Who Gets to be Smart (Bri Lee, A&U)
Who Gets to be Smart opens with a walking tour of Oxford. Author Bri Lee is at the university to visit her friend, a freshly minted Rhodes Scholar. As the pair round the lavish grounds and historic libraries, Lee is beguiled by the place and its promise of intellectual grandeur. The scene offers an ideal entry point into her thesis that inequities are baked in to education systems (and, in Australia especially, deepening). Lee’s investigation is ambitious and wide-ranging, using concepts including kyriarchy and intellectual racism as frameworks for critique, and she is adept at lacing personal experience with cultural criticism, as she has done in previous nonfiction offerings Eggshell Skull and Beauty. In Who Gets to be Smart, Lee doesn’t shy away from describing her own rushes of envy and feelings of intellectual inadequacy—reminiscent of Helen Garner’s dedication to unflattering self-depiction in aid of self and social examination—and the writing is most compelling when Lee unpicks her own thinking on intelligence as identity. Elsewhere, the book leans heavily on existing sources and research—the volume of information sometimes feels unwieldy—and may have benefitted from more first-hand reportage or a stronger narrative thread. But, as education institutions pick up the pieces after Covid-19 exposed their systemic fault lines, Who Gets to be Smart is a timely and perceptive examination of our flawed education system.
Kim Thomson is a freelance writer and editor.