Who Gets to Be Smart: Privilege, Power and Knowledge
by Bri Lee
Allen & Unwin
Published June 2021
When I was a teenager, I was asked to do something no teenager really wants to do: watch my step-cousin perform in her high school production. At my cousin’s school this was called a ‘play’ and we went to the school ‘theatre’. At my school we had the ‘musical’ which happened once every two years in the ‘hall’ – and once the audience was inside, our deputy principal would proudly remind everyone that this hall was built on lamingtons. Before my cousin’s play, we walked through her school, a prestigious private school. It was the first girls’ school in Queensland and is the oldest secondary school in the state. Certainly nothing was paid for through lamington drives.
We looked out to the Brisbane River – I wrongly assumed all schools were as unappealing as mine – and someone mentioned my cousin was interested in rowing and debating. I didn’t realise Australian schools offered rowing; my school didn’t have a debating team. Against the pristine, heritage-listed buildings with the sparkling views of Brisbane’s Story Bridge, I remember feeling something hot, clammy, almost ugly. I had stepped into a private school and was quietly floored. This isn’t exactly unique: lots of public school kids have a moment, particularly when they travel to a private school to play sport or attend events, when they realise there are differences in education. Without even asking the price, I knew my single parent mother wouldn’t be able to afford to send me to a school like this. She couldn’t even afford my uniforms.
I didn’t necessarily like school but I understood what it wanted from me. My year level had 330 students, yet I managed to graduate as dux and received an equity scholarship at the University of Queensland which quite literally changed the material conditions of my life. I didn’t like telling people at university where I went to school or that I came from a single parent family that lived on welfare. I didn’t understand how some students talked so easily with lecturers. Class preparation was googling how to pronounce things like ‘Michel Foucault’. But this was water to tread, for the moral was that you never complained. It would be ungrateful.
I tell this story to explain a strange parallel and to preface a review. This high school of my cousin’s was also the high school Bri Lee attended. And, like an inverse parallel, or the superimposition of related yet divergent images, Lee begins Who Gets to Be Smart: Privilege, Power and Knowledge with a similarly flooring visit: except, she goes to Oxford.
Who Gets to Be Smart opens with Lee visiting her friend Damian, a Rhodes Scholar. She describes her weekend at Oxford as a kind of ‘wonderment’. Damian’s ‘student ID was like a rare and expensive passport’ giving Lee fleeting access to bespoke libraries, secret bell towers, stunning lawns, famous debating societies. At the same time, an unhappy comparison is brewing: Lee is setting up her ‘not-good-enough brain’ in relation to the perceived intelligence of Damian, and Lee’s own partner, Vincent. Throughout the book, academic success is Lee’s benchmark, one that her reader is also asked to carry. ‘As far as I could tell, based on our performances at educational institutions, Vincent and Damian both had me beaten in the brains department,’ she writes early on. She soon realises she’s too old to be a Rhodes Scholar and calls herself ‘insufficiently promising’.
Lee has described this feeling as being ‘punched in the gut’ and it sets her thoughts in motion. The reverence Oxford inspires is alluring but menacing; seductive, but, as Lee shows us, also kind of corrupt. She interrogates the history of Cecil Rhodes and powerful, wealthy men of his ilk who fostered institutions of academic exclusivity, built on money, sexism and racism. Lee is also reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own during her visit, and takes Woolf’s point that critiquing men like Rhodes gets to something important: ‘they became upset because someone was infringing upon their right to believe in themselves.’ Shouldn’t everyone have the right, Lee rightfully asks, to believe in themselves?
In this world, universities and schools are not places of knowledge but of money and power. Soon, Lee is travelling in the backseat of a car with Omid Tofighian, translator of Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains. Lee asks him if she should do a PhD. He replies: ‘I would say that academia is second only to Manus prison in terms of being the most violent and cruel institution I have ever encountered.’ This is the most intense, potent sentence of the book, and its implications are coupled with the concept of kyriarchy. A kyriarchal society is a pyramid-like structure with the most privileged at the apex; it is upheld and internalised through education, socialisation and violence. Such a structure is built upon a servant class who are believed to be, at least by those at the top, naturally inferior. Within these lower levels, the intersections of gender, race, class and sexuality play out, and marginalised people struggle for access to education – all within a larger society of domination and submission, profit and exploitation.
Lee leverages this to write about inequality in Australian education. This section of Who Gets to Be Smart is like a mind-map spanning several walls; illuminating, but at risk of clarity. Lee interrogates cronyism between wealthy white men in politics and academia, and the Western-centric ideology of academic philanthropy in Australia. She looks at how universities are built on disavowing non-Western knowledges, where Western knowledge emerges as knowledge itself, revealing a colonial streak as education is aligned with upholding white racial purity. A chapter on schools is littered with statistics about the underfunding of public schools with one message repeated again and again: one of the biggest determinants of a student’s school results, what school they attend, and whether they attend university, is their parent’s socioeconomic status. The book then attempts to become more historical and philosophical, going into intelligence testing, eugenics, Ancient Greek concepts of knowledge, languages, Manus Island, the murder of George Floyd, Indigenous deaths in custody, and the dwindling state of education in Australia in 2020. What emerges is a situation where education is both the problem and the solution.
It is expansive and impressive; it has made me think about my relation to intelligence like no other text has. And although it is also unwieldy, like too many tabs open in a browser that could have benefited from clearer connection, the point lands: ‘what is undeniable is that our most moneyed and powerful educational institutions – from primary through to tertiary – can only maintain their power by practising exclusion and discrimination.’ As a nation we espouse ideologies of social mobility and meritocracy and link them to education without considering the role of privilege and resources. In painting a portrait of how privileged people attend, maintain and moralise privileged education institutions in order to legitimise their privilege, knowledge emerges as a rationale for ethical, financial and societal superiority. And the access to this power is limited. Here, Lee writes, power shapes knowledge. This feels correct, but also implies a top-down view of power: a simplistic-trickle down where power is something inflicted upon individuals rather than lived and reproduced by people in their every day. It means that Who Gets to Be Smart is kept from truly considering how all subjects live out and uphold the kyriarchy, not only the powerful.
I would tell anyone to read this book. And yet – there are moments that made me pause. An early one was when Lee mentions ‘ornamental pots’, another phrase taken from Woolf to describe the honours bestowed by the academy: things like prestigious scholarships, awards, PhDs. Lee’s path is about rethinking her obsessive desire for these ornamental pots, that education is a means and not an end. Yet their ornament depends how you approach them. I have accumulated my own versions of these ornamental pots, and many people I know have too, and the tangled truth is that although they can reproduce wider inequality, they are also as practical as a knife and fork in changing one’s life. And what is wrong, I thought, with desiring achievement anyway? Is it really about throwing out the ornamental pots, or changing who gets to put them on their mantle? And if their value is their exclusivity, their rarity, isn’t it really about how many pots there are to go around?
After attending a party at Oxford, Lee goes to bed and descends into a spiral familiar to anyone with a thinking brain at midnight: ‘I had no excuse not to be brilliant like them’; ‘I might be able to produce something really good eventually.’ By the book’s final pages she becomes less self-berating, telling herself, in the way that parents tell children: ‘We’re all good for different things, capable of making different contributions…’
This transformation-via-memoir is Lee’s modus operandi. She takes an insecurity or injustice central to her personal experience and looks to the wider societal and political apparatuses of that experience, exposing and sewing links between the two. In her brilliant first book Eggshell Skull it was sexual assault; in her second, Beauty, it was physical perfection. In Who Gets to Be Smart, Lee documents education and the cultural invention of intelligence while also exploring how her sense of self-worth is tied to this system. Yet this personal anxiety of being perceived as ‘dumb’ (which I do recognise as a genuine anxiety) doesn’t quite align with the societal narrative about discrimination and inequity in education. This isn’t to say Lee shouldn’t write on this topic – I believe there are alarming and self-defeating consequences for our shared capacity for empathy to say that a writer can’t write beyond their experience – but rather the opposite. Lee believes that readers should know what has formed the subjectivity of the person whose work they are reading, yet this book roams further beyond the genre boundaries of memoir than her previous writing. Formally it needed something else to make fulfilling leaps between the personal and collective: other voices.
The most clearly sketched figures in Who Gets to Be Smart are Lee and Damian, and much time is also spent dissecting the privilege of wealthy men alongside quantitative research on education – yet the people living underneath these privileges and statistics are quiet. Students, and adults who have graduated (or have been unable to graduate), from public and remote schools, who are lower socioeconomic, Indigenous, migrant, neurodiverse or have a disability get mostly statistical airtime or are quoted from reports. For example, Lee writes, ‘A large-scale longitudinal study conducted by the University of Newcastle in 2017 found that high-achieving Aboriginal children are less likely to aspire to go to university and remain vastly underrepresented within higher education.’ The next sentence: ‘Unsurprising, when one considers what this country’s institutions have taken from their families, and that buildings and statues with the names of men who compared their ancestors to apes are scattered across campuses.’ This is no doubt true, but the material and practical factors that influence school and university attendance aren’t interrogated. Why do high achieving Indigenous students leave school for low-paid employment? What’s it like to be neurodiverse and navigate the education system? When the odds are stacked against them, how do low socioeconomic students end up getting PhDs?
At times it is difficult to empathise with Lee’s desire to be intelligent or to speak better French alongside stories of life-altering discrimination. Lee chastises herself for not appreciating her family’s sacrifices for her private education (but doesn’t quite acknowledge the ability to make these sacrifices is its own privilege) and writes of her selfishness as a teenager. Such thoughts are designed to show Lee’s self-reflection – but they also, at times, are short on the self-awareness they’re seeking to promote. Lee feels left behind because as a teenager her family didn’t expose her to the New Yorker or New Scientist. She’s inferior because she ate Cadbury chocolate at home while her more refined school friend ate dark chocolate. These moments feel like a confusion between acquiring cultural capital – the desire to present as smart – against the development of genuine knowledge. It’s a false link that ‘high’ aesthetic taste is the result of innate intelligence, rather than being something defined by culture and class – and Lee seems to simultaneously remedy this and subtly perpetuate it. She would be crushed if her partner called her stupid; naive would be okay, though, because, in a line I found unintentionally funny, ‘One can cure naivety with a daily dose of the ABC, BBC, and New York Times.’ This sentiment partly aligns intelligence with a certain kind of worldliness, but it is also a middle class idea of self-improvement that even extends to anti-vaxxers, as ‘ignorance, too, is a disposition that can be improved upon.’ How? Lee doesn’t say.
Non-fiction writing is about selection, of finding the right characters and information. What could have transformed Who Gets to Be Smart is a story to offset those of Lee and Damian; people who have lived the real discrimination she discusses. Yet what interested me most is that Lee is clearly intelligent – it takes great intelligence to write books and journalism, to win literary awards, to keep people reading about education for almost 300 pages – and I often found myself thinking about lines like: ‘I couldn’t imagine being in love with someone who I didn’t believe was smarter than me.’ Perhaps Lee’s true subject is self-worth.
We endow things with intelligence: smart phones, smart homes, smart appliances, intelligent life, artificial intelligence. It’s an adjective and noun, a measurement and product. In the late nineteenth century scientists and philosophers went beyond describing intelligence to stating what it is. It became a psychological and cultural invention, and a defining theoretical dispute of modernity. Today, there is still no agreed definition of intelligence, and it’s only halfway through Who Gets to Be Smart that Lee gives an indication of how she sees intelligence. Before this, it’s assumed, without examination, to be linked to academic achievement.
In a chapter called ‘Science’ Lee presents the two dominant theories of intelligence, the first being multiple intelligences that categorise intelligence into different abilities which Lee critiques, arguing we should value traits like kindness or sporting ability in themselves, not as intelligences. The counterargument is that intelligence is a narrow field and multiple intelligences were invented to be expansive. Lee instead focusses on g or the g factor, which stands for general intelligence. It’s a correlative score from a range of mini-IQ tests put together; if you do well on one test, you’re likely to do well on another. Proposed in 1904 by psychologist Charles Spearman, g ultimatelymeasures cognitive ability. It is one of the most replicated studies in the history of psychological literature, although it’s still debated to what extent g is genetic or developmental. Yet these tests build a world in which we measure and separate the smart from the not smart, rating and categorising based on certain culturally and racially defined ideas of intelligence. In a truly compelling section, Lee writes about how the history of intelligence is entwined with eugenics: the moment we started measuring intelligence we standardised it to mean white, neurotypical people, and at the same moment in the early twentieth century, various Western countries began to adopt sterilisation and eugenic campaigns against the disabled, migrants, and people of colour on the basis of intelligence. This categorisation continued into modern education and Who Gets to Be Smart shows how intelligence mutates depending on who defines it. It’s as tyrannical as it is coveted. It is not moral, and it is not synonymous with truth.
Lee, meanwhile, feels nervous about her g. She debates getting a test and decides not to because ‘a person’s cognitive ability is not an accurate measure of their worth.’ In Who Gets to Be Smart g is slippery. Lee sometimes writes it as static – at the end she says ‘my g is stable’ – but then also notes it is contingent on everything from a child’s socioeconomic status to the people they encounter. Yet something crucial is elided here: IQ tests are not always conducted to define a person, but can act as a merely indicative starting point. Lee’s refusal to take the test is a refusal to be defined, but it’s curious to learn how such tests can be used beyond categorising altogether.
In terms of the small social good of IQ tests, the Radiolab podcast g, which looks at the dangerous vices and fleeting virtues of intelligence, explains how IQ tests have been helpful in showing the detrimental intellectual effects of things like lead poisoning, air pollution and domestic violence. The very first IQ test, the Binet-Simon Scale created in France in 1905, was invented to understand why, now that the French had mandated school for all children as public policy, some children struggled with learning. As Lee quotes Alfred Binet himself, it would be a ‘brutal pessimism’ for anyone to define themselves by these tests – and yet, this is exactly what happened. In Australia, for example, tests like the NAPLAN literacy and numeracy tests were intended to identify which children need support; instead it became a competitive measure of teachers, schools and students.
What I really wanted in this section of Who Gets to Be Smart was for Lee to take intelligence somewhere more radical, beyond theories of multiple and general intelligence to show not only how intelligence is weaponised, but how our understanding of it could change. In her incredible book Morphing Intelligence philosopher Catherine Malabou criticises theories of general intelligence as not very general at all (only an exclusive few have this high g) and she explains how in quantifying a person’s cognitive ability, ‘intelligence would become the unfounded foundation of the origin of inequality among us all.’ Instead Malabou conjoins the science and philosophy of intelligence (Lee keeps these divided) to outline an idea of intelligence that is not static or measurable but transformative: she uses the term epigenetic to show how intelligence can reside in the genetic, but ultimately is a development of habit, experience and education that’s moral, affective and intellectual. She says, ‘It’s a double process of being shaped and shaping the environment; it’s a plastic process that evolves through time.’ Here, intelligence exists in an ability to not merely solve problems but to recognise what is a problem. Malabou uses this to construct an idea of collective intelligence; the kind of societal intelligence, from human to artificial intelligence, that we need to identify and solve the political problems of our time, problems pivotal to Who Gets to Be Smart, problems like democracy and education.
It can’t be coincidence that we began measuring intelligence when capitalism, a system in which everything is quantified, became the organising logic. Only towards the end of Who Gets to Be Smart is the role of education under neoliberalism considered:
Is it the role of classrooms and campuses to prepare the young public for the inevitable income-earning stage of their lives? As Damian called it, ‘a new intellectual working class.’ Or are they places and spaces with intrinsic value that need not answer to the market in order to validate their need for funding?
This question really depends on privilege; most people attend university to secure the jobs that university can supply. It’s why parents break themselves sending their kids to school. It’s a luxury to study for knowledge – and it shouldn’t be.
What I like about Who Gets to Be Smart is that inequity in education isn’t just whittled down to the market; Lee shows that everyone from the ancient Greeks onwards have engaged in some form of intellectual discrimination. Yet, neoliberalism also dominates contemporary policy and approaches to education: life is now one of re-education, up-skilling and training days, work camps and modules. Emotional intelligence has been largely co-opted by corporate language that moralises wealth accumulation. A 2021 investigation from the Sydney Morning Herald found that Australia’s most prestigious private schools are sitting on $8.5 billion in assets. Universities are their own marketing exercises. There are more people in tertiary study than before, and as Lee notes, careers have never required university degrees as much as now. Education is like property; the personal ownership of degrees and pieces of paper, the value of which can be traded throughout life.
In a neoliberal world responsibility for one’s life and education is placed on the individual, not the system. Lee recognises this, unpacking how responsibility falls onto the failing student or parents or school, rather than the failing system; how disadvantaged and therefore low performing students can be characterised as inherently disengaged rather than disengaged by education. Lee writes in the book’s closing that, depending on one’s placement, we all uphold the kyriarchal structure in varying ways, but I’d like to know what this means at all levels, not just for the wealthy. For example, Sara Ahmed has written about how marginalised communities invest in narratives of social mobility that education is core to achieving, even though their marginality makes these neoliberal promises difficult to achieve. On the other hand, some people internalise the feelings of worthlessness that society bestows. The truly insidious logic is that this is an ethic of how to live: neoliberal individualism suggests that inequality is a moral issue, not a societal one. Children are often considered as investments – the figure of the child is almost always aligned with the future, whereby both the family and the government pour financial and social resources into young lives – and the cruelty is that not everything, every person, is deemed worthy of investment and given the capacity to truly achieve. No matter how hard you may try, the linking of effort and social mobility, as Lee explains, is a fallacy. And in such a system, I believe the ethic of hard work is rendered meaningless for everyone anyway: the wealthy only have their status because of prior privilege, meanwhile the poor simply didn’t try hard enough.
When thinking of Who Gets to Be Smart in this way, there was one sentence I couldn’t get past: ‘A parent has a duty to put their child above others; the state has a duty to treat all children equally.’ Lee’s implication is that if a parent has the money, one of the first things they’ll consider is sending their child to a private school (which of course isn’t true of every parent), and this in turn reproduces the inequality they are also victims of. Considering how much parents (particularly middle class parents) live by the rules of social mobility, it’s notable that there isn’t an extended discussion in Who Gets to Be Smart about how parents, not just the government and the wealthy, can have a role in education discrimination. The family, as Lee shows, determines where a child goes to school, and reproduces social norms around education. Lee writes emotively of her own parents’ sacrifices for her and her brother’s education, and it seems as if she’s caught between interrogating the family unit and not wanting to belittle the lengths that some parents – her parents – go to for their child’s education. Lee does cite the American podcast series Nice White Parents, which illustrates the power white middle class parents wield in the New York education system, and ultimately shows how for education to change, parents may have to commit to a ‘duty’ beyond their own child. This is especially so in a world where the state and the family are dedicated to the same unit: wealth maximisation.
I agree with Lee’s ultimate point that ‘if the way we fund schools doesn’t change, it will continue to entrench already-dire intergenerational inequality’, but I wondered about the actuality of this. If rethinking the way we fund education is linked to ending intergenerational inequality, and if intergenerational inequality is perpetuated not only through education but also money, then what this book is really asking for is the redistribution of wealth.
In the end, Lee decides to undertake a PhD on defamation law to ‘use the legitimacy of the academy to help fight for the kind of press freedom that might hold powerful men accountable…’ The future becomes personal: ‘Get the knowledge out of the [academic] bubble, always take responsibility for my actions, practise compassion.’ It is only here that Lee questions what education is for, replaying the binary of whether it’s about knowledge or securing a job. But is this dualism really enough: when we argue for equal education, for what reason are we making it equal? Is it to send children out to work and succeed in already pre-determined worlds, or so children can understand and evaluate all the possible ends of their lives? It seems widely agreed that we must have education, and that education is in a crisis that education can solve, and Who Gets to Be Smart aligns education mostly within institutional learning – yet it seems dangerous to conflate education with school considering learning takes place in all kinds of environments and miseducation happens in institutions.
In researching this piece, I came across a very beautiful essay by philosopher Jorge Larrosa called ‘Herod, the Ogre . . . and Miss Cooper’s Rifle: Education as a Refuge for Childhood and the World’, which speaks of the protection of children from ogres in stories and seeks for where refuge may lay within the world, within education. As Larrosa writes, ‘The world opened up by education, that is transformed into a kind of toy or plaything and made available to childhood so that it can be renewed and transmitted, is, as Hannah Arendt puts it, a common world.’ Larrosa poetically reimagines education as a way to prepare children to renew a shared world, to find commonality, where children are not already predetermined before their very existence.
If intelligence and education are inventions that can be rethought, so too is childhood. Larrosa quotes a Spanish philosopher who said that ‘education arises from the fundamental idea, as persistent as it is stupid: that we know what a child is’. True education would happen before children are known in their limitations or destinies – and this is, ultimately, the good work that Lee is putting herself toward.
Ben Schneiders and Royce Millar, ‘Australia’s top private schools are growing richer and faster than ever’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 June 2021.
Booktopia Podcast, Bri Lee – ‘I Felt Like I’d Been Punched In The Gut’, June 2021.
G, podcast, Radiolab, 2019.
Jorge Larrosa, ‘Herod, the Ogre . . . and Miss Cooper’s Rifle: Education as a Refuge for Childhood and the World’, What is Education?, Edinburgh University Press, 2017.
Catherine Malabou, Morphing Intelligence: From IQ Measurement to Artificial Brains, Columbia University Press, 2019.
Nice White Parents, podcast, New York Times and Serial, 2020.