Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Two British Scientists in Australia...and Australian scholars in Britain

I was in the area, so I popped to Oxford the past few days for Scholarly Networks in the British Empire.

Naturally Oxford gives plenty to think about in relation to universities. Too much, actually.

One immediate thought stood out. It was actually the pub that contained this ink on parchment item, that prompted me to think about an Eric Ashby quote I used in my talk:
“In lodgings and in taverns ideas were born and nursed. They were vague and unpractical ideas that a man of the world would not entertain for a moment: yet thousands of students discovered that the rest of their lives was filled by a growing and maturing of these ideas, and the very subjects taught matured in this atmosphere” 

Just as important to Oxford as the Colleges and Faculties, libraries and museums are the pubs. This suggests that central to the idea of the university are these spaces where ideas are "born and nursed" ... and scholars with the time and freedom to explore them.

For the conference, my paper was about Eric Ashby and Philip Baxter. I don't think I can post the slides for copyright reasons (it has picture) but the text for my talk is online. If you'd like the slides I could email them, just let me know.

The paper was called Technology and the Universities: Two British Scientists in Australia. This is the abstract.

When botanist Eric Ashby arrived in Australia in 1939, his ideas about higher education were already compelling. Ashby’s subsequent experiences in science policy during the Second World War then combined with ideas formed by scholarly networks in the pre-war Empire. These led him to consider how technology, needed for national development after the war, could be integrated into academic traditions.

The war changed everything for the universities. Old networks of scholars were complicated by new relationships with the state and industry and new public concerns. This paper discusses the contrasting networks that influenced the ideas of two British academic leaders after the Second World War. Eric Ashby, influential in higher education throughout the Commonwealth, held ideas informed by a pre-war scholarly environment. Another British scientist who travelled to Australia, John Philip Baxter, though only one year younger than Ashby, was influenced by an altogether different network.

Baxter had spent significant time in nuclear facilities in the United States and contributed to the construction of British nuclear weapons during the war. When the war was over, he was disappointed that public sentiment led his employer, Imperial Chemical Industries, to shut down its work in atomic power. Feeling that he might have more influence in Australia, in 1949 Baxter accepted an academic post in Sydney.  By 1952 he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales.  Baxter’s goal, like Ashby’s, was the promotion of technology in the university system. However, his notion of scholarship and his ideas about the university were very different. Where Ashby promoted technology while preserving scholarly values, Baxter sought to transform scholarship to align to the values of industry.

Comparing networks of pre-war Empire with post-Empire Australia, this paper examines the emergence of a longstanding uncertainty about the focus of higher education: specific professional competencies or unique, creative intellectualism.


brian said...

A pedantic technicality - by 1952 Baxter was the Vice Chancellor of the New South Wales University of Technology, later to become the University of New South Wales

Hannah Forsyth said...

Hi Brian - yes but that exceeded the word count and seemed fiddly info for an abstract. Actually he was Director too: not VC until 1955.