Saturday, September 24, 2005
Chapter 26 from: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974
Plastic Radicals in Academe
By JOHN SARUM
University wasn't always a plastic scene. For hundreds of years after the Middle Ages, for all that it had become a playground for the children of the rich, it retained a residue of the old idealism of a community of scholars, devoted to the search for truth and subject to rigorous intellectual discipline. This residue has vanished --or perhaps it didn't survive transplantation to the colonies. Look round Kensington, Baby. Where are the men who study the mind of man? (there's Sid Lovibond, giving electric shocks to rats). Who can tell us about the great spiritual achievements of our people expressed in literature? (well, Harry O. is great on deciphering C17th handwriting). What of the philosophers, in their eternal search for Truth, Beauty and Goodness? (watch Frank V. doing symbolic logic). Who studies the many problems of our society? (Sol Encel can't even get his statistics right and George Shipp is using his to prove that TV announcers have opinions). And tell me, who studies the living things in our environment, now in such grave peril? (the Romans had a saying, De mortuis nil nisi bonum; in this case it had better be nil).
Academia was once a way of life in itself --a rejection of ordinary values, a complete personal commitment to knowledge and the things of the mind. They lived with their books and their students, and formed a trade union to protect the interests of their scholarly profession. These unions were the first European Universities. Or in a quite different tradition, a Chinese philosopher tells us: 'A sage teaches in five ways. The first is by a transforming influence like that of timely rain. The second is by helping the student to realise his virtue to the full. The third is by helping him to develop his talent. The fourth is by answering his questions. And the fifth is by setting an example others not in contact with him can emulate'.
Such were the traditional conceptions of an academic. Who at Kenso even comes close to them? We all know about the dreadful man who, though a full-time member of University staff, was unavailable to see students nine to five, Monday to Friday, because he also held a full-time job in the city; but think of the others. How many academics wait round after lectures to discuss things with their students? How many drink with them, or share any social, intellectual or recreational activities with them? How many even think of doing so? Can you imagine an academic who lives with his students? Most of them have cosy homes in the suburbs and live like superior bank-clerks; which is probably a nice way of life, but it is not an academic one. "By their fruits ye shall know them"; if you want to know about the fruits of an Australian University, read The University Experience by Graham Little. The effect of three years at University on the Arts and Science students he interviewed was zero.
Of course, Arts and Science aren't the only faculties, and the University isn't just a playpen for the rich any more. It is once again a training place for the poor but able student, as it was in those first, far-off mediaeval days. A kid from the slums, if he can make it through our unspeakable high-school system, has as good a chance as the feudal peasant's brat whose intelligence attracted the attention of a wandering friar or an unusually able parish priest. With a good brain and lots of luck, today's peasant can get a cadetship of some sort and make it to a white-collar job, professional status and the suburbs, say as an engineer (without a brain, he can always be a high-school teacher). But he will need luck, and a lot of hard work, and a very thick skin. For the ambitious slum kid slogging his way up the social ladder is not really acceptable to the Uni crowd. Engineering is not a fashionable course. Student style is still set by the rich kiddies in their playpen.
Of course, the rich brats flirt with Marx (as they have since the 'twenties). Especially his early work ["Grundrisse"], which Marx himself rejected, because it doesn't involve nasty difficult things like economics. They talk a lot about 'The Workers' and 'The People' and 'The Masses'. Mostly they've never worked in their lives, except for a summer vacation job at DJ's [Department Store], and they despise any beer-swilling, football-following unintellectual Alfs they actually meet. ('Alf is their word, popularised by those naughty but oh so witty boys from Oz). You can see their total inability to communicate with ordinary Australians when they try to talk with ordinary Australians who happen to be black at Abschol demonstrations. They despise the worker's ambition for a better home for his family from its sand-blasted glass front door to its wall-to-wall carpets, his pride and joy in his car, his harmless entertainment watching teev or sport. They have no conception of his heroism in the drudgery of his daily life, his courage in the face of difficulties they never face, his devotion to his family, his ill-expressed but often profound wisdom about men and affairs, his quick nose for the slightest hint of a phoney (their blindness to this last hardly surprises). They sneer at his son battling his way through engineering and playing Rugby [football] on Saturdays. Perhaps the workers are not very admirable in many ways, but it is odd that those who profess to champion them should emphasise their deficiencies so much. (This characteristic of student radicals to rubbish the working classes refutes the otherwise plausible explanation of a University as an institution to care for those unable to reconcile conflicting beliefs -'cognitive dissonance' as it is called. Students are as good at it as anyone.)
The nearest we've seen to the Student-Worker Alliance was a lady graduate student who shacked up with a wharfie [longshoreman]. Naturally, for it wouldn't do to flout the really fundamental social norms, he was an exceptional wharfie, with an honours degree in Arts. (The reaction of students to the relationship, before they found out that last significant fact, was very revealing.) Naturally too, he was not a success in his unusual vocation, and was chucked off the wharves.
Lots of the rich kiddies play prols, of course, and move out to the slums in a brave gesture of independence. They disturb the sleeping locals with expensive stereograms and send their washing home to Mummy. But when the shit hits the fan it's marriage and a steady job and a home in a good suburb. The number of self-styled radicals, student editors and so on who have already started buying a Nice Home is extraordinary; although some are sufficiently snobbish (or awake to a good investment) to put their money down in some newly-fashionable area like Balmain. Of course it's rude to point out such inconsistencies, or compare their sound investment with the bourgeois life-style they reject or the proletarian aspirations they despise. But it helps to clear up their views on private property; where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.
In fact, of course, they are bourgeois to the core. Their drug market works on straight free enterprise principles, and they're all in it for the money. They outdo each other with clothes, records, the whole, fashionable status symbol scene in a way embarrassing to a pleb who merely likes his new car. Beads do not a rebel make, nor tie-dyed clothes a rad. Look at the litter they leave and see what they think of pollution. Watch how they treat their birds and see what they think of Women's Lib. Watch how they treat each other and see what sort of society they believe in.
The University itself has adapted to its dual role as a degree factory for the ambitious poor and a playpen for the idle rich. There are courses to train the slobs to be respectable, useful members of society, in a job with a white collar requiring some responsibility and not much imagination. These courses perhaps overemphasise the lack of imagination, but the customers don't want it anyway. They just want to learn how-how to make four times as much as their old man --and the University teaches them how, by the book. No questions welcome. They'll come out competent accountants, economists, engineers --and if their creativity is crushed who cares? They're 100 per cent up on where their fathers were.
And there are courses for the gigglers who are here to fill in a few years on their oldies' money. Things like academic discipline and intellectual integrity would just be a nuisance in these courses, so they wither away. After all, what the little darlings really want to talk about is themselves --their wonderful new Youth Culture and Pop stars and weekends in the country smoking grass. Relevance, they call it. Throw in some long words and a smattering of history and the arts, so that they can feel superior to the slobs outside working. And the University lets them, with only a few formalities like reading-lists (any recent paperback will do) and tutorials (in which they get bombed anyway) and exams (as easy as possible -- they pass if they have long hair and up-to-date clothes, which after all is what they're here for). And we'll get the student paper to publish junk on fashionable upper-middle class conversation pieces like pollution and antipsychiatry and women's lib, so they'll know what to talk about. They can write some of the articles themselves and see their names in print (but for God's sake don't criticise what they've written, their little egos couldn't stand it). With issues like these, they can even feel they're important agents of social change as well. Forget the fact that once something's been taken up bv Time Magazine it's no longer new, but already being pushed into the collective unconscious so the masses won't be too shocked when something's done about it. (Australia is the only country in the world where the people who call themselves intellectuals read Time). Then they'll be trained for their role in society-making conversation at business lunches and cocktail parties --and they'll be able to look back and tell their kids how they were wild and Red when they were young.
That's all this place is, Baby --a combined Finishing School and Tech. College. So much for Aberlard and Mencius and Socrates, so much for scholarship and teaching as a way of life, so much for the search for truth. Who needed real Universities anyway?
This chapter is taken from the text of a leaflet circulated some years ago at the University of New South Wales by the then Liberal and Country Party club.
In converting printed matter to html I am normally rigorous in ensuring that there are no differences between the original and the html version. In this case only, however, I have spelt out a few abbreviations and inserted explanations of a few references. I have done so in the hope of making the chapter intelligible to a wider audience than the rather limited audience for which it was originally intended. I myself taught at the University of New South Wales from 1971 to 1983 and see much truth in what the author describes. The University of New South Wales is one of Australia's major universities. I have lost track of the author of the article but I hear that he has gone on to worse things.