Anti-Intellectualism In Australia

We Hate Thinkers? That Would Take Some Thinking

I was going to ignore this one but Pleiades sort of prodded it back into view so I thought maybe I should chip in my two cents. It’s a rather oblique bit of commentary and maybe even a little whiny. 23000 people have already expressed their like for the article so it’s not like the wider public don’t feel sympathy for the intelligentzia in this country. But that number suggests also that it’s the intelligentzia feeling sorry for itself.

To be honest, it’s quite an irritating piece, so I’m going to pick out sections and point out why it’s a faulty piece of commentary.

Each week I watch Q&A praying for an expert, begging for someone who knows what they’re talking about. And each week I get Joe Hildebrand accompanied by a flurry of tweets by the emotionally unstable. In fact Nick Osbaldiston and Jean-Paul Gagnon recently found in their research on Q&A that only 5 per cent of panellists since 2008 had a research background. Even in an entire show devoted to education issues, Professor Gonski sat in the shadows while Pyne and Garrett proffered glib inanities and vapid insults. No one learned anything.

My problem is not that our public sphere harbours ill-educated members (like the imbecilic Andrew Bolt who never made it past first-year uni). I think we need commentators from all walks of life. The problem is that as a country we are hostile to those who are well-educated. We prefer home-spun wisdom to years of research. Our language is peppered with vitriol reserved for those who think for a living: “chattering classes”, “latte-sipping libertarians”, “intellectual elites” and now Nick Cater’s most unlovely term “bunyip elite”. If we want to emphasise the importance of something we say that the issue “is not just academic”. Any idea that takes longer than a nano-second to understand is howled down. Or perhaps, more precisely, any idea that threatens conservative orthodoxy is consigned to the divine irrelevancy of the academy.

There’s a lot of name-calling going on there. 🙂

Quite frankly I’m not even convinced that the people I meet are hostile to intellectual pursuits or that they resent people with a higher educational attainment. My own take on this is probably more hostile than the average Australian, and maybe even more resentful about people’s letters than the average Australian. So I guess this is going to be a kind of retort to somebody who is an adjunct lecturer at law at UNSW from somebody who flunked out of Med Shcool at Sydney University. You could say that we’re diametrical opposites: Lecturer versus drop-out, UNSW vs University of Sydney, Law versus Medicine and all that.

My own view is that some intellectual concerns genuine *are* academic and there’s nothing wrong with it being academic, but it takes a bit of honesty on the part of academia to admit that which is academic may not be easily transferred as wisdom for those who live in the practical end of the world. The reason why the dismissive phrase “just academic” comes about is not to stop ideas that threaten conservative orthodoxy but a frank and honest bid in not wasting time applying the inapplicable.

The point of the intellectual elite is not to “think for living about how the world can be a fairer place” for a start. A better place, maybe. But it’s simply not true that such a task is the burden of the intellectual elite. Some are going to write books and others are going to devise engineering solutions to problems that have nothing to do with fairness. And those who undertake practical pragmatic tasks in our society are not any less intellectual than those who toil in the halls of academia.

The complaint that only 5% of the panelists were researchers is also a bit misleading. This construction suggests that those who are not researchers do not have valid credentials to be asked questions about our society on television, when in fact most of politics is reducible to opinion and not knowledge at all. Politics is the enemy of epistemology, but you can’t really live without having politics so we all indulge in it, and we all form opinions. But here’s the thing: opinions are always *merely* opinions and it doesn’t matter who expresses theirs and how they do so in the context of a TV show like ‘Q&A’. the very demand that ‘Q&A’ ought to have more intellectual gravitas misses the point that it is a show about opinions masquerading as something more insightful than it really is. Personally I find it laughable that an adjunct lecturer of law is using it as a benchmark to show how anti-intellectual Australia is.

The flipside to what the writer is saying is that people who aren’t researchers and therefore not at the cutting edge of knowledge practice ought not to be heard on ‘Q&A’ and that seems like a terrible conceit on the part of academia.

There’s also no room for cleverness in our models of masculinity or femininity. For women, intelligence equates with a dangerous independence that doesn’t sit well with your role as a docile adoring fan to the boys at the pub. It’s equated with sexual unattractiveness. And for men, carrying a book and using words longer than one syllable is a form of gender treason. It’s as good as wearing bumless chaps to a suburban barbecue. Real blokes have practical wisdom expressed through grunts and murmurs. Real Aussie chicks just giggle.

This bit is simply not true. It is not true of both men and women I deal with every day. I categorically reject the notion that – even in the blue-collar context – that people do not try to express themselves in the most articulate manner. This reads more like projection on the part of the writer. I can easily imagine many contexts where this might be the case, but it is not any kind of a universal portrait of Australian life. If she thinks this is an accurate description, she needs to get out of the ivory tower more often.

It’s not just a hostile public sphere that keeps thinkers at bay. Academics may also not want to enter public debate. And I can understand why. Firstly, they receive no rewards in terms of career advancement for writing for the public. And secondly, many may not want to engage with a knife-drawn public prone to Goldstein-style Two-Minute Twitter Hate Rituals. Academics are often timorous folk who specialise in showing the complexity of issues, not offering tweet-sized solutions. Social media doesn’t democratise debate. It limits it to the resilient. Snark triumphs over insight, and commentary is reserved for those with voluminous folds of scar-tissue. Sensitive thinkers rarely fit this bill.

That’s just weak. If there’s something that needs to be said in the public sphere, and an Academic won’t venture forth to say it, then that’s dereliction of duty and we ought not be paying them to be our academics.

If the reason why they don’t come forward is because there aren’t enough rewards in coming forward, we should sack these academics and start again because they’re not fulfilling their social function. If there is a truth that needs to be spoken, it shouldn’t be about personal reward should it? In fact the writer goes on to mention the monetary motive twice more in the article so clearly it bugs her that academisc don’t get paid like bankers. Here’s a newsflash lady: only bankers get paid like bankers.

If they live in fear of public rebuke, then that’s also unacceptable and weak. It really doesn’t matter that the public might excercise its Goldstein-style two-minutes-hate; if you don’t have the conviction of beliefs as a scholar, what good as a scholar are you? Indeed, proper academics stand up all the time, like Tim Flannery. Why don’t they do it more often? Why make excuses as to why they don’t?

It might seem hard to take for the writer, but the biggest enemy of intellectualism in this country is exactly this kind of cloistered, self-interest-driven, condescending, patronising academia. They’re not helping the wider society in the least bit. They can hardly complain then when the outcome is for the wider society to snip their budgets.

As rants about anti-intellectualism in this country go, I actually found this one pretty lame, unhelpful and mostly disagreeable.


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One response to “Anti-Intellectualism In Australia

  1. Pingback: The New Puritanism | Random Pariah

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