Monday, 22 March 2010

Not 'is this knowledge useful?' But does it breed ideas? Ashby and technology.


Eric Ashby had arrived in Australia from Bristol in 1938 with his university-educated wife Helëna (a novelty to the Sydney press) and two small children, to take up the chair in Botany at Sydney University. At 34 years old, Ashby’s sense of the civic responsibility of scientific leadership was already substantial – we have already seen that he quickly became involved in the Australian National Research Council and in government policy. As well as assisting government in the allocation of scientific resources, Ashby gave radio broadcasts, public lectures and wrote articles on education in Australia, especially on the future of the universities. Some of these were collated in Challenge to Education in 1946, by which time the Universities Commission had already implemented some of the expansion to the universities Ashby had advocated.  Sent as Australian scientific counsellor to Russia in 1944, he was thereafter in demand for diplomatic and administrative roles in both government and higher education in Australia.[1] He refused all and tried, unsuccessfully, to resume a life of botanical research in the UK, before finally succumbing to offers of Vice-Chancellorships at Queens Belfast and Cambridge successively.[2] He worked and wrote on higher education policy, leadership and history throughout the Commonwealth, and wrote a book on the United States’ tertiary education system.[3] This international leadership in higher education during a period of significant change meant that, by the end of his life Ashby had been granted multiple honours and awarded 18 honorary degrees in nine countries.[4] In Australia it was said, “it would be difficult to name an academic who, with eight years residence in Australia (interrupted by one in Moscow), had greater influence”.[5]

Ashby was characteristically optimistic – at least in 1958 – about the potential integration of technology in the universities, though he was also realistic about the barriers to such integration. In tracing the gradual adoption of science by the great centres of learning in England, he noted the relative ease with which ‘pure’ scientific research, analogous to humanities traditions, could be understood. Technology, with its associations of being ‘earthy’ of its susceptibility to pressure from industry and government is described, Ashby said, with adjectives like ‘crude’ and ‘mere’.[6] In the 19th century it had been possible to credibly suggest that the upper class should study literature while the middle classes looked after science, an attitude Ashby described as “puzzling” in the 20th century.[7] But remnants of this class distinction were still erecting barriers to the successful integration of technology into the realm of knowledge. Ashby considered it to be time disciplinary class distinctions were eradicated. The threats to civilisation many felt were attached to knowledge after the war Ashby thought could be addressed through a system of ideas he called technological humanism.

Technology, Ashby claimed, could achieve what science could not. Science, he had pointed out, generally needed to remove the human variable in order to be valid. Technology, on the other hand, was a space in which science and humanity interacted, enabling a unity of knowledge that was inherently humanist.[8] What made knowledge pure, according to Ashby, was not that it was never applied to anything – it was that the university remained autonomous and that academic inquiry was free and curiosity-driven:
It is a matter of cold fact that most of the discoveries and ideas which have shaped history began as speculations, as disinterested curiosity, as thinking for the sheer delight of thinking.[9]
It was this motive that Ashby saw as central to the unique responsibility of universities. He said that university knowledge was not evaluated on whether or not it was useful, but rather on its potential to further knowledge itself: “Does the subject breed ideas?”

Australia was particularly prone, Ashby said, to pressure from secondary industry to include technical skill training in university education. This was partly a result, he thought, of the bad press Australian universities had been subject to prior to the war. Widely seen as useless, elite, privileged and wealthy[10], the public commonly assumed that universities were committed to the unnecessary promotion of irrelevant medieval knowledge.[11] The result was regular pressure to change by including one thing or another industry needed. Indeed, Australian universities did need to adapt more to a changing society, Ashby said, and should assume some obligations to industry and government. These obligations, however, were not the purpose of universities. He said, that “although professional training is still the university’s business, cultivation of the intellect has become its vocation”.[12]

Governments and industry did not therefore have the right to select new disciplines and new projects for research – the university was not, Ashby said, an “intellectual department store”.[13] This was different to his wartime advice that expert scientists were needed to know what scientific problems to address. Ashby was in favour of democratising education, opposed to “academic snobbishness” and believed the specialised language of science and the faith many put in it was a dangerous type of authoritarianism.[14] He was not elevating academic authority over the society in which it functioned by suggesting that academics must provide society with what it needed, not what it demanded. Ashby believed that the freedom to pursue knowledge for love would be the best assurance there was that society would obtain from academics the knowledge by which it would benefit.

Academics must be free to pursue knowledge as they see fit, Ashby argued, as it was this freedom that would allow universities to fulfil their true function:
Today our universities, criticize them as you will, are the trustees of Australian intellectual life; despite their weakness, despite their unworthiness for this high office.[15]
“High office” denotes the sacred duty that Ashby intended to convey, a sanctity related to the role of knowledge in upholding and promoting civilisation. It was through this sense of civilisation that the universities would be connected to the nation. “Upon the universities depends in large degree Australia’s future”, said Ashby, since:
Universities are the defenders of the intellectual life, and if the intellectual life is crushed by prejudice and stupidity and selfishness, then it will profit us nothing to win the war against the Axis, for we shall still be dragged to defeat by our own ignorance.[16]
Knowledge might win a war but the war would not be worth winning if civilisation was undermined in the process, according to Ashby’s logic. For knowledge to continue to perform its social function even ‘useful’ knowledge must be pursued for its own sake.


[1] Alan Burges and Richard J Eden, "Ashby, Eric, Baron Ashby (1904–1992)," in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[2] Peter Froggart, "Eric Ashby," in Queen's Thinkers: Essays on the Intellectual Heritage of a University, ed. Alvin Jackson (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2008).
[3] Eric Ashby, "Universities in Australia, Originally ACER Pamphlet, 1944," in Challenge to Education, ed. Eric Ashby (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1946). Eric Ashby, Technology and the Academics: An Essay on Universities and the Scientific Revolution (London: Macmillan, 1958), Eric Ashby, "The Diversity of Universities in the Commonwealth," The Australian University 2, no. 1 (1964), Eric Ashby, Masters and Scholars: Reflections of the Rights and Responsibilities of Students, The Whidden Lectures for 1970 (London: Oxford University Press, 1970). Ashby, Adapting Universities to a Technological Society. Eric Ashby and Mary Anderson, Universities: British, Indian, African; a Study in the Ecology of Higher Education (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966). Eric Ashby, Any Person, Any Study: An Essay on Higher Education in the United States (New York: McGraw Hill, 1971).
[4] Burges and Eden, "Ashby, Eric, Baron Ashby (1904–1992)."
[5] Sir Rutherford Robertson, "Eric Ashby: Letter for University of Sydney Gazette," in Eric Ashby (Biographical) (Sydney: University of Sydney Archives, 1993).
[6] Ashby, Technology and the Academics: An Essay on Universities and the Scientific Revolution, 66.
[7] Ashby, Technology and the Academics: An Essay on Universities and the Scientific Revolution, 32.
[8] Eric Ashby, "Technological Humanism," Nature, no. 10 March (1956).
[9] Ashby, "Universities in Australia, Originally ACER Pamphlet, 1944," 77.
[10] Spaull, Australian Education in the Second World War, 221.
[11] Ashby, "Universities in Australia, Originally ACER Pamphlet, 1944." 
[12] Ashby, "Universities in Australia, Originally ACER Pamphlet, 1944," 77.
[13] Ashby, "Universities in Australia, Originally ACER Pamphlet, 1944." 
[14] Eric Ashby, "The New Authoritarianism," in Challenge to Education (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1946).
[15] xxx
[16] Ashby, "Universities in Australia, Originally ACER Pamphlet, 1944," 73.

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