Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

On Academia

For most of my adulthood I’ve entertained myself reading biographies of politicians. English, American and especially Australian. Biographies let me chart and compare my own practices and see the way some of the best have approached the career’s I envisage myself as holding. But as I spend more and more time in Academia and enjoy it’s practices more (Teaching is the greatest job I have ever had), I’ve also come to read some of the (rare) biographies of academics, most recently Brian Matthews ‘A Life’ book on Manning Clark. And yet, whilst I can read on the 19th century english political giants Disraeli and Gladstone and find instructive lessons despite the different environments even country, reading on academics from just 30 years earlier era’s seems a different, alien world..
Inside is of course the anguish, worry, guilt, pride and vanity that lie behind all who want to have something to say and commit it to paper. Since Clark was writing his great works Australia’s population has become far less homogenized with great competition for jobs, housing, education and a growing rich/poor gap. Today however, as Gregory Melleuish writes in his 2009 anthology ‘The Power of Ideas: Essays on Australian Politics & History’ “Certain groups such as Academics have lost both in terms of status and wealth”. Clark was appointed Professor of History at the Canberra University College (what was to become ANU) at the age of 34, without any significant publications under his belt or doctorate. Today you need a PhD just to be appointed to the lowest of academic positions, and even then the competition is fierce. I see this as a good thing overall, but whilst there was great controversy over Clark’s writings, few doubted that academics had a role to play and deserved respect and recognition for their study, work and contribution. It is the sudden abandonment of this which is the most confronting for a new academic. Again Melleuish is worth quoting, only this time he is less reflective than leading the charge:

‘Howard has been regularlly vilified by many in the media and academia as a substitute for intelligent analysis…it turns politics into a punch and judy show in which the supposidly intelligent and sophisticated spectators are called on to boo and cheer accordingly …this is largely because of what David Martin has called the ‘special licence’ of academic and media commentators and their capacity to ask questions ‘without needing to answer them’ and ‘demand apologies without ever having to give them’. Put simply they have power without responsibility and are unable to understand the sometimes awful responsibility that comes with authority’ – Melleuish, G 2009 ‘The Power of Ideas’ Melbourne: Australian Scholarly publishing Ltd.

Later on he goes on to attribute this anger due to the end of the ‘bureaucratic state that had plenty of employment opportunities for the commentariat and their friends and came to mean wealth creation, even if the people who performed that task did not possess a university education’ (p22). This is a world which a fragile and self-doubting character like Clark could perhaps not long survive. Or at least so you would believe if you read and listened to the media daily. I do not mind Melleuish’s comments, he is a quality academic and I intend to return to his very interesting book in a future post, and as an academic he has well earned his right to give his colleagues a whack over the ears when and where they have failed. (Likewise for John Hirst, another Australian historian begins his recent essay collection ‘sense and nonsense in Australian History’ with similar sentiments on battling left wing views amongst academia). Yet these voices are rare and the authors usually open to debate. However have you ever noticed that those who talk most about academia, who go on the most about the power, influence and corruption of academia are those who hate it the most and largely have had the least to do with it?

Sarah Palin, like the radio-hosts she most clearly emulates (to call her a politician is a misuse of the word) has made a career on damning the entire education process. When she failed, it was instantly attributed to the role of education elites condemning her, (despite the facts being otherwise). Back at home, John Howard made it a part of his public persona that he disavowed the worth of academics. Howard’s government so significantly reduced the funding for higher education that in 2004 this exchange occured in his party room:

unreported at the time, (Liberal Senator George) Brandis rose in the Coalition’s joint party room to ask plaintively whether it was true, as claimed by the then employment minister Gary Hardgrave, that the Howard government now viewed a hairdresser’s qualification as equal to a PhD. Brandis was howled down, and Howard laughed in response that at least a hairdresser’s qualification held the chance of making some money.

Yet whilst the media and political elites seem to have largely turned on academics (or cowardly abandoned rather than defend should they hold different views on the role of education and the academy), this picture is not one I find as I meet people in this country. From taxi drivers to waitresses to strippers (yes really), whenever I say I am looking at becoming an academic and doing a PhD I get only impressed nods and wonderings of how hard and how much work that must be. Of course they may be smirking behind their back, and certainly I think my friends all under thirty and yet working on incomes up to double the national average must wonder about the wisdom of my choices. Yet whilst this is not a country which turns our academics into rock stars, I do think it is one which recognises and respects the role of academics and higher education. When conservative commentators and politicians adopt anti-academic (sometimes anti-intellectual or anti-education) approaches and lines as a populist weapon, I think they are misreading much of this countries outlook. People may not be publicly supportive of academics, but they still are privately.

Times have certainly changed for academics. The profession is in need of a revamp and overhaul in many senses. It has lost a lot of respect and some of it very rightly so. But the anger and regular venting against academics and educated elites that conservatives adopt does not reflect the general public or appear to have influenced their decisions. Australians are still wary of theory and intellectuals, but they respect the achievement if not the results. This is the challenge for the young academic, to re-connect the work of the profession to its role as aiding and educating the entire country. It will take time, but I am confident that the new generation of academics, escaping from the Vietnam era debates that still divide baby boomers (witness the vitriol in the obits against Robert McNamara –another elite by education-) can regain the public respect for their profession and work. Look for them in blogs, seminars, and publishing great and (easy to read!) work, and keen to earn public respect rather than take it for granted or bemoan its loss. After all that, it’s time I get back to my own study.

Photo by Tim Ellis used under a Creative Commons Licence

« Previous post