Reg Mombassa and his new artwork for the class of 2020. CREDIT:JESSICA HROMAS
HSC a brutal and irrelevant way to define ‘intelligence’ in a world opening its eyes to other values
“Onwards ... and upwards!” says Reg Mombassa’s caped koala, the artist’s gift to the Higher School Certificate class of 2020. Like the delightful marsupial, which will be printed with their results, those 68,673 students will be eager to put 2020 behind them.
Onwards and upwards is a message for school leavers of every year. Those who received their results on Friday are already making a major discovery of adult life: things that meant the whole world one day can mean absolutely nothing the next. On Thursday night, the ATAR was the be-all and end-all; by Friday lunch, it was on its way to being forgotten.
One of the great joys of leaving school is the discovery that the all-important marker of so-called intelligence, which school leavers feared was going to define them, was a mirage. It wasn’t quite a con job: the HSC, as a rite of passage and an educational journey, has a lot going for it and is often unjustly criticised. But the ATAR is only a functional gateway for entry into certain university courses. Like a ticket of entry for a long-awaited show, you might have kept it under your pillow and kissed it every night for months, but once you’ve used it, you screw it up and the next day you can’t remember where you lost it.
For those who shocked themselves by how well they did, their ATAR might provide a secret treasure of self-esteem – “I am a 90 person, even if everyone took me for a 70 person” – but they will have to keep it to themselves, because from today forward, there will be not a single thing more uncool than telling someone what you got in your HSC.
For those who were disappointed, or – horrible word – who “underachieved”, the end of the HSC will come as a blessed relief. They will no longer wear that mark on their forehead.
Whether your result was good, bad or indifferent, forgetting your ATAR starts the moment you receive it. Ranking intelligence is one of the many components of our colonial inheritance that is coming under an attack that is more concerted each year. There is a broad illusion in the brutality of a number to rank a person’s intelligence. Those two years of the HSC apportion intelligence as if it were money, handed out unevenly yet treated as a symbol of virtue. For many students, knowing where they stood in this hierarchy has offered the comforts of certainty and security. Some will proceed through their lives into workplaces that replicate this hierarchy – the professions, academia, the military, some of the rank-conscious remnants of the business world. Perpetual strivers will find a sequence of substitutes for the ATAR, so they may go to their grave knowing, or thinking they know, exactly where they stand. But that way of viewing the world is shrinking with each year.
Patrician Brothers student Flynn Broom, with his mother, Katie Broom, gets his HSC results on Friday morning. CREDIT:JANIE BARRETT
Any agreed consensus on what constitutes “intelligence” is under assault on various fronts. Science is bringing us to the humbling understanding that “intelligence” is not an objective but a social measure, conditioned by circumstance, gender, race and dis/ability, just for starters. A quantifiable scale for “braininess” is as anachronistic as an IQ test, as mustily irrelevant as Mensa membership. The drive for diversity in workplaces is not based just on the notion that anyone can be just as “smart” as the white men who invented the rules; it is based on the suspicion that “intelligence”, and the hierarchies that flow from it, was a rigged game in the first place. The diversity movement has its excesses and missteps, which are generously well reported, but at its heart is the encouragement to think about brains differently, and to figure out that the greatest contributors to our social good are those whose qualities slipped the noose of the HSC markers.
My favourite Gary Larson cartoon is the one showing the student at the “Midvale School for the Gifted”, leaning with all his weight, trying to open a door that has a big sign on it saying “PULL”. For today’s school leavers, their parents’ and grandparents’ generation saw “intelligence” as a narrowly fixed quantity, a door for the gifted. But for the class of 2020, the paths of opportunity promise to branch out in a world that is finding many different things to value: emotional intelligence, kindness, empathy, understanding, intuition, commonsense, initiative, as well as countless exercises of brainpower for which there was no measurement at school.
For all that, the HSC will still leave a heavy after-trauma. Those students might think they have been liberated from the HSC, but they can look forward to a lifetime of waking in a cold sweat from nightmares in which they still have to do their HSC exams and are even less prepared than the first time, and probably have forgotten to wear certain articles of clothing.
And then, years after putting it all behind them, they will meet their life partner and, over a bottle of wine, the old zombie will stir from its grave. “What did you get in the HSC?” And neither will want to confess to their number, because the last thing they want is for love to be polluted by memories they have succeeded for so long in burying. Their ATAR need not be tattooed onto their arm.
In time, they in turn will have children, and will love them to bits through their infancy and primary years. But then those children will enter secondary school and the nightmare of classification will become real again. As parents, today’s school leavers will make enormous sacrifices so that their children will have an opportunity to get that golden ticket. Is the ticket worth such sacrifices? You will have forgotten. Your children will ask, “What did you get in the HSC, Mum? Dad?” And back you plummet into the embarrassment of either having done better or worse than your family had you pegged for, and now you’ll get scared all over again, this time that your children will see you differently if they know your secret number.
And then those children will enter year 11, and before you know it, the HSC is the be-all and end-all again, and you’ll have forgotten the most vital lesson out of all those 13 years of schooling you did, which is that the day after your children have received their results, it will have ceased to matter. Until you become a grandparent. Onwards … and upwards!
Year 12 students at Penola Catholic College in Emu Plains finish their English HSC exam. CREDIT:NICK MOIR