Monday, 22 March 2010

So permanently mutilated by university that it is idle to expect anything of them. Ian Clunies Ross


Ashby's concern was shared and, arguably, deepened, by his friend and colleague, Ian Clunies Ross. Ashby left Australia in 1946, but maintained continual correspondence with him until Clunies Ross died in 1959. Clunies Ross, despite being declared by Robert Menzies “the greatest public relations man for science Australia had ever seen”, felt disquiet about the role science was taking in society and the university, especially after the war. Clunies Ross was concerned, above the science that he doubtlessly loved, for humane democracy and civilisation, which he felt was underpinned by a different construction to knowledge than the one science was then promoting. With a note of regret, Clunies Ross said:
Society…recognizes that it must live by science even at the risk of dying painfully by it.[1]
What is ironic about his anxiety over the rise of science is that Clunies Ross’ reputation (which earned him a place on the $50 note for some time) is for the leadership of Australia’s science boom in the period after the war. A veterinary graduate of the University of Sydney, he conducted research at that university before going on to scientific leadership roles, most notably as first chair of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), a vastly expanded and reconstituted body from the old CSIR.[2] Clunies Ross’ intellectual leadership, like Ashby’s, was not confined to science – he was far more concerned for the objects that he felt science was for than for the promotion of science for its own sake. Clunies Ross was deeply concerned for knowledge broadly and the civilisation he felt it upheld.

In public orations, as well as in his letters to Ashby, Ian Clunies Ross gave his perspective on the changes science, the war and its aftermath had made to knowledge. He said “the universities have fallen from that traditional high estate in which they exerted a commanding influence on the ideas and ideals of their times” and that this was primarily a result of science’s tendency to specialise, rather than encompass the ‘sublime’ character of knowledge:
Science poses the major problem of education because of the very magnitude of its success, so that the ceaseless and bewilderingly rapid proliferation of knowledge forces its votaries into ever-narrowing specialisms. ... what is more, they not only suffer this fate but glory in it: for are not specialists the new elect, the high priests of the cult whose mysteries none may share? Not for them
'To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower'
The grain of sand has become all the world and the heaven they know or seek to know.[3]
Clunies Ross saw university-based knowledge as a singular, coherent whole, the exploration of which, in becoming increasingly intelligible, should enable “the operation of the social organism”:
It is significant that, today, we seldom think of university men [sic], collectively, as possessed of sound judgement or of a vital system of ideas which unites the past and present in an intelligible whole.[4]
Anthony Clunies Ross, Ian’s son, confirmed that his father was a romantic, a scientist of “quest and achievement, the wonder of seeing the world unravelled and seeing the systems that make it up, and the satisfaction of doing new things with it that have never been done before”.[5] This romantic view of knowledge meant that for Clunies Ross, his idealised university was a place for immersion in the vast greatness of a singular, sublime knowledge.[6]

The dominance of science in universities was, even after the war, still relatively new. At the Centenary of the University of Sydney, Ian Clunies Ross said:
How fanciful must have appeared the rhetoric of William Charles Wentworth, when, moving the Bill for the establishment of the University in 1849, he saw that from this Act would flow 'a long list of illustrious names of statesmen and patriots, of philanthropists and philosophers, of poets and heroes...’. It is noteworthy, and indicative of the change that 100 years have wrought, that Wentworth made no mention of scientists...indicative not only of the lesser place of science and of the scientist in the hierarchy of university men [sic], but of the appreciation which we have now lost that there was then a unity of knowledge.[7]
This unity of knowledge, so longed for by Clunies Ross, is consistent with his romantic sense of knowledge – a whole, sublime idea of knowledge as a singular entity: deified almost, worshipped certainly. A coherent knowledge as an underpinning to civil society had the advantages, for Clunies Ross, of suggesting a similarly coherent and unified civilisation. If knowledge was fragmented, as science’s “ever-narrowing specialisms” encouraged, what would the civilisation it underpinned look like?

Always less optimistic about universities than Ashby, Clunies Ross said that in the post-war period universities were now training scientists and engineers in such a way that “they are not only ill-equipped but, as a result of their university training, so permanently mutilated that it is idle to expect anything of them”.[8] In a letter to Eric Ashby in 1956, he expressed apprehension about the way changing knowledge priorities would impact civilisation. He was responding directly to Ashby’s article in which Ashby had first he first articulated his hopes for technological humanism in the universities:
My fear is that as science and technology draw from an increasingly large proportion of those best endowed intellectually, we will have fewer and fewer men [sic] capable of contemplating in any adequate way the problems of national or international society.[9]
It seems an odd conversation for two scientists to have had and the fact of their having it says something about the ways they saw their roles in society, beyond their own disciplines.
Clunies Ross and Eric Ashby are both examples of the new type of scientific leader required during and after the war as it became apparent that science and technology were disrupting university knowledge traditions. These two particular scientists stand out in the period as those who thought – and communicated – particularly carefully about scientific and technological development and humane civilisation. Both grappled to connect new technological knowledge to their versions of pre-war intellectual values. Their leadership, in different ways, functioned to reinterpret the notion that knowledge underpinned civilisation at the very moment that the concept of civilisation was threatened and the nature of university-based knowledge changed fundamentally. Government claimed both as extensively as each would submit to it, for knowledge and thus knowledge leaders had gained new importance in national development.


[1] Ian Clunies Ross, The Responsibility of Science and the University in the Modern World: An Oration Delivered on the Occasion of the Centenary of the University of Sydney, August 26, 1952 (Melbourne: CSIRO, 1952), 177.
[2] Marjory Collard O'Dea, Ian Clunies Ross: A Biography (Melbourne: Hyland House Publishing, 1997), 226-42.
[3] Clunies Ross, The Responsibility of Science and the University in the Modern World: An Oration Delivered on the Occasion of the Centenary of the University of Sydney, August 26, 1952.
[4] Clunies Ross, The Responsibility of Science and the University in the Modern World: An Oration Delivered on the Occasion of the Centenary of the University of Sydney, August 26, 1952.
[5] Anthony Clunies Ross, "My Father," in Ian Clunies Ross Memoirs and Papers with Some Fragments of Autobiography, ed. Janet Clunies Ross (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1961), 117.
[6] Clunies Ross’ epistemology supported the myth Latour described of a humanity united by a singular natural reality – a perspective displayed in all Clunies Ross’ work: one which, it must be said, promoted tolerance and generosity in his approach to science and service to the public.
[7] Clunies Ross, The Responsibility of Science and the University in the Modern World: An Oration Delivered on the Occasion of the Centenary of the University of Sydney, August 26, 1952, 171-72.
[8] Clunies Ross, The Responsibility of Science and the University in the Modern World: An Oration Delivered on the Occasion of the Centenary of the University of Sydney, August 26, 1952. Despite the accusation of mutilating their students, a Clunies Ross lecture theatre still stands at the University of Sydney, so they must have forgiven him.
[9] I Clunies Ross, 'Letter to Eric Ashby (4 May 1956)' NAA/A10651/ICR20/5 (Canberra: National Archives of Australia, 1956).

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