Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Soviet and democratic knowledge: Baxter (the last one I think)

The sense that Baxter held that problems of nation, industry and university were a united whole was a part of his allegiance to democracy:
The immense technological progress of the Soviet Union during the last thirty years focuses attention in the United States and Great Britain on the fact that their industrial progress is being limited by the shortage of engineers and technologists.[1]
This was a “rude awakening” he said, from the “comforting belief” that democracy produced better science, or that the west “had a kind of natural aptitude for this sort of work”. Due to a low population and a large landmass, Australia was especially vulnerable, he said, making mechanisation even more important as a way to reduce labour requirements. More, exploitation of nature was needed as a defensive act:
The full development of Australia’s natural resources is essential if we are not to present to other and more powerful nations the tempting sight of rich uncultivated lands and mineral wealth lying idle.[2]
During the Cold War, for those who feared communism, knowledge was as much a race as it had been during the Second World War – the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the ‘space race’ it provoked was a dramatic example. In promoting the need to increase technological graduates and industry-based research in the universities, he drew on fears of invasion. Democratic civilisation depended thus on technological progress. The consequent economic development would not only continue to increase Australian standard of living, but also protect both Australia and democracy from communism.[3]

Ian Clunies Ross, in the 1940s, had joined other Australian and British intellectuals in expressing support for Soviet educational and cultural development in opposition to fascism.[4] At a series of addresses by leading intellectuals (including Miles Franlin and Katherine Susannah Prichard) held in Sydney in 1941, Ian Clunies Ross said:
The cardinal feature of scientific development in the Soviet Union is the recognition of science not as something detached and unco-ordinated, but as an integral part of a planned and ordered society.[5]
This is largely, of course, a difference in speaking from anti-fascism in the early 1940s as Clunies Ross did to anti-communism in the 1950s and 1960s like Baxter. But it also reflects a distinction between the ways they each saw knowledge. Clunies Ross considered knowledge, as shown in the last chapter, to be a unified truth, which supported a civil and humane society. The extension of this civility to Soviet science was, for him, a part of the generosity of the culture that could result from the unifying characteristic of shared knowledge:
It would be appropriate for Australian scientific institutions to issue an invitation to certain outstanding Russian workers to continue their investigations in Australia.
The contrast to Baxter is stark. Baxter did not consider university knowledge to be truth in any universal sense and instead sought to unify industrial practice, government policy and university knowledge for the purposes of economic efficiency. A similar structure – knowledge supports civilisation – is skewed a different way. Knowledge supports technological and thus economic development. This link between knowledge and the economy that was so explicit with the emergence of technological universities is central to changes in widespread perspectives on university knowledge thereafter.

For Baxter, the distinction between Soviet and democratic knowledge was, firstly, that coordination in a totalitarian state did provide greater efficiencies, making it difficult for democratic nations to compete.[6]  Democratic nations must compete, however, for in Baxter’s view they did not currently have sufficient scientists to be able to govern themselves properly.[7] The second distinction Baxter identified from the Soviet system did not produce efficiencies but made an important qualitative difference to university knowledge in democracies - academic freedom:
In the context of academic freedom the important responsibility of the university is to be a place where all matters and questions can be examined, where research may follow any line of inquiry, where the non-conformist and the heretic may hold and express unorthodox and unpopular views, and be met with argument not suppression. This does not mean that the university normally seethes with heresy and rebellion: on the contrary, but should there be a time when our free society is in danger, if governments of the right or left seek to diminish our liberties, it should be in the universities that voices could and would be loudly raised in protest.[8]
As Vice-Chancellor, he said, he was the university’s spokesman, but he felt he should always try to make clear that this does not make it likely that his views represented those of all of his staff – nor would such unity be desirable. The free speech encouraged within universities as places where thinking must be free would sometimes lead “some sections of the public” to demand action against some individuals. “This the vice-chancellor must firmly resist”:
The vice-chancellor can do much to get the community to realise that universities are places where heresies are tolerated and that it is for the good of the community that this should be so.[9]


[1] Baxter, "Education for the Nuclear Age." 2
[2] Baxter, "Education for the Nuclear Age," 8.
[3] Baxter, "The Use of Scientific Knowledge by Governments and Industry. Tenth Congress of the Universities of the Commonwealth. Report of Proceedings. Sydney August 17-23, Pp. 259-265," 265.
[5] Ian Clunies Ross, "Science," in Soviet Culture: A Selection of Talks at the Cultural Conference, November 1941, ed. Ian Clunies Ross (Sydney: NSW Aid Russia Committee, 1941).
[7] J.P. Baxter, "The Cheap Defence of Nations. The Annie Praed Memorial Oration Delivered 20 May," in Baxter Papers UNSW/CN1053/Box37 (Sydney: UNSW Archives, 1958).
[8] Baxter, "Problems in the Administration of Modern Universities," 115-16.
[9] J.P. Baxter, "The Role of the Vice-Chancellor in the University of New South Wales," Vestes 6 (1968): 11-12.

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