In 1816, David Brewster, a Scottish mathematician and physicist, invented a new kind of optical device. A narrow tube, fragments of coloured glass gathered loosely at one end were rearranged as the tube turned, refracting a series of recombining mandalas for the viewer (at the other end) thanks to mirrors set inside. A slight turn and a whole new vista appeared – impossible to predict, to enumerate, to return to. Brewster called it a kaleidoscope, a ‘philosophical instrument’ that changed what it was possible to ‘see’ and how. In the 1970s, two American inventors switched out the coloured fragments for a clear sphere, generating images from whatever the scope was pointed at: a garden, a room, a street. This teleidoscope offered up a new infinity of patterns – fracturing and coalescing elements of the real world with every tiny adjustment of the spyglass.
There are ways in which this edition of Griffith Review – setting out to explore different facets of education – feels more kaleidoscopic than usual. This is a sector with so many moveable parts, crossing everything from pre-birth parenting classes and the Gordian knot of day care and early childhood education, through primary, secondary and tertiary sectors, to the complementary vastness of vocational education and training, and ‘lifelong learning’ – the idea of education as ‘a continuing aspect of everyday life’.
Twist the tube this way, and curiosity and learning come into view, the ideal of minds expanding with questions to ask, things to learn. Twist it again and different classrooms appear – wooden desks with inkwells and stinging canes; modular plastic furniture designed for kicking feet and squirming bums; class- rooms cut by curtains, female students on one side, male students on the other.
Tilt the scope slightly and the morass of elements that intersect with funding come into focus, weaving around different philosophical, economic and political reckonings: government funds for independent schools; the amount parents pay for public education in Australia; Covid funding made to private schools; dwindling government support for the tertiary sector; examples of universal education from other jurisdictions.
Twist the tube again and here come so many variants of pedagogy and measurement – curricula, reporting, standarised testing and what’s expected from schools, in particular, in terms of a social contract with their community; plus the new growth industry of ‘teacher wellbeing’.
And feeding into and fragmenting these strands are myriad personal experiences and anecdotes. The grab-bag term of ‘education’ is one with which almost everybody intersects somehow, somewhere, at some time in their life – from classrooms and playgrounds to the suddenly normalised space of home schooling. Everyone’s perspective on education is partly informed not only by their own experience but often by the polarities of two kinds of nostalgia: celebration of a wonderful experience and calls for its replication across the board; recollection of a terrible experience that should never be repeated.
Everyone has skin in this game.
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Dr Ashley Hay is a former literary editor of The Bulletin, and a prize-winning author who has published three novels and four books of narrative non-fiction.
Her work has won several awards, including the 2013 Colin Roderick Prize and the People’s Choice Award in the 2014 NSW Premier’s Prize. She has also been longlisted for the Miles Franklin and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and shortlisted for prizes including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Kibble. In 2014, she edited the anthology Best Australian Science Writing.
She is the editor of Griffith Review.
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