Monday, 25 May 2009

Knowledge and intelligence: first draft

I have just completed a first draft of a paper I plan to present at the AHA conference late June/early July called "Knowledge and Intelligence: why ASIO thought university knowledge would kill democracy"

This is the draft conclusion. (DRAFT I say...please be kind. But do send me feedback if you have any).

Jean Curthoys, approximately 25 years after the Philosophy Strike, made the following intriguing comment:
This liberal conception of the university no longer has currency…I have no time here to defend this liberal conception and so I shall simply say that my deep regrets about the strike concern the extent to which it opened the floodgates for its rejection.
The extent to which it opened the floodgates is difficult to determine, but what is certain is that the way student protest movements conceived of knowledge was incompatible with the way knowledge was structured in a traditional sense. The student movement sought a redistribution of the control of knowledge from the professoriate to a more participatory model. It is tempting, looking at our consumer-focused universities and student-centred pedagogies to say they succeeded, and possibly they did. But in confining ourselves to the late 1960s and early 1970s we can conclude that the tension between liberal traditions of the university and emerging models of knowledge were possibly at their most taut.

It is possible that ASIO analysts deliberately exaggerated the imminence of their assessment of the risk of revolution in order to ensure adequate resources to fund their vastly expanded surveillance responsibilities. It may be that they did not actually believe Australia was a couple of short steps away from guerrilla war. Or it could be that they thought worst-case scenarios were warranted, given events in Paris and elsewhere, where perhaps other governments had underestimated the power of the student population. Regardless, the ASIO reports were able to give such an elevated status to the level of risk presented by student protest movements because of the way they saw the relationship between knowledge and democracy.
ASIO constructed knowledge as foundational to a civil, democratic society, which was consistent with traditions of liberal universities. The task of the traditional university to promote progress, uphold intellectual integrity and, where needed, point out falsehood and wrongdoing implied that it would always function in support of the establishment, keeping society on its chosen path. To students this was unacceptable. Knowledge, they thought, should show ways that the establishment was repressive, undermine it, promote revolution and change. If ASIO genuinely thought that knowledge underpinned democracy, it is less surprising that they were so alarmed. If professors thought it, perhaps it is less ridiculous than it might appear, that they too sought to protect their position as a part of their perceived responsibility to maintain intellectual standards. But the professoriate, in abusing the power they had, sometimes behaved badly and, like ASIO, earned their downfall.

And yet, a former student revolutionary like Jean Curthoys can regret the loss of the “liberal conception of the university”, an idea so readily discarded as outdated and irrelevant by student movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This suggests some disquieting questions. Did the student movements restructure a collective understanding about the relationship of knowledge to democracy? If knowledge underpinned civil democracy, it was power – the ASIO files make this clear. Does that imply that it would lose its power if it were no longer perceived in this structure? Knowledge was seen to be foundational to civil society because it drew the nation’s attention to a singular sense of truth. It was this that resulted in the need for academic freedom and trust in an elite group of researching academics. If the singularity of truth were no longer required to keep society on track, would that suggest that there would no longer be a structural imperative to academic freedom? Did the hierarchical structure and the elitism of the professoriate add cultural capital to knowledge, devaluing the core substance of the university once professors were de-throned?

These probably inherently unanswerable questions are certainly unanswerable from an analysis of ASIO files. What the files do highlight is the tension in the idea of the university presented by student movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The traditional role for the university saw knowledge as truth that would underpin the establishment. Nostalgia for the liberal university, justified though it may seem, should not forget that this necessitated an elite group of scholarly masters to control and protect a canon of knowledge – and that sometimes this was a power abused. Similarly, tempting though it is to continually mythologise student revolutionaries in heroic stances, their role in undermining a widely accepted value of knowledge and its pursuit for its own sake should probably also be acknowledged. Initially it appears that ASIO, professors and student revolutionaries saw knowledge as worth fighting for. It may be that in the process of fighting over it, university-based knowledge lost its value.

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