Monday, 10 May 2010

Introducing Revolutionary Knowledge

In July 1969, Louis Matheson, the Vice-Chancellor at Monash university, had an important international visitor. After their meeting, they adjourned to the staff club for lunch. Before they could finish eating, hundreds of students invaded their lunch party, outraged about disciplinary action against students who had conducted a sit-in of the university’s Council meeting recently – one of five major on-campus student protests that had already occurred that year.  For Matheson’s guest, Clark Kerr, it must have all seemed very familiar. Clark Kerr had been President of the University of California at Berkeley, where student uprisings in 1965 had alerted the western world’s universities – both students and administrators – that something new was happening on their campuses. In the United States and Australia, opposition to the Vietnam War fuelled a youth movement that challenged accepted ideas, especially on campus.  A large portion of this youth movement consisted of university students, whose numbers had grown to levels that made them formidable.  Their educational backgrounds changed the nature of Left politics, integrating intellectual problems into the concerns of what became known as the New Left.  The barricade uprising of May 1968 in Paris had shown that campus politics reflected a more widespread shift that focused on the rights of members of society who, by the structures of internalised moral schemes and externalised systems of discipline, held less power.  Gender, sex, class, race, peace and the environment were issues that captured the attention of a youth-based counter-culture that thrived in the universities and whose rhetoric spread across the world. 

Buried in this well-known history are important questions about knowledge. Exasperated, the normally sympathetic Eric Ashby described students in this period – his were fairly quiet ones, at Cambridge – as running “non-stop seminars” on “what the university is for”.  The student movements’ discussions and the events within the universities during the 1960s and 1970s led not only to a disruption of ideas about morality, gender roles and inequality but also to the widely perceived nature of university knowledge, its place in society and politics and the role of students themselves in its construction. This exposed the university to questions about the instruments of power used by institutions: examination, disciplinary rules and governance structures that reflected a particular, and potentially objectionable, structure to university knowledge. The ways that university traditions exercised control over students paralleled ways that knowledge exercised control over that which was to be known – and a battle for the control of knowledge ensued.

In this period the ownership of knowledge is about its control, for the controllers of knowledge were now identified by all involved in the universities as able to determine which knowledge was considered valid – which knowledge had the esteem attached to universities – and how it was deployed. It made it possible to ask who would determine what truth is – or indeed if such doctrinal knowledge was even possible, or permissible? The role of those figures who came to be known as god-professors in legitimising a canon of acceptable university knowledge was pitted against a de-centred configuration for the control university knowledge promoted by student movements. With these battle lines drawn up, events in the universities in the 1960s and 1970s have substantial importance for what university knowledge would become.

Most of the literature on this period in Australian history focuses on the influence of campus-based student movements on society broadly or on the New Left in particular.  The perspective of this chapter is the other way around: the impact of student movements on the campuses themselves. This doesn’t make the questions at stake insular or parochial, however for they go to fundamental questions about what is known, how it is known and who benefits from knowing it. Accounts of student revolutionary activities on Australian campuses tend, understandably, to be nostalgically heroic – demonstrating the struggles experienced by students as they sought to change universities and the society beyond them. This chapter does not try to give an account of student protest in this way, since my subject is knowledge, not students. Instead, I look at the influence of wider issues on the university and then at issues over which the control of knowledge was fought: student participation, university discipline, deployment of knowledge to support what students called the ‘establishment’. I consider examinations and assessment, the structure of the professoriate, experiments with participatory democracy on campus and student choice in subjects of study. John Burnheim, in a 1968 article prematurely entitled “the Death of student Politics”, said:
All revolutions are confused, and most carry within them the seeds of their own undoing. It is futile to appraise them as if they were calmly thought-out plans for reform. Their significance lies in the vital impulses behind them rather than their explicit proposals or demands.
The student movements in Australia were not coherent and whole. Their plans and activities were not all thought out, calmly or otherwise. Their “impulses”, as Burnheim said, are important in this chapter but so too are the consequences of their ideas and actions. These are not always the same thing – for this revolution had some unintended consequences.

[Note: Footnotes have been removed for the purposes of this posting. Please email me for details if you would like them]


Kim McShane said...

If you want an articulate student activist perspective, I know a former Monash Maoist... He climbed the gates of the US Embassy in Melbourne in protest at the American war in Vietnam; he later got himself off the charges in court. He was a centurion in the famed Monash Easter parade in 67? 68? 69? I spent 11 years of my life with him...

Hannah Forsyth said...

Hi Kim McShane - perhaps you would give him my email address? I'll send it to you via FB. Thank you for the offer. H