Culture

Kazakhstan Beat Australia In Education Rankings And Our Media Responded With Dumb ‘Borat’ Jokes

Australia was beaten by 'Borat', apparently.

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The results from the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study were released overnight. The study tracks the educational standards of students around the world, in the fields of maths and science. And, though Australia’s results haven’t changed much over the past couple of decades, we’ve recently been overtaken by a bunch of countries including Slovenia, Hungary and Kazakhstan. We’re also behind the UK, US, Japan and Singapore.

There’s a lot of data to crunch through in the report, and the results will no doubt kick-off a serious debate about Australia’s education system. But before we get to that point, the Australian media has decided that it’s important to pull out Kazakhstan’s result for some reason and make a lot of very dumb and entirely meaningless Borat references.

Let’s Assess the Awkwardness

Here’s how the ABC reported the results:

“Kazakhstan — a Central Asian country well-known for the satirical film Borat and with a population smaller than ours — soared past Australia in all four categories.”

The sentence kind of implies that Borat is a local Kazahkstan production, which was absolutely not the case.

And here’s Australia’s Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, from that same story:

“I don’t want to denigrate Kazakhstan, or indeed their artistic skills with movies like Borat…

Again, just so we’re clear: Borat was absolutely not a local production from Kazahkstan.

Here’s The Sydney Morning Herald:

borat

Screenshot via SMH.

“Beaten by BoratSeriously? There’s some choice generic Central Asian music in that video too, if you’re keen for some subtle cultural awkwardness in a way that only Australians can manage.

But as the Herald’s education reporter, Matthew Knott, points out the issue isn’t that Australia is going backwards, it’s that countries like Kazakhstan are improving and they’ve now leapfrogged us. Which is… bad? So far, no one has really explained why.

Here’s another report from Techly:

techly

Screenshot via Techly.

The article comes complete with a terrible Borat meme and a video compilation of the film’s highlights (just in case you were still confused about the dumb, obvious joke).

And here’s The Daily Telegraph:

borat2

The Tele describes Kazakhstan as “the backwards country lampooned by Sacha Baron Cohen in the 2006 film Borat”. But later it quotes Dr Sue Thomson, the monitoring director of the Australian Council for Educational Research, as saying “Kazakhstan has always had a strong focus on maths and science… in countries like that there is more of a respect of what it can do – here in Australia it may be seen as nerdy.”

So the Tele reckons it’s “backwards” but the actual education expert says it’s a country that focuses on maths and science. Who to believe?!

But… Why?

The very unsubtle insinuation across all this reporting, including the Education Minister’s comments, is that Australia should feel embarrassed because Kazakhstan has beaten us in an education ranking, because Borat was a film that made fun of Kazakhstan.

It’s super weird, especially since there’s nothing to suggest Kazakhstan’s results were more remarkable than Slovenia’s or Hungary’s. But clearly the lure of bad memes was just too strong.

When Borat was released it was met with a very mixed reception from Kazakhs. Kazakhstan’s ambassador to UK at the time said Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal was “racist and slanderous”. It feels particularly awkward, if not downright offensive, for our media and political establishment to respond to a comprehensive education report by zooming in on a particular depiction of a country that made many locals feel uncomfortable.

The underlying assumption that we should be shocked and disappointed that we’re being beaten by Kazakhstan is also very strange. Why are we supposed to be surprised? Because they’re a Central Asian country? Because they’re predominantly Muslim? Or is it more to do with the fact that most of us, including our journalists and politicians, don’t know anything about the country aside from the fact a satirical film was once made about it?

To be fair, most of our media outlets have done a great job of reporting the actual implications of the report. And Simon Birmingham has been doing a whole lot of media appearances this morning, canvassing improvements to our education system. But they surely could have managed to do all that without resorting to lazy cultural stereotypes and insinuations.

Feature image via The Daily Telegraph.