Sunday, 11 September 2011

Technology and the University

[another segment of my draft Intro]

Technological progress, based on scientific discovery, was the marker of modernity as economies and cultures sought mechanisation, automation, speed and constant change. While this occurred in Australia as it did across the Western world, its global emergence is a narrative in which Australia rarely features. As a result, historians have not closely considered the significance of Australian technological development, particularly in its relationship to the universities. North American historiography displays the reverse tendency. The importance of the growth of twentieth century higher education, in a substantial body of North American scholarship, was that it underpinned technological innovation and produced a skilled workforce that assured the United States’ economic dominance. In Australia, Irving & Connell and other historians have pointed to the skilled workforce, led by ‘technocrats’, that transformed Australia’s post-war manufacturing capacities.  And yet, despite this evidence that technological development and technological education were central to Australian post-war modernisation, the structures that enabled their skilling have been largely ignored.

An exception to that broad neglect, in Governing Prosperity historian Nicholas Brown documents the post-war rise of the universities among the key social changes of the 1950s in Australia. He positions the technological turn in the universities within the larger, longer debate between liberal and vocational education – a debate that, as Andrew Spaull’s history of education during the war suggests, signalled a decline in university autonomy in relation to government.  Brown’s observations of the debate between general and specific tertiary education, however, could just as easily apply to other professions (architecture, medicine) as to the growth of technological disciplines.

There may be a strategic reason for this neglect. Australian scientists regularly invoke a narrative that would be disrupted were they to also make historical connections between technological development and economic growth. In popular press and pleas for sympathetic government policies, Australian scientists often articulate one of two historical arguments: firstly, that Australia has fostered innovation but not development and secondly, that industrial development in Australia occurred despite, not because of, its universities.  These are both narratives of achievement in the face of adversity: a scientific redux, perhaps, of the valiant colonial bushman. They point to Australia’s proud record of technological invention. But those technologies – and often their inventors too – almost all move overseas in this narrative, costing Australia by compelling industries to buy back the nation’s own innovations and inviting governments to reverse the policy failure by investing further in science and to implement financial incentives to ‘reverse the brain drain’. 

This image of disconnect between Australian innovation and university education and research helped to nourish a particular vision of Australian universities, one that was inserted into popular consciousness by criticisms directed against higher education from the 1930s to the 1980s. Australian universities, the public imagined, more closely resembled late-medieval British colleges than American bastions of innovation. The scholarly community, envisaged as gown-wearing, port-sipping elites, was only slowly supplemented by images of academic scientists developing progressive technologies in clean, modern laboratories.  The celebration of institutional technological achievement in Australia was thus largely confined to histories of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR, which became the CSIRO).  While the task of that government body was to support industrial development in ways that universities found more problematic, the divisions between the types of institution have been too starkly imagined. That is not to suggest the division was not real. Indeed, for reasons this thesis will explore, in the view of many academics and politicians, for some decades technology did not seem to belong in the universities. It does, however, belong in their history.

The shift towards technological knowledge in the universities was not only contentious because of a division between utilitarian and liberal aims in higher education, though Brown was right to point to this as one of its elements. In the late 1970s, philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard suggested that the transfer of university attention from scientific observation to technological development constituted a shift that challenged the legitimacy of the university’s authority over knowledge.  If Lyotard was right, defending the university from a shift towards technology was not just a defence of liberal knowledge over vocational training. It protected a past epistemology that defined the university’s traditional role in society.

According to Lyotard, the modern university (since the German Enlightenment and the French Revolution) were founded on two modes of legitimacy, or authority over knowledge, both based on scientific research norms. One form, derived from German idealism, stated that scientific knowledge legitimised itself – that is, the value of knowledge was knowledge itself (just as Newman argued for ‘knowledge for its own sake’ in The Idea of the University).  That suggested that knowledge was elemental – it was life, or spirit. The state had no authority over this knowledge – indeed, only knowledge could “say what the state and what society are”. 

The second mode of legitimacy did not sit easily with the first, according to Lyotard, and it eventually overtook it. In this, knowledge was part of a larger narrative of human liberty. Knowledge was legitimised, not by mastery, but by consensus. Knowledge was thus found to be ‘truth’ or ‘untruth’ by the people, in this heroic myth, as a part of their struggle for freedom – a mode of legitimacy that had expression in democracies. National universities, as democracy emerged, were thus established in the name of freedom, argued Lyotard, as the struggle (by researchers) to win control of knowledge was considered a necessary component of the struggle of democratic people to rule themselves.  This second mode of legitimacy meant that university knowledge to become about action rather than truth.  It was through observable benefits that the value of science would be evaluated and so science became what the people required it to be – technological.  Its value was not initself: it realised when it worked. Given that authority was now located in the people, not in mastery, the university was not necessarily more able to offer technological solutions than anyone else.  Knowledge was not ‘life’ or ‘spirit’, it was merely another tool to effect progress.

Lyotard’s interpretation of the logic of legitimacy and the changes rendered by technological change seem a long way from the task of nation-building that preoccupied Australian political and civic leaders in the post-war period up until the economic reforms of the 1980s. But concerns in the universities that appear to mirror Lyotard’s analysis did emerge with each change. No voice was sufficiently influential, however, to prevent a shift towards an emphasis on knowledge that would support the progress the nation sought.

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