Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Advertising the university's academic freedom?

Given my thesis topic it hardly seems likely that I would approve of any university advertising. That is not entirely the case. Nor is it the point of this posting.

It has to be said that much of the time university ads worry me or make me cranky.

But I saw one the other day that made me feel a twinge of hope. Murdoch's: "How do you change the world? Bring freethinkers together to discover."

Let it be a hopeful sign, please please please.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Academic Work in Australian Universities the 1940s and 1950s

I have a new article in History of Education review called Academic Work in Australian Universities the 1940s and 1950s.

It is in a special edition of HER on James Conant. Here is the abstract.

Little though he knew it, in 1951 James Conant visited a university system in the midst of great change. A debate was raging through the system – a debate lasting more than a decade – which sought on one side increased engagement of universities and academic work with industry and the community, as Conant did, but on the other felt that traditional academic values underpinned a humane civil society and should therefore be protected. This long debate, as this paper discusses, culminated in the 1957 Murray report, which irrevocably transformed the Australian system. The lens through which the changing nature of universities and academic work in Australia is discussed in this paper, is the work of Lord Ashby, a British scientist and academic leader who was influential in changes in higher education in Australia and internationally. Eric Ashby’s promotion of particular types of academic work, this paper argues, was designed to attract public funding, but resist public control. Ashby, as we shall see, optimistically promoted change, identifying it as a part of the continuity of the university tradition – so he had less fear of the impact of change than many of his colleagues. The implications and resilience of Ashby’s quite heroic images of traditional academic work in a changing environment relate to principles of academic freedom as universities moved into a new relationship with government and society. The struggle for survival of the figure of the traditional academic in this new environment suggests it to be a moment where the control and ownership of knowledge started to be transferred out of academics’ hands – though Ashby, in his optimism, did not notice it.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Causalities and appropriations

This article by Clive Kessler in The Australian is obviously a contribution to an ongoing discussion about other things, but it connects to an argument my thesis will probably make when I get around to my next chapter on the 1980s.

Professor Kessler says: "The neo-liberal ascendancy had to undermine the structures of intellectual authority that resided within the established disciplines. To prevail it had to disarm the capacity for effective intellectual critique they threatened to offer."

This is true, but in my mind he has his causality backwards.

The delegitimisation he describes as "post-1968" is emerging pre-68 but that is the right time. The authority over knowledge as hoarded by professors was reclaimed by students and this changed the character of knowledge itself, delegitimising university authority. This is the stuff I've been writing about lately.

Of course what happens later is that the language and ideas expounded by student movements of the 1960s and 1970s was appropriated by neo-liberal discourse in the 1980s. The postmodernism that had emerged did not cause this and neither did student-centred learning or student choice (not that Kessler attacks these, not his thing obviously). But they did all weaken the capacity of the university to assert the singular authority over truth that may have prevented some of the market forces arguments. But of course, even rather conservative academics in the 1960s thought professorial authority was too strong. These were good changes. They didn't cause the neo-liberal arguments but they were appropriated by them.

Much as I too sometimes long for an earlier sense of the unity of knowledge and the authority of expertise, trying to revive an obsolete authority by arguing with a 30-40 year-old movement isn't going to fix the problems neo-liberalism have left us with.

The short response to Kessler ought to be "get over it". And not just because being anti-postmodernist is oh-so 1990s and boring. But rather because postmodernism and a whole lot of other things didn't cause our problems, they were appropriated to create different ones. Lets deal with those problems directly, shall we?