Guest Notes

University notes

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

Campus meltdown? Blame les marxistes!

Australians have a utilitarian political culture and a talent for bureaucracy. Politicians rarely engage in soaring flights of rhetoric, sticking to practical rather than grand ideas. We have arguably the best central bank in the world (hence no recession since 1991), excellent trade negotiators and superior emergency services. Yet our sprawling universities are run by overweening, underperforming bureaucrats.

Some years ago, I assisted several disabled university students by taking notes for them. Two things stood out; first, the quality of teaching was superior in TAFEs, which insisted that their staff had TAFE teaching certificates (university teaching qualifications did not count) and second, the amount of political comment in lectures, far more than in my undergraduate days, and always from the same perspective.

High-quality scholarship is evident in the physical sciences but in the humanities and social sciences, too many academics are more concerned with striking moral poses in front of their captive audiences than engaging in open enquiry; often what is offered starts resemble not so much education as indoctrination.

The fifteen contributors to Campus Meltdown: The Deepening Crisis in Australian Universities (Connor Court, 2019) all current or former university ‘insiders,’ examine the various pathologies afflicting our universities on which so much public money is expended.


Australian universities are rife with feral managerialism. Their administrations have the same negative incentives as the public service — rampant empire building, substituting process for outcomes — with almost none of the accountability mechanisms. To talk of a university’s ‘brand’ puts managers to the fore. Considering its reputation puts academics front and centre. Of course, brand and marketing rhetoric is the go. But if corporatist rhetoric is not useful, diversity rhetoric will do just as well, or even better. Diversity bureaucrats are not academe’s hired help, they are the moral masters. Administrators have long since learned that academics concerned with reputations based on moral conformity can easily be mastered by mouthing the correct platitudes. If the academics had the understanding of social dynamics that they pretend, they would see through the charade but they are so desperate to play the same virtuous games, that resistance is crippled before it begins. Those prepared to submit to punitive conformity are easily corralled.

Alison Wolf writing on the British experience and Charles Beach and Frank Milne on the Canadian university system remind us that the way we do things is not the only way things might be done. Barry Spurr and Gigi Foster examine university teaching, the mollycoddling of students and student evaluations. Not that one could recommend the university education faculties, where approaches that have been repeatedly discredited by serious research are simply re-packaged. Ruth Williams wickedly uses the economics of welfare functions to ask whether the dominant culture of academe is doing active social harm. (Yes.) Peter Drake and Stephen Chavura consider the idea of a university within Australia. Paul Oslington suggests a more competitive environment would be helpful. Steven Schwartz, Michael Sexton and David Martin Jones lead us through the contours and consequences of the metastasising intellectual and political conformity within academe. James Allan skewers the jargon, the ludicrously inflated salaries of vice-chancellors, the narrow selection paths that breed political conformity, the PhD fetish, graduates who can’t write, bureaucratic make-work, spurious training and awareness seminars, the grant-grind and grant-fetish, bloated bureaucracies that don’t provide any actual administrative assistance, the diversity games and the absence of any intellectual diversity that would lead to better decisions, research and education. Then he really gets going. Gloomily, editor William Coleman concludes that it is because Australians do not value education that we get the universities we deserve.
M. ‘Lorenzo’ Warby is a director of Multisensory Education.

 Senior academics at Sydney University continue to oppose the Ramsay program on Western civilisation. They include Raewyn Connell, a transsexual sociologist who enriched our language with the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ and whose book ‘Masculinities’ is regarded as a classic on the construction of masculine identity. Connell was once a man. Others opposed to Ramsay’s ‘narrow, masculinist, Anglo-centric view of the west,’ include Stephen Castles and John Frow — still men. All three have international reputations and exemplify the ethos which dominates intellectual debate in the West. Some blame the managerialism of the 1980s for the decline in universities but the rot set in much earlier. In 1955, Raymond Aron published ‘The Opium of the Intellectuals,’ an attack on the Marxist thought taking hold in French academia. Aron asked why intellectuals are ‘merciless toward the failings of the democracies but ready to tolerate the worst crimes as long as they are committed in the name of the proper doctrines.’ Today academics remain bewitched by pernicious doctrines which reject all the intellectual and philosophical traditions developed in the West over the past two millenia except those that accord with the left.

This raises a puzzling question. How do demonstrably absurd systems of thought gain such a powerful hold on those deemed the most intelligent?

French Marxist philosophers Althusser and Foucault have had a greater influence on humanities than any other 20th century scholars. Foucault was the most cited humanities scholar on the ISI Web of Science. ‘What this says of modern scholarship is for the reader to decide—and it is imagined that judgments will vary from admiration to despair, depending on one’s view,’ wrote a reader on the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Althusser and Foucault are responsible for much of the nonsense produced in universities today. Instead of looking at why socialism has failed everywhere, Marxists have retreated into theoretical obscurantism. The result is a proliferation of subsets of ideas about queer theory, intersectionality, poststructuralism, feminism, colonialism and so on. Take this from a paper by Connell about ‘Decolonising the Curriculum.’ She writes, ‘The dominant knowledge formation is not so much Western as imperial. The scientific revolution was interwoven with the expansion of European empires.’ This is nonsense. What did the scientists who gave birth to the modern world Copernicus, Galileo, Newton  have to do with European colonial expansion?

When one looks at Iran or North Korea and wonders how their citizens believe the poison their leaders exude one has only to look at the nonsense emanating from our universities to conclude that people will believe anything given the right circumstances. What we need is not a ‘decolonised’ curriculum but an honest account of who we are and how the modern world emerged.
Tony Letford is a freelance writer.

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