Monday, 12 March 2012

Knowledge, Nation, Democracy: their Connections in Post-War Australia

Draft abstract for AHA conference (theme: Connections). Do let me know if you have comments or suggestions.


In the 1940s and 1950s, when nation building was a key priority and democracy seemed a precious and fragile ideal, the Australian government supported several mechanisms that would nurture knowledge.

As Tim Rowse and others have demonstrated, experts and the knowledge they wielded began to inform parliamentary decision-making in new ways in this post-war era, giving Australian democracy a new set of tools and interests.

The connection between knowledge and democracy, however, went still further. In addition to the value now granted to mastery over existing knowledge, the Commonwealth government sought to create and support organisations that would pursue research, forging the new knowledge needed in the complex social, diplomatic, medical, industrial and economic environment that emerged after the war.

Organisations that were established, transformed or funded in new ways in this period to facilitate research include the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the Australian Council for Education Research, the Australian National Research Council, the Australian Pacific Territories Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Australian National University and then, after the 1957 Murray Review, universities.

While each of these initiatives represents a distinct mission, considered together they constitute a significant project on the part of the Federal government, to pursue knowledge at a national level.

How are they connected? This paper considers this knowledge-producing project as a whole endeavour, exploring the type of nation and national priorities that it represents.

For many political and civic leaders, a central priority was the protection of democracy. While often discussed from a Cold War perspective, the connections between knowledge, nation and democracy were also considered on a different scale, tacitly invoking, I argue, an older republican ideal: Plato’s ‘philosopher kings’.

This project has been conducted with the support of the National Archives of Australia’s Margaret George Award.

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