BOOK REVIEW: Who Gets to Be Smart by Bri Lee

Review by Maddy Corbel

Bri Lee’s latest non-fiction work Who Gets to be Smart is a compilation of research and personal anecdotes that investigates the correlation between privilege, power and knowledge. The book was inspired by Lee’s 2018 trip to Oxford University, where she was invited to stay by a Rhodes Scholar friend. While wandering around the campus reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Lee reflected on the all-encompassing influence that these kinds of elite academic institutions have, and how their singular versions of history filter through generations to sit smugly at the top of all power structures, including the Australian government. This, she argues, has a profound and continuing impact on real lives.

Through reading many different reviews online, it becomes obvious that Lee’s book has divided its readers. The Guardian describes the book as ‘gutsy but unfocused’; Arts Hub dubs it ‘engaging, honest and brilliant’; but readers have also taken to Instagram labelling it ‘messy’, ‘repetitive’ and ‘problematic’.

Bri Lee’s past works, Eggshell Skull and Beauty, offered the young Australian population much to think about: from recontextualising and dissecting the messages thrown around by a misogynistic society, to fighting for consent rights and shining a light on the prejudices of the Australian justice system. She has bravely documented her research and personal experiences to spark change. This book did the same; but in my view, it was sometimes difficult to discern what she wanted that change to look like.

I agree with a lot of reviewers that the arguments presented in Who Gets to be Smart were tangled with conclusions that were difficult to identify. I was lost in the flood of statistics a couple of times – even though this affirmed the sense of thoroughness and trust in Lee’s work, I often missed its point.

Reflecting on the epilogue, where Lee focuses on unpicking her own belief systems while vowing to do better, I felt like I had found the diamond of the book – this was the point. Refocussing towards learning, rather than accreditation or snobbery, was the goal. Even her Rhodes Scholar friend confessed that he would be ‘happy working in a cheese shop or walking dogs or gardening, and spending his life reading and thinking and writing’. Yet every time Lee mentioned some uncomfortable personal shortcomings (believing, for instance, that only people who had read specific authors were ‘ahead’ of others, or that she ‘couldn’t imagine’ having a relationship with someone who wasn’t ‘smarter’ than her), I cringed internally. None of this felt right; something wasn’t sitting well with me. It felt as though Lee only respected or loved those who she deemed traditionally intelligent, which seemed like an exclusory and toxic way to live.

But I really think this is the point – to highlight these ideas, considering where they came from and why they’re problematic. I think that if this was Lee’s goal, it was brave. She had to know that some of the things she was writing would ostracise her readers, but she did it anyway. This review, however, is my take.

This well-researched, statistic-strewn book provides all the facts necessary to make your brain fizzle with rage. Alice Pung accurately called it a ‘searing exposé’, as politicians, university deans and education systems are named, shamed and made to take responsibility for their misuse of power. The connections between money, tradition, ‘Australianism’ and colonialism are all discussed rigorously – when government leaders claim that the genocide ‘narrative’ of our past insults our nationalist pride, Lee makes it obvious that they are inadvertently shouting from a place of privilege. These leaders and policymakers, according to Lee, are born from the very institutions that use their professed superiority as an excuse for exclusion and harm. This, understandably, makes many Australians angry.

Reading this book made these connections very clear to me. Though I should have already known of the existence of the chains of command connecting power, money, privilege and leadership, I’m ashamed to say that I never really thought about it. Like so many others, I’m frustrated with these leaders’ failures, but on my own trip to Oxford a couple of years ago I viewed the institution through rose-coloured glasses. I was ignorant of the looming colonial statues, the locked gates. People who bestowed grand sums of money to the university in order to uphold the importance of education actually promoted slavery and the continuation of their own self-serving ideals. I didn’t consider any of this when I looked at those beautiful buildings.

Who Gets to be Smart awoke these realisations in me and planted these connections that many other readers already know. I’m ashamed that I didn’t properly consider them earlier, but I’m glad that Lee’s book made me question many personal decisions: why do I really like studying? Why did I choose this university, this course? Why do good grades seem to elevate my self-worth?

In the process of reading this book, I tracked my own responses: I highlighted sentences before putting the book down on my lap and staring out the window; I chucked it down on the table and vowed never to pick it up again, only to then hold it so close to my face that I looked ridiculous; I wrote copious amounts of notes into my phone, most of which were indecipherable later. And I kept my partner up late because I was talking too much about the injustice of it all. There are problems with my own belief systems, problems with the education rhetoric in Australia, problems with the allocation of power and prejudicial imbalances. I love learning, but I had never properly considered the negative implications associated with where I was getting my information from. 

It’s clear that Bri Lee writes from a place of passion and gritty determination. Her book certainly promotes discussion, and if a book should get you thinking, this one has done its job. If it challenges your own ideas and changes your way of thinking, then it might be enough to spark real change.

Who Gets to Be Smart was published by Allen & Unwin and has an RRP of $29.99. It is available from most online and local retailers.

Maddy Corbel is an aspiring publisher and editor from Melbourne. When not reading or studying, she can be found writing for Bookish Nooks. She is also a passionate singer and pianist, and loves drinking tea and learning about history.

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