08 April 2008

Liberal studies

In the face of the slow decline of George W. Bush and the uncertain burial of the Howard government in this country, is the energies of Liberal youth really best spent in trying to stoke dying fires? Is Tim Andrews wasting his time and others' calling for a situation "whereby young Liberal people are recognised as an intellectual force"?

The Education not Indoctrination (ENI) campaign appears to be warmed-over crap from the US seeking some Pol Pot-style purge of leftist intellectuals. It is absurd that the people held up as the intellectual powerhouses of the right (e.g. David Horowitz, Keith Windschuttle and Christopher Pearson, to name a few) tend to be ex-leftists, and they have brought a lot of leftist baggage with them in their Long March rightwards. Much of this has, at best, no value to liberals or conservatives; at worst it's toxic. Worse, younger liberals and conservatives can't tell the difference. People who were determinedly, actively wrong about Uncle Joe Stalin and Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh are doubtful - not in terms of commitment but judgment. They were wrong then, they might be happy to partake of the fatted calf if offered to them but they could well still be wrong.

Leftist students become leftist intellectuals. Conservative students go into politics, they abandon politics altogether for the private sector, or they inhabit the shadow-world in between (e.g. journalism, lobbying) abhorred by libertarians. They don't, as a rule, become liberal/conservative academics.

There's no encouragement to do so, either. A young Liberal spends their career-formative years in an environment so hostile to academics that there is no incentive to become one - especially when a fully-fledged academic earns about what other uni graduates are making by their late 20s. Whenever an academic says something that a liberal/conservative doesn't want to hear, liberals/conservatives don't address the issue at hand - they get all nasty about the academic profession generally.

The alternative is an endless whinging. Gerard Henderson complains that a) liberals and conservatives don't celebrate their own history, and b) history of liberal/conservative achievements tends to be written by leftists like Allan Martin and Judith Brett. His alternative, writing poorly researched and badly written history on his lonesome, is not a longterm option nor a recipe for understanding, valuing and building on liberal/conservative successes.

Nobody should or does rate Janet Albrechtsen as a thinker - doing a Google search and then boiling down Krauthammer, Kristol or Will for a local audience doesn't count. If Rudd's salute counts for nothing, Janet, don't write about it. A conservative should resist petty and transient fancies. When the decline of Bush reveals Kristol to have been wrong about absolutely everything, Albrechtsen (and Sheridan, and Shanahan, etc.) should be replaced by postgraduate liberal/conservative students and up-and-coming academics.

The Centre for Independent Studies and the Eye Pee Yay have a plethora of Adjunct Fellows, Research Dudes and other impressive-sounding titles mainly of a voluntary nature. It puts out position papers and floats ideas in articles into which contributors and editors clearly put considerable effort. The Liberal Party could (but probably won't) learn important lessons about doing the hard work involved in researching and putting position papers together. Mind you, considering that these unpaid honoraria go to people like Jason Soon or Chris Berg, you have to wonder about their success in fostering a generation of like-minded thinkers. They adorn these thinktanks like the "gilded youths" in The Man from Ironbark.

The CIS is not part of the Liberal or National Parties but then again neither is the ALSF; there is a correlation between supporters of the CIS and liberal/conservative politics which would benefit the latter. Those raising money for the CIS would have an easier time of it than those raising money for the Liberal/National/Joh Barnaby Nationals Queenslander Party.

Liberals and conservatives should do more to encourage like-minded academics. They could eventually end up with a fully conservative university, an Australian Pepperdine or Liberty U. At the very least, they might have the kind of balance for which Liberal students will only keen, not work. The Catholic Church has done this with Campion College and a secular academy ought not be beyond means and will. Instead of this flatulent exercise in nostalgia by the Shadow Education Minister, what about some concrete proposals and encouragement for an academic elite working from liberal/conservative assumptions?

The reason why Christopher Pearson is blowing smoke is because Liberal students have expressed no interest in the kind of academic rigour Pearson is talking about. Liberal students want to be able to drop quotes from climate skeptics or intelligent design gurus without some Marxist impugning their academic rigour. Why learn to write an essay when you can cut-n-paste some cliches into a press release?

Pearson is, however, right that this article is silly, assuming that all university students have to be fashionably leftist and that any movement to the contrary is "sinister". Fancy asking Carolyn Allport whether academics are running their own agendas!

Depends what you mean by conservative, really. I reckon there's nothing more conservative, even homely, than the insistence by Foucault or Derrida that we're all unable to transcend our backgrounds, social class, gender or whatever. Patrick White's novels warned against frivolity and vulgar ambition, and supported work, faith and stable relationships. Not everyone shares my belief in their stifling conservatism but then again I'm not an academic.

Like Pearson, Mark Bahnisch engages in nostalgia for his alma mater as proof that good teachers can elevate students of a different persuasion with a shared respect for facts and ideas. He and Andrew Norton rightly call the bluff of Liberal Students claiming bias: whether you're making a claim in a public debate or in an essay, you have to prove your case or you can piss off.

Not only will they not do the hard work of building academic careers in areas run down by the left, they can't even build a simple case of bias against one - just one - academic.

Despite the fact that academics rate highly in public surveys of trustworthy professions, Liberals regard them as soft targets. When you lose office in a democracy, you can't attack the voters - you can't attack outgroups like women or ethnic minorities or even gays, these days. A mob whose self-identity depends on being able to beat up on defined outgroups needs a soft target, and academics seem to be that target. Again, what Liberal Student wants to join the targets?

To be recognised as an intellectual force, you have to become one. Liberals and conservatives disdain academics - the challenge for them is to not only stop this, but turn it around. The onus is on liberals and conservatives to create incentives for conservative students who can both chalk a campus and pass exams to pursue higher study with a view to becoming academics. The sheer dimension of this cultural shift ought not be underestimated. It is beyond an organisation that oscillates between three states:

  • sulky resentment at being denied the perks of office

  • blithe smugness that no substantial reform on their part is required, and

  • whingeing, whingeing, whingeing.

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