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Who Is Allowed Access to Education?: What Bri Lee’s “Who Gets To Be Smart” and Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Klara And the Sun” can tell us about equitable education

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Buy your copy of Bri Lee’s Who Gets to Be Smart from Booktopia here.

What does a nonfiction social commentary book from Australian writer Bri Lee have to do with a dystopian futuristic novel from Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro? The short answer – A lot.

Often times when we think about fiction, it can be easy to forget that while the stories are created, crafted, and are essentially the product of an author’s mind, the stories are rooted in real, powerful, socio-economic, and political realities. The novel Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro has been a stand-out novel for me and not just as a recent read. I have always loved Ishiguro’s novels, but this one is by far my most favourite work from the author. I think it is the best novel he has ever written. With all that literary gushing out of the way, I want to talk more about the premise of Ishiguro’s novel and how it is connected to Bri Lee’s book.

Klara and the Sun is set in a futuristic world. As the reader, you do not really get a sense of where the novel is set, but there is a feeling that it is a cityscape and the edges of the city that bleed into a more desolate, abandoned agricultural environment. The narrator is an AF – artificial friend – called Klara and the story begins in the shop where Klara is waiting to be bought. When Chrissie and daughter Josie come into the shop, Josie tells her mother that Klara is the one. Chrissie asks Klara to do some odd tasks like mimic some of Josie’s actions and says that she will think about it. Josie eventually comes back for Klara and takes her home.

Book cover of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Klara and the Sun.

It is unclear what Klara’s job is supposed to be other than simply to be a companion to Josie. She isn’t a maid – the household already has one called Melania, who I have always understood as a human (not an AF). I guess, after two years of a global pandemic and health crisis, I can understand the desire for connection – robot or otherwise.

In true subtle Ishiguro style, we slowly learn that Josie’s sister, Sal, died and that Josie and her mother miss her dearly. We also learn that Josie is unwell and there are hints that she too is suffering from a similar illness that claimed her sister’s life. Klara becomes infatuated with Josie and cares for her deeply. Out of all the characters, it seems strange that a robot could show us true love and self-sacrifice in ways humanity could never. Klara believes that the sun gives life and that the sun will help Josie get better. She decides to make a pact with the sun just as it is setting in the evening to spare Josie’s life.

Buy your copy of Kazuo Isiguro’s Klara and the Sun Booktopia here.

The reason why Josie is so sick is because she has been “lifted”. This is left unclear for most of the book, but we eventually learn that being lifted means that the children have some procedure done to them in order to make them smarter. Sal, Josie’s sister was also lifted, however, she died before she could reap any of the social or economic benefits. We learn that Rick, Josie’s neighbour and best friend, was not lifted and even though he is smart, his chances of getting into a university as a non-lifted student are slim to none.

What kind of a world might exist where parents decide to alter their children in such a way that will ensure their children access to the best education and universities? What kind of parents risk the death of their child so the child can network and meet the ‘right’ people while they study? What kind of a world do we live in where only certain kinds of intelligence are valued – and valued above all else? While all of that is true for Ishiguro’s dystopian world, the premise of his novel’s world is based in our current reality where there is no equitable access to education; where privilege, power, and money speak above all else; and where only certain kinds of intelligence and knowledge practices are deemed ‘worthy’ and deserving of preservation.

Buy your copy of Bri Lee’s Who Gets to Be Smart from Book Depository here.

This is where fiction and nonfiction meet. Bri Lee’s book Who Gets to Be Smart looks at inequality in education, how privilege, race, socio-economic status, and your home life can play a big part in how far you can go in life.

This is something I am extremely passionate about. As someone who grew up in government housing, the youngest of eleven children (yup, you read that number correctly), in an unstable household with both parents on disability pensions, I can tell you that school was not always so easy. I was, by most standards in school ‘smart’, but my home life was chaotic at best. I struggled to do homework because my home environment was not really conducive to ‘learning’. Money was always a problem. I couldn’t go on school excursions. I had to always get second-hand uniforms from the donations bin at school. When my high school introduced a new uniform, it took my parents weeks to save up for the new shirts (there were no secondhand items for a new clothing line). If it wasn’t secondhand, it was bought cheap from discount stores. For my Australian readers out there – most of my clothes until I was over 16 came from Go-Lo or The Reject Shop – I know right, high fashion.

Despite all of that, I was one of the first people in many generations in my family to not just finish high school, but also go to university. If the inequalities in high school were bad, then university opened up a whole new world of disparity for me. Young adults who had their parents pay their rent so they could study at non-local universities, or pay for textbooks, or pay for petrol, or extra lessons, tutoring, etc. I lived at home and stashed money in an old clock to save for a car. My grades throughout my undergrad were always up and down. You can probably chart how chaotic and unstable my home life was with how my grades were.

Again, somehow out of sheer luck, hard work, and probably spite, I managed to get a double degree – Bachelor of Music and Bachelor of Arts. I then went on to get a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree while looking after my father who had terminal cancer. And I eventually went to live abroad and do a Masters of Arts at the University of Zurich. When I finally had a stable home – I could actually study and did really well. Like really well. I got amazing marks in my Master’s degree and half of it wasn’t even in English! Who knew people just needed stability, safety, and support?

My story is often the story that gets used by rich entitled white people to perpetuate the narrative that if you only pull yourself up by the bootstraps you too can make it. When in reality, you don’t have boots, someone keeps hitting you with a strap, and the floor is covered in shards of glass.

The education systems throughout the world as we know them today are set up so that people with money, power, and connections will always have the option to get out on top. And marginalised groups will have to fight tooth and nail in what I can only describe as an educational Hunger Games for some crumbs at the bottom.

Bri Lee’s book covers a lot of terrain about how the education system perpetuates segregation, racism, ableism, and class privilege. Lee talks about how our access to education isn’t just restricted by our social status, but that what we learn in school is also shaped by certain privileges. For example, in Australia, and other colonised countries, it is very rare that Australian children are taught the true history of their country. Nor is it common to have Indigenous languages taught in school, although European languages like French and German always do really well. Certain kinds of knowledge, non-White, non-Western ones are also obscured or forgotten.

Buy your copy of Kazuo Isiguro’s Klara and the Sun Book Depository here.

This is where the dystopia of Ishiguro and the harsh reality of Lee’s book collide. Both of these works explore and critique our education systems, our privileges, and our blind spots in very different ways. Both are extremely valuable when it comes to having honest and harsh discussions about how we support people to learn and grow in a way that is best suited for them.

In Australia, now more than ever there is a mistrust of education and in particular higher education. 40,000 jobs were lost in the university sector due to the pandemic and no one is talking about it. Not nearly enough if you as me. Of course, the education system is flawed and, of course, it needs a massive rework (to say the very least), but hiking up university course prices in Australia and firing academic staff (often casuals) who cannot weather the pandemic on a salaried position, means that the people who could actually be capable of disrupting the system are not even let in. Not even given a chance.

We don’t need to wait for Ishiguro’s world to actualise where only certain children are lifted at the risk of death or permanent illness. People are already dying and suffering from a lack of equitable access to education and support. Let’s dream of a different future.

Have you read Bri Lee’s or Kazuo Ishiguro’s books? Tell me in the comments how you would dream of a different future. As always, share the reading love.