Who Gets to Be Smart by Bri Lee review – gutsy but unfocused interrogation of academic privilege
There is a bell tower at Oxford University that – legend has it – is impossible to climb unless you’ve been shown the way by someone who already knows its secrets. It’s hard to invent a better metaphor for the insularity of elite education: a closely guarded and self-replicating ascent.
It was a weekend in Oxford that catalysed Bri Lee’s new book, Who Gets to be Smart: Privilege, Power and Knowledge – a visit to an Aussie friend on campus, a Rhodes scholar. “His student ID was like a rare and expensive passport,” Lee recalls. It opens doors to wonder: opulent libraries, fiery debates. But for all the university’s bookish delights, she can’t ignore how stultifyingly self-contained it is. “Unexamined reverence for the bygone is always a roadblock to equality,” she writes. With its unshakeable traditions, unclimbable towers and stone-chiselled legacies, reverence is Oxford’s stock in trade. So why does Lee ache to be part of it? Why does the visit leave her so wounded, cursing her “not-good-enough brain”?
As Lee dismantles her rote-learned scripts about intelligence, accomplishment and self-worth, she asks ever-urgent questions about the Australian education system and its gatekeepers. “In the Australian context it’s not always true to say ‘knowledge is power’,” she writes. “What’s much more true is to acknowledge that whoever has the power shapes the knowledge.” It’s not a new insight, but one that bears remembering when the federal government treats the classroom as a partisan battleground, and philanthropic cash is used as a cultural cudgel.
As anyone who’s worked in education reform will attest, it’s all a giant shambles, schools and universities alike; a snarl of funding inequities, intuitional malaise, structural prejudices, wilful myopia, political meddling and desperate, undeniable need. The more you know, the harder it is to untangle. It takes guts to try. Bri Lee is not lacking in guts; she’s already stared down the criminal justice system (Eggshell Skull, 2018) and the perfection industrial complex (Beauty, 2018). She’s a white-hot vanquisher of hypocrites.
But from its wheeling opening chapter, Who Gets to be Smart seems lost. Lee presents her ideas with the fervid, associative logic of internet browsing. We tumble from the Rhodes Must Fall movement to Black Lives Matter via Virginia Woolf, the Ramsay Centre bequest, private school orchestra pits, school catchment property prices, eugenics and Aristotle: a warren of thematic rabbit holes. Lee’s point is the interconnectedness of it all, repeating patterns of embedded inequity, but – packed in so tight – none of her concepts have time to breathe. Too often Who Gets to be Smart relies on assumed knowledge and shared ideals for its momentum.
As much as the author keeps insisting on her “middling” intellectual firepower (a claim that feels laden with unexamined tall-poppy cringe), what’s missing here is not smarts, but storytelling. It’s not until halfway through, for instance, that Lee considers what we mean when we talk about “intelligence”; and not until her book’s final pages that she tries to pin down the purpose of universities.
The story this book does have to tell is personal – a self-interrogative tale of long-festering insecurities. “I nursed a chip on my shoulder right where the graduation cap’s tassel irritated,” Lee confides, envious of friends’ seemingly effortless worldliness. When the Rhodes scholar mate flies home for a visit, even the avocados he buys are too-perfectly ripe, she takes pains to tell us.
There’s no escaping the fact that Lee is “expensively educated”. It would be disingenuous to gloss over her private school background, or the longing for trophies that Aussie schooling has set down in her (as it has in so many of us). “Do I want to be smart, or am I simply insecure about looking dumb?” she asks herself. “Am I genuinely seeking intelligence, or do I simply fear being perceived as unintelligent? What would I call ‘brains’ if there were no witnesses?” They’re perceptive questions. How easy it is, Lee shows, to mistake cleverness for the end and not the means.
But with everything that’s at stake in Australian education, it grates when she presents her decision to sit the Mensa entrance exam as a matter of principle (“I couldn’t go around talking about ‘how intelligence isn’t everything’ if I was too afraid to look my own cognitive capacity in the mirror”). The grand dilemma of Who Gets to be Smart is whether Lee will resist the “siren song” of the Academy or enrol in a PhD program. There’s never any question about whethershe’ll get in. It’s a tone deaf quest to place at the centre of a book about ingrained privilege. Who Gets to be Smart is a coming-of-age story – with all its missteps and naiveté – cloaked as a cultural reckoning.
Lee’s book is laden with research – podcasts, budget reports, soul-jarring statistics (to choose just one: in 2019, Australia’s four richest schools spent more on new facilities and renovations than the poorest 1,800 combined). But Who Gets to be Smart is light on listening. This book yearns for interviews, for the voices of those who are falling into the dark of education’s ever-growing equity gap: parents of children with disabilities, who have to fight for inclusive teaching; Indigenous students who quietly learn to dream smaller; the vast army of casual adjuncts, keeping universities open but teaching for crumbs; the principals of public schools struggling to repair the toilets when the private school down the road has on-site baristas; the women who’ve dropped out of higher ed because Covid-era caring commitments have made study untenable. Seated next to a high-profile vice chancellor on a plane, Lee delights in reading his emails over his shoulder, but she never asks him a question. That feels like a metaphor, too.