the inequities in education.
“The book is about the different ways our society and institutions shape intelligence. We think intelligence is mostly genetic or, in a place like Australia, we tell ourselves stories about social mobility and how someone’s level of education is purely based on hard work or motivation. What I wanted to interrogate was how much institutions, politics and money, power and privilege shape the opportunities offered to people to do well in their lives and who gets those opportunities.”
The results of Bri’s research are confronting. The book also examines the responses to COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. There is even a chilling section on the slippery world of eugenics and intelligence.
“I hope that people gain a deeper appreciation for the ways that Australia is not a meritocracy,” says the Sydney-based writer. “We hold individual people accountable if they don’t ‘succeed’ in life, when often there are many factors that are beyond their control.”
Despite the serious topic, the book is not without humour and self-deprecation. Bri recalls her friend Damian reading Simone de Beauvoir in French, while she is still learning the language with Bob le Bricoleur (Bob the Builder).
“When I found that out that Damian had become a Rhodes Scholar, I was still at a point in my life where I had very much outsourced my priorities to schools, universities and lots of traditional structures, and according to them getting a Rhodes scholarship was the highest of achievements.”
“Of course, I was very happy for him, but I also felt it made him a winner and me a loser. And as a writer, any time I have a strong emotional response I stop and I think, ‘Where did this knee-jerk unpleasant response come from and what does it mean?”
While writing the book, Bri came to a gradual and profound realisation that intelligence and knowledge is most valuable and precious when it is shared with other people.
She writes, ‘What I needed to do was shift my focus from the get to the give’, and ‘Get the knowledge out of the bubble, always take responsibility for my action, practice compassion…’.
“I’ve started teaching English to refugees and it has been a very important realisation for me that I’ve been walking around with something that I could be giving away for free at any point in time. It doesn’t cost me anything except a bit of time to make a significant difference to someone else’s quality of life and share the privilege I do have for nothing and give someone else an opportunity.”
Having taken a step back, Bri says she’s more aware than ever of the power structures that shape our perceptions of ourselves.
“I feel freer to be honest now that I’ve finished researching and writing the book. I went to a high school and university where I was made to be aware at all times of how I was measuring up against others. What are we really communicating to children about our priorities in life when we focus so much on success and achievements and results at such a young age?”
“It’s important to say that I’ve always been really aware of just how lucky I was to get such a good education. It’s gratitude but also a lot of lingering memories of how unhappy that can make you feel—so I had to try to figure out how to hold those two warring feelings inside.”
Bri hopes readers of her book come on the journey with her and discover some uncomfortable truths about the values and priorities of educational institutions and governments. And she wants everyone to realise they play a part in making things worse or making things better.
“We need to overcome our presumptions of people who don’t have those pieces of paper and overcome our presumptions of people who do as being special and more deserving,” says Bri.
Bri Lee will be in Canberra on Thursday 17 June 2021, to discuss her new book Who Gets to Be Smart. Be quick and book your seat at nb.tai.org.au/politics_in_the_pub_bri_lee
Feature image: Bri Lee by Saskia Wilson