Degrees Of Separation
The University and The Spirit of Enquiry
Last week my girlfriend and I were musing about our time at Melbourne Uni in the '7Os. She said she always felt in the "B" group and that she looked enviously upon people in the "A" group. And being Melbourne, these were usually people from certain private schools. But to her surprise, in later life she discovered other people at University at the time had actually thought of her as being in the "A" group.
My experience was that I thought of myself as being in the "B" group and wished I could be part of the "A" group. But when I met people twenty years later, I discovered that they actually thought of me as being in the "C" group.
I know this because they say, "Who would have thought of all the interesting, arty, creative people in our year, that you would be the one to make a career in the arts."
So I want to dedicate this lecture to all the late bloomers: all the "C" group folk who are about to stride forth and take the city by storm.
My title tonight is Degrees of Separation: The University and the Spirit of Enquiry.
I have been reflecting this past week on why I care so deeply about the university. After all, it is twenty years since I was a student. I am merely an observer, an outsider, which of course makes me free to speak in a climate where many feel silenced. My position frees me from charges of self-interest although not from allegations of nostalgia.
My sense of being part of the university community comes from my work as a playwright. I share with you a belief in, and a commitment to, a quest for truth. My work primarily is about my own life-long journey of learning to which I bring one qualification - a pre-requisite for any person who wants to call themselves a student - and that pre-requisite is curiosity. The person who is devoid of curiosity may spend three years on campus but he or she misses out on the university experience.
Tonight I want to talk about the ways in which I believe curiosity itself is endangered. I want to talk about the necessary conditions for creative, intellectual enquiry.
I'd like to begin by telling you how I came to be a playwright because the process of creating a play is not so dissimilar from any other process of intellectual enquiry.
My own story is that I did an Arts degree at Melbourne Uni majoring in Psychology (in the Department of "rats and stats"). Then I went to the Drama School at the VCA to train as an actor. I had the time of my life there and in the three years of my course learned juggling, fire-eating and how to fall off a two-story balcony and land on a mattress after being shot in the chest - none of which I have had any reason to use in my professional life, subsequently. But I also learnt that culture is not a fixed entity. It's not immutable. It can be challenged and shaped.
I went to acting classes every afternoon to do "impulse work". I stood against the wall and closed my eyes and I waited for an impulse. Which never came. Never. I wanted to have one. Everyone else was having one. But not me. Not one goddamn impulse. In two, years.
So I went to see Peter Oyston, the Dean of the Drama School, and (told him I wanted to be a playwright instead. He asked me if I had typewriter, which I did.
I had been very taken with the Oscar Wilde line, "I spent the morning inserting a comma and I wiled away the afternoon removing it." I thought now there is a man after my own heart.
Anyway, Peter Oyston, opened the drawer of his desk and handed me a key. It was the key to the front room of the Drama School. And it was now mine.
He simply said, "We need playwrights."
I hope one day, that there will be a young person to whom I can give such a gift. A gift of faith and support. A gift which says, take courage.
I wrote Life After George in response to a general sense of disquiet about economic rationalism. The play I wrote immediately preceding Life After George had examined the devastating effect of managerialism on local government. That play was called Competitive Tenderness. It was a satirical swipe at the Kennett government's policy of council amalgamations and the suspension of democracy when Kennett sacked the elected representatives and replaced them with government-appointed commissioners. And then there was the introduction of the ill-fated competitive tendering. And all the potential for farce that such a system provided, with its shambolic record in the UK under Thatcher.
That play was stoned to death by the critics, but with the great optimism of hindsight, I see it was a necessary rehearsal for George.
The themes were there. Not fully understood. But the big question was emerging: how do you make an institution such as the university, function like a business, when its purpose is at odds with the aims of private profit. And what are the consequences?
But the deep emotional catalyst for Life After George came from my experience as a Board member of the Victorian College of the Arts.
Here, at first hand, I was witnessing the bewildering spectacle of intelligent people acquiescing to managerial babble. Because the arts community generally rushed headlong into becoming an arts industry, we seemed to embrace the corporate ethos and master the management cliches very quickly and adeptly. We were "benchmarking" and "seeking world's best practice" and asking "threshold questions", as quick as you could "plug in the multipliers for stakeholders." We rushed to stack our Boards with people from the corporate world whose expert knowledge about everything from economics to the most efficient way of running a symphony orchestra for profit was sought eagerly. And dutifully deferred to. We worshipped at the altar of the cult of corporatism. And we sacrificed our young.
On the Board of the VCA, I was the member who had the longest standing association with the College. I'd had an ongoing connection since 1978 when I had been a student there. I remember the appointment of a new Board member from the University of Melbourne who has subsequently risen through the ranks there to become a very senior manager.
At her very first Board meeting, I remember how nonplussed I was to observe her instructing the gathering on the need for procedural change, having been in the room barely ten minutes. I was struck by her sheer arrogance, obviously informed by her belief that "management skills" are transferable to any aspect of life. These are people who believe that you should apply the same accountability measures to improve the productivity of pharmaceutical sales consultants as you would to the training of concert violinists.
I remember how fulsomely she dressed me down as being naive, when I raised my first objection to the introduction of fees. She knew how the world worked because she was a manager. I didn't know how the world worked because I was an artist.
Nonetheless I went home and worried that I was naive - that perhaps in this era of savage funding cuts, economic considerations were the only considerations. And perhaps these super-achievers, commanding several pages of Who's Who, having sat on every Board known to man, were actually in possession of the answers to our problems.
The other motivating experience for the play was the number of times women in senior academic positions took me aside and said confidentially, "I agree with you in principle, but the reality is ...." having taken time out of their busy schedules to tell me that they too had been student radicals. That was when I remembered Sartre. "I am my actions". The day on which the old student radicals voted to introduce fees at VCA, the student radicals under their charge chalked that slogan all over the campus.
By agreeing to introduce fees, the Board had undermined the fundamental principles of the school. From being an elite art school committed to nurturing the distinctive talent of the artists, the VCA had voted to become a school where elitism simply entailed the perpetuation of privilege.
It became clear to me that a dissenting voice would have no influence and my role on the Board was to give my imprimatur (being one of the more well- known of their alumni) to majority decisions.
I would like to tell you that my resignation was heroic and mighty. That the new power elite was shaken to the core. In truth I don't know if they noticed.
But I resigned with a private passion and fury and frustration that gave birth to Life After George.
I then began on a research task, which, like all my other projects, involved interviewing key players, reading everything I could get my hands on, and having dinner parties in which I could gauge what was uppermost in people's minds and thrash out all the contradictions with thoughtful friends. I talked to academics and students and administrators from many different tertiary institutions.
It was then that I learned how demoralising universities had become for many academics and students and how deeply the changes were undermining the fundamental idea of a university. Most significantly I saw how the power base was moving away from the academic staff and being monopolized by the agents of corporate management.
I even slipped into the staff briefing session when Melbourne University Private was unveiled. The Vice-Chancellor gave a Powerpoint presentation designed to illustrate how Melbourne University Private was to become "a world-class educational precinct for Melbourne". "The Harvard of the South".
On one screen "The University of Melbourne" was in one box and "Melbourne University Private" in another. And the two universities were linked by a double-headed arrow with the word SYNERGY written across it. SYNERGY the mantra of managerial speak.
It was here that I witnessed the corporate principle of loyalty to the CEO introduced in the university. A staff member asked a penetrating question and he was curtly silenced by the CEO of Melbourne University Private: "We're not here to be briefed by you. You're here to be briefed by us."
This occurred in the Public Lecture Theatre of the University of Melbourne, the site of many, many great debates over the past fifty years. A room dedicated to the principle that we are here to ask questions. We are here to challenge claims, however authoritative.
But not any more, apparently. Not in the new world order. This was where the idea for an Institute of Global Studies came from. In my play, I appointed George's second wife as its CEO. This was the woman who had been a student radical - President of the SRC, heavily involved in the Vietnam demos, the Springbok protests and the sit-ins outside the South African Embassy in the mid- 7Os.
And now, recently promoted as the CEO of The Institute of Global Studies, she has become a person who is capable of saying, "We're not here to be briefed by you. You're here to be briefed by us."
How could that happen? I ask you, how does that happen?
In the arts community - in times of funding crises usually - spokespeople are regularly called upon to defend the importance of the arts. We spruik platitudes - privately incredulous that this is required. Are we such a society of Philistines that yet again, theatre, literature, filmmaking, and the visual arts have to be defended against the attacks of elitism and marginality. "Why shouldn't we be spending the money on hospital beds?" Jon Faine will ask me.
And I will give my regular answer: "Why are CEOs in the private sector paid obscenely huge salaries. It's all a question of priorities. What a nation values. And in the free market culture, the nation is declaring itself to value private profit and private ownership above all else."
So, what are the aims and values that a university ought to pursue? A University such as La Trobe. And what academic aims and values should governments support, protect and nourish?
The advocates of neo-liberalism would have us believe that the universities, like the arts and public institutions generally, are parasites on the hard-working, beleaguered tax payer - as though the employees of universities, arts industries and public bureaucracies are not tax-payers themselves. If we want to defend the core values of the university, we have to know what they are. And as in the arts, our answers would be platitudinous if they hadn't become so controversial.
Let me start with three:
1. Universities provide a liberal education. To all students. Not just those in the humanities.
A liberal education dares to ask the great questions. It is sceptical about claims to authority; it is a quest for complex truths, and it pursues them with passion combined with rationality. A liberal education teaches skill in argument and an openness to follow argument where it leads. Not just in specific disciplines but in all areas of our lives. It cultivates a critical awareness of the intellectual, cultural and social context within which we think and act as citizens. It demands a critical reflection upon our own personal and professional values and it calls on us to examine our reasons for working and living as we do. It is the home of curiosity and the gateway to the open road of risk-taking.
2. Secondly, universities engage in research that increases our understanding about the world. We seek insight, not merely an accumulation of information. Nor is this research solely applied research that transforms science into products and tangibles.
3. The university challenges the wider society to engage in critical self-evaluation. It does so because it has the kind of intellectual autonomy that guarantees freedom of intellectual enquiry.
Once these functions would have been self-evident. Not worth the subject of a lecture. But today they are scarcely addressed. And the university is fast being replaced by a corporate parody which is more concerned with the doffing of mortarboards than with the lack of intellectual freedom and wilfulness of which that ludicrous piece of headgear was once a symbol.
Now I know that, given the current climate of such inadequate government funding, some academics argue that the only course for survival is to collude with the neo-liberal agenda to ensure a 'competitive outcome' for their particular institution. Knowledge for its own sake, disseminated for free, does not fit within that paradigm. But this is, quite literally, " selling out".
The corporate ideologues believe that they themselves are the only model for human nature. That the fully-actualised human-being is expedient and self-interested -just like them. It really is that simple. This new managerial ism really is an ethos which rates personal greed and self -advancement for the privileged few, more highly than collective endeavour and the pursuit of the common good. But the fact is we don't all share that philosophy. We don't all believe that the desire to understand is only useful in as far as it aids our ascent up the career ladder.
If I have a criticism of academics it is this. They are sometimes reluctant to articulate a clear and simple truth because they are wedded to the idea that all truths are complicated and that the very idea of truth is problematic. And this seems to carry with it a fear that a bold and simple statement may be perceived by colleagues as naive. But that is the nature of insight. That bold encapsulation which emerges from the semantic chaos. That, ultimately, is the vocation of an intellectual - to say the thing which suddenly needs to be said. To shape a sentence which has the force of a truth.
The corner-stone of neo-liberal reform is the belief that competition will lead to increased productivity- in every field of human endeavour. (After all everyone knows that academics are complacent and lazy and sheltered by a kind of mutual protection society.) But there are as many models for intellectual enquiry as there are for writing plays or making art. Competitive practice may be bracing for some people, in the same way that deadlines provide focus and impetus in some circumstances. But in other situations they are irrelevant. I am amused by Douglas Adams' response to deadlines. (He's the man who wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy) He claimed he loved deadlines. He loved the whooshing noise they made as they sped past.
There is no one prescription for intellectual productivity but I am convinced that this competitive mania does real harm: it threatens the psychological and social conditions necessary for good work. As Janet McCalman says, "We need to start asking about the quality of the work that rushes from conference to conference, from grant application to grant application, that is driven by fear and ambition rather than intellectual curiosity and passion".
In my own research, the most common lament from academics was about the loss of time for reflection. Reflection, is at once, the essential and the most elusive component of intellectual enquiry. Its intensity cannot be qualified. Its integrity can only be known by the researcher him or herself. It is an activity which no performance indicator can measure.
Don't we need to ask whether this managerialism is actually working - in its own terms. Are we creating efficient business units functioning in a competitive market? Or are we witnessing merely an excess of bureaucratisation? With all this bench-marking, and peer review, accountability mechanisms and data collection, when do people have time to do their jobs? To teach and to research and to write?
And, as Judith Brett says so eloquently, "As academics are increasingly forced to think of the allocation of their energies in terms of such measures of efficiency as money or contributions to the research quantum, much of what they now do for free will come into question. Why would anyone mark a PhD for example, read a draft for a student you are not supervising and who is therefore not a part of your EFTSU load, read papers submitted to journals, talk to the ABC, serve on a government committee, write references, or even organise a conference, if it is not going to generate any money, or a measurable research publication or a grant application.
The answer is twofold. We do some of it like marking PhDs and writing references, because people did that for us. It is a gift we received and now feel an obligation to pass it on; and we do it because we believe in the common collegial enterprise."
I love this idea of the gift. The key which the Dean of the Drama School gave me in 1979 was a gift. Brett says,
In the exchange of gifts, societies and individuals recognise the extent to which they owe their identity and very existence to others, and they contribute to the conditions of possibility for the continuation of their form of life. This aspect of the gift exchange is most fully realised in academic work in our teaching. It is here that we give to our students ideas and knowledge which we hold to be of intrinsic worth, and give them in ways which indelibly carry the marks of ourselves - of the teaching we received, and of what we have made of it. We try to teach well because we were taught well, and were drawn into the shared enterprise of the construction of knowledge by people who in teaching us, gave us something of themselves. Again this is a relationship to which enhanced competitiveness has nothing to contribute.
My own view is that universities were threatened with extinction from the moment that they were "restructured" by the Hawke government, when John Dawkins as Minister for Education created 37 monolithic institutions. Suddenly every teacher's college, tech. school and CAE in the land was part of a "university". It was a policy which created a gargantuan university sector which we have never been able to afford. And that acknowledgment must be made. We are facing a fearsome funding crisis. We are running out of tax income to sustain programs that have evolved since the Menzies era.
But in withdrawing from funding education and research, as both sides of politics have since the late 80's, they are strangling one of Australia's most important sources of cultural and economic survival and growth.
There is some recognition of this in the report, Knowledge Nation which was written as the centrepiece of the 2001 ALP election platform. Although it has been ridiculed by some journalists, I read it as a re-assertion of some of the core principles I've been discussing.
It is our task to hold them to it.
And, to the battle-weary among you, the academic staff, labouring under increasingly difficult and depressed working conditions, I want to say, your vocation is a noble one. Hold the line. Your moral courage is a stubborn and tenacious adversary to those who would close you down and erect an educational shopping mall in your place. In the name of reform.
Finally I would like to turn my attention to the students among us.
My fourteen-year-old son came home last week and told me that he had seen a piece of graffiti which had changed his life. He was so struck with this particular graffiti (which was written across a red, corrugated-iron fence) he felt compelled to enter it as a text message on his mobile. And to write it on his pencil case. The graffiti goes like this: "There is only one thing more wicked than the desire to command and that is the will to obey".
Of course I was thrilled. My son, has the heart of a radical. Later on we were doing the dishes together and he said, "How would you feel if I got expelled from school?"
"What for?" I asked tentatively
"For speaking up about something?"
He said, "You know if I was standing up for some kind of injustice. Would you be cross?"
And it was at that moment there that I realised the true student radical does not ask his Mum's permission first, before he gets expelled. I didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed.
But in truth, I love the fact that he had found words that gave definition to the spirit of teenage rebellion. And that he was inspired by them. (You can keep a watching brief on whether I still feel this in a few years time.)
I want to end by saying a few words to those of you who are currently studying at uni. It seems to me that whenever there is discussion in the media about your generation of university students, people of my generation and older are always going on about how apathetic you are. This has changed a bit since the anti-globalisation demonstrations, but there is still the implicit critique that you feel no compelling need to rebel- not even a hint of one. That you not only defer to authority - you admire it.
You must get heartily sick of this. Especially when Baby Boomers ought to be getting down on their hands and knees and saying a prayer of gratitude that their own children haven't turned out to be the pains in the arse they were.
Now I appreciate that there is folly in generational generalisations. And you will be pleased to note that I recently read an article in a 1968 Farrago - the student newspaper of Melbourne Uni - criticising the student body for its apathy about political issues. And this was 1968 the year of the Vietnam moratorium. Perhaps it is a condition of student life that you will always be subject to criticism for not being enough like the generation that preceded you.
Anyway I read an illuminating piece in the April 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. And having acknowledged my own C group status at the beginning of this lecture, I note that this is a story about students at Princeton who are definitely part of the A group. These are the young men and women of America's future elite.
Social commentator, David Brooks went to Princeton University to see what the young people who are going to be running the US in the future are actually like. Staff members gave him the names of a few dozen articulate students, and he sent them emails, inviting them out to lunch or dinner in small groups. Their emails in response arrived in his inbox in the wee small hours of the morning.
In his conversations with the students he'd ask them when they got around to sleeping. One senior told him she went to bed around two and woke up each morning at seven; she could afford that much rest because she had learned to supplement her full day of work by studying in her sleep. He asked several students to describe their daily schedules. "Their replies sounded like a session of Future Workaholics of America: crew practice at dawn, classes in the morning, resident adviser duty lunch, study groups, classes in the afternoon, tutoring disadvantaged kids in Trenton, a cappella practice, dinner study, science lab, prayer session, hit the Stairmaster, study a few hours more."
They even felt the need to schedule appointment times to chat with friends. "I just had an appointment with my best friend at seven this morning" one woman said. "Or else you lose touch."
They are also possibly the most politically disengaged group of young adults in American history. Brooks was on campus at the height of the election season, and he did not see one Bush or Gore poster. The students report that they have no time to read newspapers, follow national politics or get involved in crusades .... "It's a basic question of hours in the day", a student journalist told Brooks. "People are too busy to get involved in larger issues. When I think of all that I have to keep up with, I'm relieved there are no bigger compelling causes."
"They're not trying to buck the system," writes Brooks - "they're trying to climb it and they are streamlined for ascent." He goes on to give the following analysis. He describes this generation for the most part, as not fighting to emancipate itself from the past. He says, "The most sophisticated people in preceding generations were formed by their struggle to break free from something. The most sophisticated people in this one, aren't."
For most of the twentieth century, Brooks argues that people have grown up questioning dominant orthodoxies, wrestling with meaning and morality. A mark of savoir faire was rebelling against authority, rejecting old certainties and prejudices and being liberated from tradition. "Artists rebelled against the stodgy mores of the bourgeoisie. Radicals rebelled against the commercial and capitalist order. Feminists rebelled against the patriarchal family." And in the latter half of the twentieth century a youth culture emerged which distilled these themes, promoting non-conformism, creativity, individualism and daring.
"Unlike their elders, in other words, these young people are not part of an insurrection against inherited order. They are not even part of the conservative reaction against the insurrection.... They've moved on."
Now I don't know whether you relate to this at all, or not. It may be that this is too American, too preppy, and that these young folk are too obviously a product of privilege.
But in this pen portrait of fine, energetic, clever, directed young people, the author found there to be something missing. He couldn't quite put his finger on it and in ranging around trying to name it, he talked about the missing ingredient being "character". I suspect that he was responding to a kind of uniformity about them. For such rabid "individualists", their aspirations, values and world-views are astonishingly uniform. They are smart, hyper-motivated conformists, whose principal short-term objective is building their resume. I'm sure that the missing quality - the absence that the author can't name - is their almost fanatical lack of curiosity. An unwillingness to stumble off the track.
Certainty about our actions, our ideas and our place in the world is not necessarily an ideal to which we should aspire. Not if we wish to learn anything new. Not if we are committed to making a difference. If we're preoccupied with the need to be certain, we don't allow ourselves to see the contradictions in things. We don't allow ourselves to struggle with meaning. If we don't stumble in the dark, we may never come across what it means to be human.
But it does occur to me, that the one kernel of truth in this analysis in relation to the students here tonight is the insight that your generation does not feel the need to define itself by emancipation from the past. I'm flying a kite here, but if this is true, perhaps your real mission is to emancipate yourself from the present.
Parents, teachers and career advisers have been hammering home the one message for years: you have to equip yourself for the future. That advice is based on the craven assumption that the future is determined. That its shape is already known. And that it is being made by forces over which we have no control. It also assumes that the future is pretty much like the present - only with a more powerful hard drive.
May I say - reject this advice. I say we should equip the future for us. That we must take collective responsibility for making the world, the future world, the world we want. A fit and just place.
So tear up your resume. Our collective responsibility is to make a future brimming with curiosity and possibility and optimism -and a future which will honour, and be nourished by, the idea of a university.
21 November 2001
1. This formulation owes a debt to Bruce Langtree, in Why Universities Matter, edited by Tony Coady, Published by Allen & Unwin, 2000 Chapter 5
2. ibid. Janet McCalman p.141
3. ibid. Judith Brett p.152
4. ibid. Judith Brett p.153 This argument she owes to Freya Mathews. Mathews, Freya 1990, 'Destroying the Gift: Rationalising Research in the Humanities', Australian Universities' Review, 1 &2, pp.19-22
5. An Agenda/or the Knowledge Nation: Report of the Knowledge Nation Taskforce, Published by the Chifley Research Centre July 2001
6. Farrago, Melbourne University Student Newspaper, 1968
7. David Brooks, The Organization Kid in The Atlantic Monthly, April 2001 pp.40-54