Monday, 17 May 2010

Politicised knowledge and the lie of objectivity

During the Second World War, knowledge had been applied to war and the only vocalised objection was from one ratbag philosopher. The war, to almost all, was an objective good and it was the duty of the universities, as for all citizens, to support the nation. By the 1960s the whole apparatus that had made this possible was collapsing. Students had noticed that university knowledge was not as objective as disinterested inquiry implied. In fact, they identified several overt cases where university knowledge was plainly put to political purposes. We have already seen that students at Adelaide University were angry to find university equipment was being used for designing weapons that might be used in the Vietnam War. For student movements the logic seemed clear. If university knowledge was political – which it clearly was, supporting “the establishment” – then it could be redirected to political ends. In this spirit, at La Trobe University, students took over the Careers and Appointments office that had been used for military recruitment and redirected its resources to “the revolution”.

This logic was not entirely new. As the federated staff association grew in influence throughout the Cold War, the prospect of politicised knowledge was increasingly obvious and the staff association attempted, in less melodramatic ways, to redirect knowledge to political aims of its members. Although there is little evidence that political tests were being frequently applied to the appointment of staff, the staff association’s activities highlighted the risk. And when Monash University’s Albert Langer had difficulty enrolling for a postgraduate degree at the University of Melbourne, staff as well as students were alarmed at the implications of a political test applied to student admission.

Albert Langer’s political activities were extensive and high profile, making him a target for those opposed to student radicalism. He was arrested for inciting riot in 1969. Three trials were commenced, two cancelled under credible suspicion of police collusion to manufacture evidence. Langer's trial and his general treatment by the police the justice system, looks like an attempt to make an example of him and discourage the movement. This treatment structurally positioned him as a political scapegoat of the movement as a whole. He was a reasonable choice, if such a scapegoat were required. There is reason to think that he joined the Monash Labor Club in 1966 already secretly planning on shifting it in a Maoist direction.  Langer was an advocate of violent insurrection and contributed to that side of the debate over the role of violence, which dominated the Labor Club in 1968.  But by 1970, some students at both Monash and nearby Melbourne University were complaining about his egomaniacal loudness, the “bully boys” he inserted into protests intended to be non-violent, and the fact that he declared anyone who disagreed with him a fascist.  So while Langer made a useful scapegoat, he does not necessarily function as a typical representative of student politics from the period. And yet, despite his shortcomings, when both Monash and the University of Melbourne declined to admit him to candidature, students and staff rallied to his support.

For the Monash administration, Langer’s graduation must have been much anticipated. Langer, obviously wanting to continue his leadership in the university that had made him famous, applied for postgraduate study in maths. His marks and feedback from his teachers made it reasonable to assume he would be admitted for 1970. He was not. The Registrar made it clear, on enquiry, that he would not be admitted to any other course either, for a variety of unconvincing reasons.  Furthermore, as the year progressed, it was declared he was not to attend lectures for courses he was not enrolled in. Students - and staff - felt that this failure to admit Langer was evidence of political bias in Monash's admissions policy, though they described it as 'exclusion', a word that has quite a different meaning in student discipline than what happened to Langer.  Langer was refused admission, not excluded, despite the fact that he had been “found guilty of misconduct in obstructing a meeting of the Council of the University and in failing to leave an office when directed to do so” – a finding that was confirmed by a State Supreme Court injunction that restrained Langer and his wife from entering the Administrative building of Monash University. 

At Melbourne the rejection of Langer’s application was achieved under regulation 3.3.18 – the first application of this regulation in a decade.  Students occupied a Professorial Board meeting at Melbourne University in 1970 to protest the exclusion of Langer on non-academic grounds  and the Professorial Board then formed an “unofficial subcommittee” to review 3.3.18.  An unofficial draft of a revised regulation was leaked from this unofficial subcommittee and, since it still contained ways that potential students could be excluded on political grounds, a student general meeting was organised.

On 6th May 1971, 1000 students agreed to march from their mass meeting to the administration building to protest against the political test implied in the admissions clause.  They locked in the Vice-Chancellor and around 200 staff for five and a half hours by bricking up the entrance to the building and creating other types of barricades.  Staff attempting to leave were repelled with streams of water from fire hoses and one angry staff member threw a brick at students.  Victorian Premier Henry Bolte was so appalled at the event that he planned on attempting to ensure protesting students lost their scholarships to attend university, saying “I am getting sick and tired of the taxpayer carrying a lot of no-hopers”.

For students, 3.3.18 was a symptom of a university that was protecting old knowledge under the pretence that it was unified and objective rather than embracing political diversity in ways that would produce new:
Rather than face the challenges of new ideas and dissent, Melbourne University has decided that one of the ways to keep the dull old place ticking over is to empower itself to exclude “outside agitators”. 
This politicisation of knowledge was associated with a shift in pedagogy that would make students active knowers, rather than passive recipients of truth:
We are asking that the university experience cease being one of passive knowledge gaining and that staff and students can be creative and responsible for decided what should be learnt and how it will be learnt, free from the present stultifying nature of this university.
Students were not alone in feeling that the university’s structure prevented them from being active and creative within it. 3.3.18 prompted university staff as well to take an increasingly active role in university government. Melbourne University News was established soon after the 3.3.18 lock-in, by staff who were frustrated that only the Vice-Chancellor had the ability to broadcast news. The trigger for the News was when the Vice-Chancellor used his monopoly on information to ask staff to assist in preventing student protests – non-professorial staff who were ordinarily excluded from university governance were irritated to nevertheless be asked to participate in its reinforcement.  The News was a means of claiming knowledge and the associated right to communicate it. This was just one of the ways that the internal structure of the university was changing to reflect a diversified and contingent system of individual knowledge rather than a collective duty to the protection of a centralised truth. While all this activity succeeding in changing Melbourne university and contributed to a changing sense of the character of university knowledge, it did not succeed in securing the admission of Albert Langer. Langer then applied to Sydney University, who with no fuss at all rejected his application. 

The growing sense among both staff and students that knowledge was individual and political, rather than unified and objective had two consequences. One is that staff wanted assurance that political tests would not be applied lessening central control and creating political diversity and openness. The other is that if politics could be applied to support the establishment, so could knowledge be applied to support the revolution. University knowledge as objective, disinterested truth was exposed as a method of naturalising a dominant political system. It is ironic that, after the decades of building a structure by which university knowledge could be directed to support the nation, the character of that knowledge changed. It changed in a way gave it a new construction: instead of national, truthful, civil and purposeful, knowledge could be subversive, individual, creative and contingent. Through these characteristics, claimed students and non-professorial staff, new kinds of knowledge would be enabled. The key obstacle was that group charged with the job of defending the old kind: the god-professors.

[footnotes have been removed for the purposes of this posting. please contact me if you would like to see them]

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