Nobody Likes A Thinker


As the Senate inquiry into academic freedom unfurls, Young
Libs, campaigning under the rubric Make Education Fair, have diagnosed widespread bias in the Australian University

To the typical charge made by director of the campaign Nigel
that a "highly politicised ideological bias exists in academia", a seasoned
participant may be tempted to respond with a reluctant admission — it does,
and it is the reason why our sector is one of the worst funded and most
pointedly ignored in the advanced capitalist world. The harm done to students,
to standards, and to intellectual diversity by the enforced institutional need
to seek fee income and balance the books in a Darwinian economic climate is
incalculable. We have two decades of economic rationalism, of neo-conservative "realism",
to thank.

Small wonder, then, that the embattled minority of academics who work tirelessly
to introduce students to the discipline and wonder of disinterested learning
under the broad umbrella of the "Humanities" do so with a modicum of
intransigence against the self-congratulatory political machine that does
everything it can to make their work seem disposable.

In every sector of our culture today — throughout the media, in political discourse,
in all the reviving religious prattle, and in the ubiquity of the market — one
message is constantly promoted: the way things are is the way things ought to
be. The mere existence of such a complex, scintillating and seductive social
edifice appears reason enough to surrender to it. The conservation of this
diverse and resilient system seems simultaneously intuitive and rational to the
people bound up in its coils, despite the fact that, along with its many
attractions, it brings in its train homelessness, hunger and profound

If conservatism is the name of the game for the status quo, it is otherwise in
our institutions of higher learning. University is, or ought to be in at least
one of its modes, the place where for three or four years young adults (and
adults returning to the fold after years of service to the economy) do nothing
but read, analyse, criticise, argue and come to some provisional conclusions
about what otherwise seems inexorable and incontestable. The staff responsible
for inculcating such an intrinsically worthy and socially invaluable ethic for
our emerging generations do so with very few illusions left about the world at
large, and with very few thanks for the effort.

We do it, by and large, for its
own rewards: the disintegrating fibres of prejudice in a student body, the
precious moments of illumination, the collective gasp of astonishment at what so
often goes unremarked.

More than this, University academic staff members are committed researchers, who
conduct high-level investigations into many of the more opaque and recalcitrant
aspects of our culture and history. It is this experience, of specialist and
disinterested research programs, conducted individually and in teams, that
really turns the majority of academics against the mindless orthodoxies of the
present. As probers into the elusive facts and forgotten details about the
costs of our way of life; as synthesisers of that data into compelling theoretical systems; and as occasional popularisers of unpleasant truths, academics are (by virtue of the very work that they do) "left" of the centre that does what it can to domesticate their ongoing scandal.

That is why economic rationalism is predisposed to do away with Humanities programs,
with the very ethic of disinterestedness and critique. The reality principle of
the market, which dominates all intellection — very much including what goes
on inside Arts Faculty walls — is one that would shear away the embarrassing
and extravagant luxury of a thought for its own sake. And we need to be very
clear on this point: a thought for its own sake, with its own momentum and
consequences, is anathema to a system governed by instrumental reason. The consequence of two decades of post-HECS economic extortion
on non-vocational Faculties is the utter imperilment of such a thought; the
idea that a Department of Philosophy or History needs to be able to fund its
own activities on the basis of revenue is the extinction of all ideas.

So when we read that a left-wing "establishment" governs all University life today,
regulating debate with an iron Stalinist fist, and browbeating those few remaining
"conservative intellectuals" who (as a frightened minority) are constantly
under attack from the arrogant neo-Marxian goon squads of elite academia, we
know that we are in the vicinity of right-wing fantasy. Right-wing fantasy is
well versed in hijacking the actual situation of its opponent and claiming it
for its own position; this topsy-turvy world of sheer ideological inversion is
comical to some extent — provided we can see the comic side of Nazism, which was
itself a cooptation of Soviet structures of feeling.

The actual consequences of such fantasy are anything but amusing. The wild speculation
that a left-wing conspiracy is driving the engines of "indoctrination" at our universities is a
displaced version of a larger truth, which runs as follows: teachers at university beware, the Right is watching you, and it does not like what it

The "values of mainstream Australia", into which we have had little or no
input, and which have long since been in the hands of neocons and the centre-Right, are being defined publicly
in opposition to the spirit of engaged and critical inquiry that academics hold
dear. Every impulse to bite the hand that feeds us must be grimly suppressed.

The current Senate inquiry into academic freedom is a delayed aftershock of the
wave of litigation that rocked American campuses some years ago, during which
students sued Faculties for ideologically inflected teaching. The notion of accountability is here marshalled into the fearsome logic of market choice: where the student pays, the customer is always right. A "bad product" is one that fails to flatter the ego of the purchaser, since that is what all commodities are supposed to do today. Once again, it is the market being used to batter down the last vestiges of intellectual freedom and the sole remaining
shelter of unpalatable truths.

Most academics will be perfectly familiar with this state of affairs; in some
sense it is the default position of higher education since the 1980s: tightening
belts, a drying up of courses, and a constant stream of thinly veiled threats
and accusations.

On the other side of the scales we have only the wealth of our
students’ intellectual liberty and our own hard-won victories against the
night, which now as ever threatens to swallow all.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.