When I was a student I loved listening to Elvis Costello’s songs, particularly to the lyrics. He’s so smart. The title track of his tenth album, with the arresting theme King of America, includes these lines:

“She said that she was working for the ABC news,  It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use”.

There’s something attractive about withering insults, especially those that cut pretension down to size.

But, of course, there is also a problem with insults. And a big problem with those that relate to educational attainment or intelligence, to the idea that being uneducated or even being born with lower intelligence, is shameful.

The prejudice against the uneducated has always run deep. George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, later My Fair Lady, captures how limiting “common” accents and faults with grammar can be. And even today, pedantic one-upmanship and snobbery run rife across society. It is somewhat surprising that in some circles pronouncing the letter aitch, as haitch, attracts opprobrium.

The exclusion of people on the basis of their educational background now appears to be dividing society. There is evidence that educational status has a greater impact on political voting than “class” or “gender.” Various politicians instinctively capitalise on this divide and sense there are votes in bashing universities.

In some ways the tension between education and less education may be even pushing out the historical values-based contest between good and evil. It is true that ignorance is problematic but the uneducated should not be the enemy. The current lack of status and feelings that people are being looked down upon by an educational elite, inflames tensions across our society.

The idea of privileging intelligence runs very deep in our thinking. Dominant ideas about civilisation, civility, and refinement are celebrated and used to suppress “the common people” or even people from different cultures. In terms of the value of a human life, it is a tragedy when a child or an immigrant who is a maths genius ends up as a factory worker, but society sort of accepts that many ordinary people of limited intelligence will end up in lower status professions and society is surprised when they don’t!

Even in cross-species comparisons these ideas prevail. Some people who eat cows will steer away from octopus and squid having realised how intelligent these species are. Even though there is no reason to believe that intelligent species are more prone to suffering. It is just that one relates to them more. They seem more human or at least are animals like us.

It is odd how education and intelligence took over from the traditional virtues, like chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, kindness, patience, and humility. Intelligence isn’t a traditional virtue. Though if you read Dickens you’ll see the idea of being well-bred and well-schooled is often championed as the defining virtue!

In some ways if one is to prioritise anything then it does make sense to invest in unique human intelligence and capabilities up to a point, as the power of human creativity is immense. But would we benefit from more often celebrating broader definitions and categories of achievement?

Could we be clearer about other things, like the importance of the mastery of crafts. The ascendency of universities over vocational education has crept up on us. Oddly art and music are still highly respected but mechanical skills (unless they are surgical skills) are not. It is as if the robots have already taken over.

As university admissions processes have been streamlined into one efficient number – the ATAR – it is notable that highly scalable and readily testable science subjects, have gradually become dominant indicators of merit. Many people lament how society attacks science but as a scientist I am sometimes uneasy about the privileges and respect I enjoy.

Increasingly, privileging a single form of achievement will never help us build an inclusive and cohesive society. It is like a witch’s hat where everyone climbs to the same destination, and it becomes more and more competitive as people converge at the top. Instead, one needs to turn things upside down to make an ice cream cone where people naturally spread out to pursue different dreams and master different skills. If we can celebrate diverse skills it will make us a more inclusive society, and then we can move towards the title of another of Elvis Costello’s great albums together, and Get Happy.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life



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