The much-touted ‘education revolution’, rather than fostering innovation and creativity, has produced bureaucratic universities antithetical to spirit of genuine discovery. As one academic observed, there is an infestation of ‘unscrupulous people who believe … they can act any way they want’
In the late 1950s and early 1960s the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, inaugurated what is best described as Australia’s second “education revolution”. The first, associated in particular with Henry Parkes, had brought compulsory primary education into being for the great mass of the Australian people. The second massively increased both the number of universities and the number of students attending those universities in the following decades. It transformed Australian culture.
Whereas traditionally Australians had not had a great interest in education, over time the idea became established that education would be the road down which both the nation, and the individuals who composed it, would travel as they built a new and better Australia. Education was increasingly viewed as a means of creating not only a more prosperous society but also as a means of embodying social justice. Education became central in a country seeking a new identity and a new basis for prosperity, as its ties to Britain slowly dissolved and it could no longer “ride on the sheep’s back” relying on the sale of fine wool to the world. Through education and the promotion of science Australia would transcend its origins as a one-time dependency of empire providing raw materials for Britain, and populated by individuals more renowned for their brawn than their brains, and with a memory of convict past tainting its history.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
One major expression of this new ideology was Donald Horne’s program for the “Clever Country” in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and his claim that the Man from Snowy River should be replaced as a national icon by the person from the CSIRO. The central argument was that Australia needed to become more intellectual in its culture. It built on Horne’s claim made in The Lucky Country in the early 1960s that Australia was odd by international standards because it did not accord a proper place for intellectuals, unlike every other country in the world. The implication was that if Australia wanted to be a proper developed country it had to be much more oriented towards ideas. The most recent expression of this belief has been the Turnbull government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda and its claim that Australia is in the process of entering an “ideas boom”.
It can be argued that the “Clever Country” and its ensuing manifestations have been essentially rationalist responses to the problems facing a post-colonial Australia which was no longer able to rely economically on supplying the metropolis of an empire, as that empire had ceased to exist. It was rationalist in the sense that it postulated an abstract model of development which was largely empirically untested and by its nature very difficult to prove.
The most extraordinary aspect of this change occurred in the Australian Labor Party, once a proud bastion of anti-intellectualism. If one wished to be an ALP parliamentarian in the 1950s, possession of a degree was both rare and undesirable. Since that time the Labor Party has turned itself into the party of education as its parliamentary ranks filled up with former schoolteachers. Higher education changed from being seen as something which was pursued by the wealthy to a means through which social justice could be achieved. The significance of this quite startling transition has not really been recognised by historians.
The real issue is whether this “education revolution” has achieved its goal. In an incisive analysis, Peter Murphy has demonstrated that in terms of fostering innovation and creativity it has been a massive failure. Instead, it has produced bureaucratic universities which are not capable of producing the conditions in which a genuine spirit of discovery can flourish. This essay is concerned with taking Murphy’s insights in a different direction and exploring how the education revolution and Australian universities have failed in recent times, both in the ethical role which is usually assigned to them and in providing a new foundation for the pursuit of social justice in Australia. Robert Menzies had an ideal of universities as an ethical force in Australian society which would soften some of the more negative aspects of a modern world devoted to science and technology. This aspect of Menzies’s vision has not been fulfilled.
The second education revolution in Australia was inaugurated in good faith. Menzies was a man of humble origins who had succeeded in the world largely as a result of his educational achievements. He had been a scholarship boy at a Melbourne private school, Wesley College, and a brilliant law student at Melbourne University, even taking into consideration the fact that he needed two attempts to pass Latin. Moreover, he was extremely proud of his Scottish heritage. Much of the enthusiasm for formal education in Australian history has come from those of Scottish heritage. One would include such figures as Peter Board, the director-general of the New South Wales Department of Education in the early twentieth century who created the secondary education system in that state. For such men as Menzies and Board the ideal of an educated democracy was a central part of their cultural baggage.
Menzies was the Australian Prime Minister who wrote and spoke most about education and its value to the country. He was an ardent advocate of the cause of Australian universities and worked slowly, but surely, on their behalf. His achievement involved the Commonwealth government in assuming much of the financial responsibility for the funding of universities despite the fact that it had no constitutional power to do so. Section 52xxiiA of the Australian Constitution simply allows it to “provide benefits to students”. This gave the Commonwealth government the capacity to fund university students. Menzies took over tentative moves by the previous Labor government, and made the Commonwealth government the primary source of funding for universities. Over the years the Commonwealth government increased spending in this area and also took over a significant responsibility for the funding of schools, both private and public. It needs to be appreciated just how novel this emphasis on education—first by Menzies, then by Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and now taken for granted by many people—is in Australian history. As a means to achieving a just, as well as a prosperous, social order, it was completely novel.
Earlier generations of European settlers in Australia saw the key to a prosperous future as settling families on small farms, re-creating the villages of the old world. Free selection, closer settlement and the like were central to the politics of nineteenth-century Australia. It was a utopian yeoman vision of a countryside dotted with small villages; it was the expression of a social philosophy which in the twentieth century would be called distributism. The reality, sometimes of grinding rural poverty, can be found in the Dad and Dave books by Steele Rudd. In such a world the average person only required a primary education. One problem, rarely noted then but which now attracts considerable attention, was that this generous scheme to provide justice for the dispossessed of Britain was founded on the unjust dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants.
In any case, the plan never worked. Small-scale farming was not suited to either the vagaries of the Australian climate or the economic reality that the role of Australia within the British Empire was to provide primary produce for the British market, which this required efficient commercial producers, not small-scale subsistence farmers. As Ian McLean points out, the prosperity of the Australian colonies in the second half of the nineteenth century largely depended on the influx of large amounts of British capital and the adoption of practices which enhanced agricultural productivity.
The colonial universities played little or no role in this agricultural innovation. Moreover, the larger patterns of industrialisation were removing employment of all kinds from the country to the city. Hence it was a rationalist model of social justice derived from ideal images of what human social organisation should look like; its ultimate failure rested on its inability to deal with empirical realities. As John Hirst argued, part of that failure must be seen in terms of the unethical practices which those settling the land practised.
The second attempt at social justice in Australia revolved around the creation of its system of industrial arbitration and conciliation, in particular the idea that every worker was entitled to a “just wage” based not on productivity but on the amount of money needed for a man, his wife and three children to live in what was famously described as “modest comfort”. This was termed by H.B. Higgins a “new province for law and order”; it would bring order into a world of presumptive industrial chaos, thereby helping to create a working man’s paradise and a more efficient social order. This industrial relations system was linked to a policy of the protection of industry through a regime of tariffs, designed to ensure that industries which received tariff assistance also paid decent wages to their workers. This system created its own economic injustice in a number of ways, including the encouragement of low productivity, the imposition of a high tariff regime which passed the financial cost onto an efficient rural sector, and by constructing a wage system which entrenched lower wages for women on the supposition that they did not need to support a family. In his famous study of these policies, Australia, W.K. Hancock described their failure as a consequence of an exuberant quest for justice by Australians in the early twentieth century which did not take enough account of economic realities. It can be argued that “Protection” was a rationalist scheme which came to grief; it sought justice and prosperity but failed to deliver.
The “education revolution” inaugurated by Menzies, refined by Whitlam, and finally becoming a settled policy over the past twenty years, can be considered the third major attempt to achieve the combination of prosperity and social justice in Australia. After the Second World War Australia attempted to turn itself into a modern First World country by encouraging urban manufacturing industry and increasing its migrant intake. This meant taking people who were not “British” in origin, and creating an improved education system to foster a more educated population with the skills required to ensure “progress”. Following a modified version of the Scottish Enlightenment model of human development, it assumed that Australia had “progressed” beyond the agricultural stage of development and was now fit and able to enter the commercial and industrial stage. It was supposed that education and the development of industry went hand in hand. This idea of industrial development became the national ideology of Australia in the 1950s with only a few dissenters, including the Catholic intellectual B.A. Santamaria and the economist Colin Clark, who still hankered after a rural future. Santamaria was an advocate of small rural communities and of the virtues such communities fostered.
Menzies understood that Australia needed an improved education system if the goal of an industrialised society was to be achieved. However, Australia had few universities and these were of British provincial standard; even the proportion of students completing high school was not large. The states were unwilling to spend more on education. Universities had little place in the public imagination except as bastions of privilege. Few Labor politicians of the 1950s were university-educated; their leader H.V. Evatt was an exception. They had little interest in universities. Even businessmen did not see much value in sending their privately educated sons to university. The universities were primarily used to train those wishing to enter the professions, especially law and medicine, and to prepare those who would become school teachers. The Commonwealth Public Service did not employ generalist graduates until the mid-1930s.
Traditional Australian attitudes to education are exemplified in its humour and popular culture. For example, the pre-war radio program Yes What made enormous fun of scholarly pretensions. The humourist Lennie Lower wrote that the ideal classroom would be one where skill in betting on the horses would be inculcated. Criticism of the low estimation in which education was held in the 1940s in Australia can be found in two of the Think—Or Be Damned series edited by Brian Penton. In his own contribution to the series Penton complained about the low level of financial support for education in Australia. He argued that “the net result is a half-educated populace from whose soured minds all taste, curiosity, and enthusiasm for learning have been expunged in childhood”. In Australia Limited A.J. Marshall complained about the low estimation in which education and research were held: “Yet in Australia scientific research is hindered at every turn by lack of men and funds—and vision.” At a time when the Commonwealth provided a small amount of university funding, P.H. Partridge wrote:
Australian society is not favourable to the growth of great universities. The lack of public support for the universities, with their alienation from the society in which they exist, has been a theme of many who have written about them … it is sometimes said that they have not shared the interests, or addressed themselves to the problems, of Australian society.
Menzies’s education revolution changed this Australian attitude to education. Through his policy decisions he helped to entrench the idea that education was the key to creating a social order which combined prosperity and justice. Menzies introduced the idea, later developed by Gough Whitlam and then Julia Gillard, that central to the creation of a just society was ensuring that as many people as possible received as much formal education as they could absorb. Education supplanted the desire to achieve as wide a distribution of property as possible and the aspiration to use a state-regulated industrial relations system as the means of unlocking the promise of a just society.
Unusually for a political leader, Menzies had well-developed ideas on the role and place of education in the world and worked out those ideas in a number of speeches and articles over the course of his career. He is often painted as an old-fashioned British imperialist, and there can be no doubt that he had a great love for Britain. But he was aware of the changes taking place in the world and of the need to adapt.
It is clear that he possessed a somewhat misty-eyed ideal of the university based on Oxford and Cambridge, universities he had not attended. Like most of his contemporaries, he believed that Australian universities should resemble these great English universities as much as possible. The reality was that Australian universities had been largely modelled on Scottish, rather than English, universities, lacked large endowments, and could only seem like Oxbridge in the fanciful imaginations of their teachers and students. This meant, however, that Menzies also had a high regard for what we might term liberal education and for the value of the humanities in particular. His view of the humanities, however, was not founded on the classics, and the need for rigorous philological training, but seems to have owed most to his love of English literature. He believed that literature had a beneficial effect on human beings, allowing them to develop what Idealist philosophers called “personality”, or a capacity to co-operate with their fellow human beings.
Menzies was also interested in advancing the cause of science and scientific research in Australia. His first intervention in Commonwealth funding for secondary schools was to build science blocks for schools. He was, however, acutely aware of the dangers which science posed if it was not accountable to ethical considerations. Having lived through the disastrous first half of the twentieth century, he came to the view that unbridled technical progress without some sort of humanistic restraint on it was a recipe for disaster. On this basis he was a forceful advocate of humanities education as the means of creating an ethical society so that technical advances did not proceed in such a way as to bring into being a cruel and heartless world.
Menzies did not use funding to encourage humanities education. He simple assumed that Australian universities would follow the Oxbridge model. It was a model often espoused in nineteenth-century colonial Australia when universities struggled to attract students. The great bulk of Australians in the 1950s generally stood closer to the nation’s Labor politicians than to Menzies on this matter. They did not appreciate the value of liberal education. Perhaps Menzies hoped that the expansion of the universities would create more white-collar workers and professionals who shared his values and, consequently, would vote Liberal.
Menzies had been influenced by philosophical idealism, which was the dominant philosophy at Australian universities in the early twentieth century. As with other Idealists he was concerned that the passage of progress should be marked by ethical improvement and was concerned that progress should create a freer and more co-operative social order. From Menzies’s point of view, progress in Australia could only proceed if technological and economic progress was matched by the development of the moral capacities of the people. Science and advanced technology had to be managed by individuals who possessed ethical qualities of a high order. Otherwise the consequences could be barbarism.
Menzies never intended that the universities would become institutions of mass education. What he sought was the creation of an educated and ethical elite who would serve the country, particularly through the public service. Unfortunately, subsequent prime ministers, from Whitlam to Gillard, saw things differently, seeking to make universities into mass institutions. For them, every Australian was entitled to a university education, regardless of whether it would benefit either the student or society. The final absurdity was the uncapping of university places by the Gillard government in 2012.
This is a great liberal-democratic dream, the improvement of the individual through what the nineteenth century called self-culture. Thinkers in colonial Australia looked to American thinkers such as William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson for a model of a humanity composed of individuals who were inspired to act in a virtuous fashion founded on spiritual principles. At that time the means were to be such institutions as mechanics institutes, where working men sought to improve their minds through self-education. Self-culture was not utilitarian or concerned with commercial values; its goal was self-improvement founded on the belief that an individual could cultivate the capacities, often seen as having their roots in the divine, which God had given to every individual. Such ideas lingered into the twentieth century in the Workers Education movement.
Whereas the nineteenth century had placed its faith in voluntary organisations as the means of liberal emancipation, and mechanics institutes can be considered as similar in nature to friendly societies and mutual societies, the twentieth century increasingly placed its faith in state institutions to achieve this goal. The second education revolution was essentially the creation of a cultural order which had embedded educational institutions firmly into the state and in which self-education, self-culture and the ingenuity of the bushman such as described by C.E.W. Bean are considered to be second-rate forms of developing human capacities. In their place the university became central to the idea of what constituted education.
In this regard one can contrast an earlier prime minister, William Morris Hughes, with Menzies. Hughes had been a pupil-teacher in Britain before coming to Australia. He had encountered Matthew Arnold, who, as a school inspector, commended Hughes’s work and inspired in him a love of literature. Once in Australia he worked in many jobs before becoming a Labor politician. Having studied law part-time he also rose, like Menzies, to become a King’s Counsel. According to his biographer Hughes was a voracious reader but he was never a university “man of culture”, just extraordinarily capable, driven by necessity to improve himself.
The defining project of Australia’s attempt to become a modern country was the Snowy Mountains Scheme, begun in 1949. This was a major technological achievement as it diverted water from the Snowy River westwards to the parched inland, providing irrigation along the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers, as well as allowing for the creation of hydro-electric power. According to a history of the scheme, its workers, who were largely migrants from Europe, included individuals who could be readily identified as former members of the Waffen SS by their tattoos. The author points out that by 1949 all countries were willing to take former Nazis, many of whom had high levels of technical and technological ability. The United States would not have been able to put a man on the moon in 1969 without such people.
Nazi Germany remains a vivid reminder that high levels of education are perfectly compatible with inhuman behaviour; university students were often early converts to Nazism. Many university professors were willing to make accommodations with Nazism. The case of Nazi Germany shows that the idea that university education inoculates against moral depravity is empirically not the case. Keith Hancock argued in the 1930s that the reason why England, unlike Germany and Italy, remained steadfastly moral was because it was still what he termed “medieval” in its outlook, as was Australia. In Australia, Hancock had characterised the early Australian Commonwealth in terms of the sixteenth-century English commonwealth and medieval ideals such as that of the “just price”. Modernity, and in particular he had in mind the influence of Machiavelli, destroys morality because it creates an essentially amoral world.
What then does being “modern” mean? Is it the culmination of the advancement of human beings to become moral and co-operative creatures, as Menzies, schooled in Idealism, liked to believe? Or is it a realm where the ghost of Machiavelli reigns supreme and morality has given way to cold calculation and the desire for power? Is it a question of the inevitable march of progress in which human beings will undergo moral improvement through education? Or is it the creation of a social order which has lost its moral fabric and knows only one principle, that of power? And are the orders of progress and power one and the same?
It is worth noting that a latent Machiavellianism has existed across a variety of cultures since the Axial Age. This can be seen in the famous Melian Dialogue in Thucydides’s History with its powerful expression of the doctrine of Might is Right, in the legalism adopted by the Chin which enabled them to emerge victorious at the end of the Warring States period in China, and in Kautilya’s Arthashastra in India. Machiavellianism may be viewed as a response to a breakdown in traditional values.
Menzies’s vision of the role of the university and of education sought to reconcile the modern and the medieval in Hancock’s sense so that an ethical outcome could be achieved. He believed that the traditional values of the university, as represented by the English universities and their emphasis on the humanities, could provide a bulwark against the potential evils which lurked in technological advance. Democracies could produce leaders marked by moderation and decency who could ensure that balance would be preserved. For Menzies, the values provided by a liberal education were an antidote to Machiavellian modernism.
This argument is reminiscent of that of Coleridge on church and state, and his belief that “clerks” constitute an estate of the realm capable of restraining the excesses of modern commercial society. It is an argument found in nineteenth-century Australia, the problem being that the number of good “clerks” produced to leaven the colonial world was always pitifully small. Nevertheless, a figure such as Charles Badham inspired a small, but significant, number of individuals, including A.B. Piddington, Edmund Barton and Joseph Carruthers, to enter public life. Whether they were more ethical in their behaviour it is impossible to measure. But the argument that the university, and liberal education, provide a bulwark against the corrupting influence of the modern world, and especially utilitarianism, has long been a sustaining myth of the Australian university.
However, it can be argued that in recent times it has been far more the case that the influence has worked the other way, with the “medieval” qualities of universities having been slowly but surely erased until the universities have become completely modern, and the clerks have had all restraints on their behaviour removed. Having been told that universities need to engage with the “real” world, they have seen that they must adopt the values of that real world. In the nineteenth-century idyll, universities were meant to be the counterweight to “modern” commercial values; in the twenty-first century it is not only commercial values which they have embraced but the modern values of Machiavelli, in particular a glorification of power and the necessity of breaking moral rules in the pursuit of that power.
The modern university, it can be argued, has been conquered by Machiavellians. In any case, the modern university has failed in the task which Menzies set it, of providing an education which produces leaders capable of countering the potential evils of a modern technological society. Instead the university has fallen prey to those very evils. It can no longer claim to be the “special” institution Menzies envisaged, a sort of retreat from the world where scholars thought deep thoughts and then imparted them onto those who were serving the cause of progress in the wider world. A few examples will illustrate the fate of Australian universities as ethical entities.
One example of the problematic ethical position of Australian universities can be seen in the national research audit, the Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) exercise, conducted in 2015. A significant number of universities had one or more areas of research which were classified as “not rated”, which meant that they were not assessed. The official reason given was that these areas of research had had coding problems, which is to say that items with incorrect codes had been entered on the forms. One might ask how so many “errors” were made, given that Australian universities employ large numbers of well-educated people who should be able to fill in forms. The only possible conclusion which can be drawn, once gross incompetence is put to one side, is that these errors had little to do with the administrative capacity of those involved. It was officially stated at the time that there was no “gaming” of the system but it is difficult to conclude that this was not what was going on.
Another example of dubious ethical practice in Australian universities is the controversy about how students’ ATAR scores are used to determine who is admitted to certain courses. It has been claimed, with evidence, that the ATAR score published by many universities is not the actual score they use. If this is indeed the case, then many Australian universities are engaging in deception, using one score for public purposes and another to determine actual entry to university.
Taken together these two examples of contemporary university practice are quite disturbing, especially for those who retain a Menzies-like vision of the university as a haven of ethical probity in a Machiavellian world. In both cases one can see that Australian universities have been motivated by a desire for power, prestige and commercial advantage and that they will happily go beyond the limits of acceptable moral behaviour in pursuit of those goals. The fascination, indeed obsession, of contemporary Australian universities with strategy—strategic goals, strategic documents, strategic visions—speaks to their Machiavellian nature. A nineteenth-century Idealist or a seventeenth-century Commonwealth advocate would have found such an obsession incomprehensible and even pathological.
One could respond by saying that if Machiavellianism is a core constituent of what it is to be modern then one should expect modern institutions to assume those values. But in the case of universities, and other institutions which Coleridge referred to as the Church, the situation is more complicated. These are institutions which are devoted to two key areas of human experience: truth or knowledge; and ethics or right behaviour. In the case of the state there may be circumstances, termed “states of emergency”, when the state is forced, out of concern for the public good, to carry out actions which are of a dubious moral quality. This was Machiavelli’s great insight in The Prince; he did not advocate evil for the sake of evil but rather simply argued that the state was driven by necessity to do what it needed to do to survive. Given that sixteenth-century Italy was riven by warfare (much of The Prince is devoted to military matters) it can be argued that many Italian states of that time were in a constant state of emergency. In a contemporary context, no one would argue against a government lying in times of war to deceive an enemy. There are always borderline, more contentious issues such as whether it is right to torture a terrorist if it means saving a large number of people, but the general rule that some moral norms including telling the truth are suspended or restricted in wartime is common sense.
However, whatever may be the merits of Machiavellianism in relation to the state, or what Augustine called the City of Man, it is clear that Machiavellianism has no place in Coleridge’s Church or the City of God. That is not to say that, given the nature of the human condition, one will not find Machiavellians in such a place. It is simply to say that its defining ethos cannot, and should not, be Machiavellian in nature. The reason for this is that its commitment to truth must be absolute; otherwise it is not possible to trust any pronouncements that emanate from it.
The ethos of the state relates to the welfare of its citizens; there may be circumstances when truth is secondary to preserving that welfare or the common good, although once the state does something immoral or untruthful for the public good it does risk being immoral or untruthful for other less honourable reasons in future. This problem becomes much more acute in the context of an institution defined by its devotion to truth. If the members of a university are willing to engage in immoral, and potentially illegal, actions in such matters as ERA and ATAR then it is only a short step to engage in such behaviour in matters pertaining to the discovery, expression and suppression of truth. As Machiavelli himself saw, a people will only feel “secure and contented” when they see that a prince “under no circumstances” will break the law. In the university, as in the state, violating moral norms is the first stage on the road towards a corrupt institution. A loss of faith by the public in the devotion of universities to truth and ethical behaviour can only create a legitimacy crisis for the universities.
A related factor which is having a major effect on the legitimacy of universities is the substitution by many academics of political activism for the pursuit of truth. Once politics, and the pursuit of power which goes with political activity, are substituted for the quest for knowledge and truth then the ultimate outcome can only be a deformed Machiavellianism. Considered in a political sense, universities are not states but commonwealths, which is to say that they are, or should be, non-coercive networks of individuals devoted the peaceful interchange of ideas.
Universities rely for their special place in the world on an “aura” which is essentially medieval in origin. Its roots reach back even further to the holy men and women, found in every human culture, who inspire a community by their embodiment of the sacred, a reality which lies beyond the mundane world of everyday life. In a weak sense, academics long maintained that aura which was the basis, not of their power, but of their cultural authority. It enabled them to command respect.
In a particularly British fashion, Menzies had an awareness of the qualities which the university was meant to embody. As with Hancock, who was some four years younger than Menzies and who published his first article in the Melbourne University magazine when Menzies was its editor, Menzies understood, even if only implicitly, the conflict in the world of the first half of the twentieth century between the medieval and the modern. The modern, combining technological advance and Machiavelli, needed to be constrained by what remained of the medieval. Without such constraint the road to Berlin 1945 beckoned.
The state of the contemporary university and its apparent defeat at the hands of the forces of Machiavellian modernity would seem to indicate that Menzies’s dream of the role and place of the university in the world is in tatters. Universities are no longer “special” institutions; they have lost their medieval ethos and its accompanying aura. They are no longer commonwealths. They have adopted the values of the state, especially in terms of their belief in power, and it shows, as can be seen in the case of academic misconduct charges laid by the University of Queensland against Professor Paul Frijters. The Australian Fair Work Commission found that “there were substantial flaws and a lack of procedural fairness in the process applied”. One academic commented:
Universities—even in the Group of Eight—have more than their fair share of unscrupulous people who believe that under the cover of hierarchy and bureaucratic procedures they can act any way they want.
The university unsuccessfully appealed against this decision, on grounds which were truly bizarre. Professor Frijters said the main grounds of appeal by the University of Queensland were that it had “violated its own procedures so often and consistently that it would be unworkable if it now were forced to actually abide by them”.
This would not be important if universities had not attained such a central role in contemporary Australian society, as an expression of its hopes of building a just and prosperous society. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century universities have increasingly claimed a monopoly over the production of knowledge in Western societies, including Australia. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the key period of self-culture, they shared the quest for knowledge with amateur scientific enthusiasts and their scientific societies. An excellent example of such a figure in Australia is William Clarke, clergyman-scientist, who wrote many scientific papers on local geology.
As the universities attained an increased monopoly over knowledge, the knowledge created took on the form and style of the institution that produced it. If, as John O’Malley argues, there have been four intellectual cultures of the West, of which university learning was but one, then the growing intellectual monopoly of the university can only mean the withering of the other three cultures including literary humanism and artistic expression, or their incorporation into universities as can be seen in the case of creative writing. This has led, in the phrase of Alan and Marten Shipman, to the “Academisation of Society”, the tendency to consider academic styles of thought as the only valid ones, and hence the dominance of abstract models as the preferred form of knowledge.
Following Iain McGilchrist, the triumph of a form of knowledge marked out by abstraction also implies the dominance of the left side of the brain in contemporary Western culture. It may well be the case that the increasing imbalance between the two sides of the brain, in which that part which deals with abstractions becomes not just dominant but also domineering, makes a culture more prone to accept the amoral ruthlessness which is the mark of a modern Machiavellian society. As the capacity for empathy is diminished so the restraints on simply following logic wherever it leads are broken. This may well explain how Nazi scientists came to perform their abominable experiments. The supreme irony is that, for Menzies, the universities were meant to play the role that McGilchrist assigns to the right side of brain.
Nevertheless, in their activism and pursuit of certain political goals universities still portray themselves as a major source of the ethical in the contemporary world. One should treat such claims with great scepticism. Ethics, considered as behaving in a decent and humane fashion, has been replaced by political correctness, or the imperative to utter speech which is acceptable to the political activists. It is, to adapt a phrase from Emmanuel Todd, “zombie Protestantism”. That is to say, it reminds us of practices which were once found in Protestant communities as they sought to enforce speech codes on their members. The replacement of ethics by speech codes, and virtue signalling, is an indication of the dominance of left-side-brain thinking in universities and the replacement of ethical behaviour by assent to abstract propositions, or what John Henry Newman termed notional assent.
So where does that leave us? What are the sources of the ethical in our social and political life? After all, the faith placed in the university by individuals such as Menzies was, in many ways, an attempt to discover a source of the ethical in a world in which the Christian churches had declined. He followed the logic of living in a modern and Machiavellian world and assumed that the answer was to look to those institutions which were capable of inspiring human beings to guard against their worse selves. He failed to appreciate that these institutions could themselves succumb to the forces of Machiavellian modernity.
In such circumstances it becomes difficult, for example, to discover appropriate checks and balances as a means of restraining the appetite for power, such as would seem to be appropriate in a Machiavellian universe. Emmanuel Todd, well known as a progressive of the French Left, concedes that “atheism succeeds only in defining a meaningless world and a human race without a project”. As a “medieval” institution which preserved a sense of the sacred, which would explain, in part, Menzies’s attraction to the ideal of Oxbridge, the university traditionally provided some protection against such a meaningless world. This would no longer appear to be the case.
With its aura dissipated by Machiavellian modernity, the university can no longer claim to have any special ethical role in society. The principle of the Church, or of commonwealth understood as a free non-coercive network of individuals, has surrendered to the coercive principles of the state. It is not capable of taking on the task which Menzies sought for it: of ensuring that liberal progress, founded on technological innovation, would lead to a better world.
To found a new ethical order based on education and the university to replace earlier ethical orders based on either the relatively equal distribution of landed property or the use of the state to secure a “just wage” now seems, at the least, somewhat naive. Just as earlier ethical orders generated their particular forms of injustice and ultimately failed to guarantee the prosperity which they promised, so it should be expected that a faith in education to deliver prosperity and justice will also fail. The expectation that education held the key to a more just and prosperous world was always a rationalist project rather than a scheme based on genuine empirical evidence. As with land distribution schemes and the mix of arbitration and protection, it appears to be just another broken dream.
Members of Greg Melleuish’s family have been involved in the education of young Australians since the 1890s.