Becoming Educated

Young People’s Narratives of Disadvantage, Class, Place and Identity

by John Smyth (Author) Peter McInerney (Author)
©2014 Textbook X, 174 Pages


Becoming Educated examines the education of young people, especially those from the most ‘disadvantaged’ contexts. The book argues that because the focus has been obdurately and willfully on the wrong things – blaming students; measuring, testing and comparing them; and treating families and communities in demeaning ways that convert them into mere ‘consumers’ – that the resulting misdiagnoses have produced a damaging ensemble of faulty ‘solutions.’ By shifting the emphasis to looking at what is going on ‘inside’ young lives and communities, this book shifts the focus to matters such as taking social class into consideration, puncturing notions of poverty and disadvantage, understanding neighborhoods as places of hope and creating spaces within which to listen to young peoples’ aspirations. These are a radically different set of constructs from the worn-out ones that continue to be trotted out, and, if understood and seriously attended to, they have the potential to make a real difference in young lives. This is a book that ought to be read by all who claim to know what is in the best interests of young people who are becoming educated.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Setting the stage: exposing the ‘grand erasure’
  • Becoming infected!
  • Becoming educated as a construction
  • Schooling as a cultural production…but of a particular kind!
  • Developing a ‘critical constellation’ for the rest of the book
  • 2. Going about our research craft: critical researchers as political authors
  • Introduction
  • Putting the critical back into educational research
  • Theorizing our research: an evolving criticality
  • ‘My place, my school, my world’: context matters
  • The political landscape
  • The spatial landscape: place(s) young people call home
  • The educational landscape and profiles of participating schools
  • An extended case study: space, place and identity
  • Research design
  • Research methods
  • Ethnographic interviews
  • Critical ethnographic narratives: representational challenges
  • ‘It’s definitely easier on your nerves going to school here’
  • Concluding remarks
  • 3. From deficits and deficiencies to strengths and capabilities: puncturing notions of disadvantage
  • Introduction
  • Poverty, deprivation and exclusion: the material realities of social and educational disadvantage
  • Deficits, deficiencies and differences: what lies behind the label ‘disadvantage’?
  • Theorizing social reproduction and educational disadvantage
  • Poverty, disadvantage and education policy in Australia
  • Schools and the perpetuation of educational disadvantage
  • Becoming educated: young peoples’ narratives of disadvantage, opportunities and constraints
  • Concluding comments
  • 4. Bringing class out of the closet
  • Introduction
  • Why class is important in ‘becoming educated’
  • Stepping up to the ‘injuries of class’
  • The making over of a ‘residualized’ school
  • What is a westie?
  • 5. Celebrating space, place and neighborhoods
  • Introduction
  • Contesting the deficit discourse
  • Speaking back to pathological views
  • Bringing young people into the conversation
  • From despair to hope
  • Concluding comments
  • 6. Identity and capacity to aspire
  • Introduction and positioning
  • ‘Poverty of aspiration’ or ‘poverty of opportunity’?
  • Negotiating a learning identity in hard times
  • ‘Young people as the new public intellectuals’
  • Aspirations and learning identity for ‘ordinary kids’
  • (a) Access to ‘opportunity resources’ and local immediacy
  • (b) Possessing and using navigational maps
  • (c) Opportunities to ‘practice navigational capacity’
  • (d) Precedent setting and capacity to aspire
  • 7. Re-framing what it means to be educated
  • Why are we having ‘boring, meaningless shit’?
  • Looking for the ‘print of class’ in the process of becoming educated
  • Confronting and puncturing the ‘hands-on’ myth
  • Are these really broken communities?
  • Aspirations or imagined futures: are they the same thing, and does it really matter?
  • Some last words…at least for the moment!
  • References
  • Author Index
  • Subject Index
  • Series Index


← viii | ix →    Acknowledgments

If there has been a consistent theme coursing through our research over the past several decades, it would be hard to find one more important than that of listening to the voices of young people. On the topic of Becoming Educated, we can’t think of a more deserving or appropriate group who should be acknowledged at the outset.

We, therefore, want to start our acknowledgments by thanking the courageous, thoughtful and insightful young people who so generously shared their stories, lives and hopes for the future with us. While some of these stories were often difficult for some young people to tell, they were unequivocal to a person, in wanting their stories to be heard so that other young people like them might be the beneficiaries. Any errors or omissions, are therefore, entirely ours.

This research could not have occurred without the financial generosity of the Australian Research Council (ARC) for a Discovery Grant (DP 110112619) Young people’s narrative of socio-economic disadvantage and educational opportunities in the context of place-based interventions. We express our appreciation to the ARC for its continued trust in our research.

The Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD), as always, were most helpful in allowing us access to schools in which to speak with young people, and in this regard, we particularly want to thank the principals and staff of the schools who were involved in the research. In these busy times, it is so easy for schools to say ‘no’, but in this case, that was never likely to occur.

The Faculty of Education and Arts, Federation University Australia, Ballarat, continues to provide a small oasis in which this kind of research is possible, and we thank the Dean, Professor John McDonald for his powerful support behind the scenes. We express our appreciation to the Collaborative Research Network, Federation University Australia for assistance towards the publication of this book.

← ix | x → Chris Myers, Joe DeVitis, Linda Irwin-DeVitis, and the staff at Peter Lang Publishing continue to be the best educational publisher we have ever worked with, and we thank them for continuing to provide the space in which this kind of counter-hegemonic work can occur—notwithstanding that Chris tells us he still has to turn a buck! The best way we can pay you back Chris is by doing the best research we can.

None of the incredibly powerful portraits that constitute the heart of this book would have been possible without the truly remarkable skills of in situ transcription undertaken by Solveiga—a fieldwork approach to our knowledge not undertaken by anyone we can ascertain. She brought a set of understandings, a sympathy for, and a set of typographical and organizational skills that we consider unsurpassable anywhere. She also spun her magic in bringing this book together in a coherent format, with all of the referencing making sense. We regard it as a privilege to have had access to you for our research.

Finally, John wishes to thank Peter for the amazing work he has brought to a professional partnership that began in 1996, grew and developed through the supervision of his PhD by John, and that culminated in six jointly authored books and countless articles. I could not have imagined a better academic partner and collaborator! This has been without a doubt a truly remarkable partnership, and we all wish Peter well in his retirement and the other pursuits he wishes to pursue. Farewell mate, enjoy, and thanks Jan for allowing me to borrow him!

Ballarat, Australia

2 September, 2013


← x | 1 → 1. Setting the stage: exposing the
‘grand erasure’

Our Australian colleague sociologist Raewyn Connell (2007) has very usefully sparked off a feisty debate in her Southern Theory: the Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. To cut to the chase, the essence of Connell’s argument is that the social sciences have become totally captured by models and forms of thinking of the ‘metropole’, which is to say, the ‘rich countries’ (predominantly located in the global north), to the detriment and exclusion of other perspectives that are located on the periphery (that is say in the global ‘south’ or poorer countries) and that have a much more ‘indigenous’ or ‘local’ inflection.

Connell (2007) uses the term ‘southern theory’ for three reasons. First, she says, ‘the phrase calls attention to periphery-centre relations in the realm of knowledge’ (p. viii) and the largely invisible construal of this relationship. The intent on Connell’s part is not to present ‘a sharply bounded category of states or societies, but to emphasize relations—authority and exclusion, hegemony, partnership, sponsorship, appropriation—between intellectuals and institutions in the metropole and those in the world periphery’ (pp. viii–ix). Second, Connell (2007) is seeking to draw attention to the historical situation whereby ‘the [southern] majority of the world does produce theory’ (p. ix), but in a context of denial such that while ‘data gathering and application happen in the colony…theorizing happens [only] in the metropole’ (p. ix)—in other words, the reinforcement of yet another invisibility. Third, for Connell (2007), ‘social thought happens in particular places’ (p. ix), and while social theorists might like to conceive of themselves as foraying out into places that are ‘at the end of the earth’, indigenous peoples who inhabit these places do not see their location as in any way remote or exotic, but rather as being ‘at the centre’ (p. ix). It is literally the case that somebody else’s distanciation is another’s localization.

← 1 | 2 → We want to take Connell’s big sociological idea and use it to trouble the way in which educational knowledge is being constructed (indeed entrenched), for whom, and with what exclusionary effects. In particular we want to use this big idea as a way of viewing the lives and experiences of young people who are in the process of ‘becoming educated’ and who have become caught up in the workings of capitalism to the point of officially being relegated to and assigned the label of being ‘disadvantaged’.

The metaphorical notions of northern and southern theories as expressed by Connell (2006; 2007) are a very useful a point of entry for looking at how young people are crafting educational identities for themselves, but in policy contexts that are oblivious to young people’s trajectories and that are also often highly antagonistic to what young people are attempting.

To set the stage a little more, it may be helpful if we first do some rehearsing of Connell’s northern and southern theory so that it becomes clearer how we want to deploy this for our current purposes. Connell (2006) claims that mainstream (orthodox ‘northern’) sociology is trapped within four textual moves or tropes—and we argue that these neatly parallel the way educational policy thinks and positions itself in relation to young people, especially the most marginalized:

(a)the claim of universality;

(b)reading from the center;

(c)gestures of exclusion; and

(d)grand erasure (p. 258)

To briefly address each of these.


X, 174
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (February)
poverty disadvantage hope difference
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 174 pp.

Biographical notes

John Smyth (Author) Peter McInerney (Author)

John Smyth is Research Professor of Education, Faculty of Education & Arts, Federation University Australia, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. He is the inter-disciplinary Research Theme Leader for Addressing Disadvantage and Inequality in Education and Health. His research interests are in policy sociology, policy ethnography, social justice, and sociology of education. Peter Mcinerney is Research Associate, Faculty of Education & Arts, Federation University Australia, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. His research interests are in forms of school reform that promote social justice.


Title: Becoming Educated
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186 pages