Quick Post: Walter Murdoch on why we need universities

I am on a constant process of trying to be a better version of myself.  There are few better ways of doing this than comparison with heroes: what is it that I admire about others and how could I better reflect that in myself?  At its worst, this is an open invitation for my neuroses and anxieties to wreak havoc upon my self-esteem.  Why am I not better?  Because I am lazy.  Because I am stupid.  Because I let opportunities slip.  Because I’m tired.  Because I stretch myself too thin.  Because I’m scared.  At its best, it’s an opportunity to think about how I can use my talents, skills, and aptitudes to do things that I haven’t thought of doing.  How could I have done something better?  When so-and-so came up against a similar problem, she resolved the issue differently.  Could I have resolved it that way too?  If the opportunity arises, will I resolve it that way too?

Australia has a lot of uncelebrated heroes.  We have a generation more familiar with the writers and thinkers of other countries than they are of Australia.  I very frequently raid secondhand bookshops for collected essays, biographies, and lectures by Australians only a few generations old.  This has resulted in both rather a pleasing — but disappointingly incomplete — library of Australiana, filled with nuggets of some of Australia’s best writers.

My favourite Australian writer is, and will continue to be, Geoffrey Sawer.  He is my ideal public intellectual: he genuinely thought that there would be a receptive public audience to engage on questions about Australia’s legal system and about legal questions more generally.  I hope that, some day in the future, I manage to find a similar niche for myself.  I’m not an ambitious person, but this is my hope.

But there are others in this pantheon of writers and thinkers, and the pantheon continues to grow.  I’m currently trying to chase down a collection of David Unaipon’s opinion articles, but suspect that I might have to cause them to be curated.

I am rereading La Nauze’s biography of Walter Murdoch (uncle of Rupert) and came across this quote from an article he wrote in the 1920s called ‘Thoughts on a Kerosene Tin’:

And so, if any reader has had the patience to follow the argument to this point, our reflections on a kerosene tin have led us to a plea for the University.  For what is a university?  It has recently been defined as ‘the guardian of the intellectual interests of the community.’  It is a gymnasium for the training of competent leaders in every field in which competent leadership is needed if a community is to thrive.  If we think we are rich enough to prefer incompetence (the costliest of all public luxuries) we shall leave our University housed in the impossible ramshackle where it now lies huddled, and we shall continue to starve it, to thwart its effectiveness, to limit its activities, and to stunt its growth.  Higher education costs a great deal of money; but not a millionth part of what it costs to do without higher education.  The policy for the University at present is, I take it, to bear up against adversity and do its best to get ready for the time when it will be wanted.  It will be wanted when the community wakes up to the ruinous cost of muddle and incapacity and the dear old amateur in general.  Arcadia is a delightful country; but only millionaires can afford to live there.

I wonder what Murdoch would have to say about the modern Australian university.  The dominant narrative about universities in Australia pushes the view that universities exist in order to promote economic outcomes.  They are training centres for undergraduates who can work in white collar jobs.  They are training centres for masters students who can work in middle management.  They are training centres for PhD students who can work in industrial R&D companies.

Research, on the other hand, is an activity that occurs for end users outside of the university, regardless of whether or not the end users want it.  Again, economic arguments are used.  Why does the cashier at Coles pay tax so that the university can exist?  What’s in it for them?  What care do they have if this or that department, school, or faculty should cease to exist?

Universities fail students because the funding mechanisms to educate them provide the wrong incentives.  The government sets a dollar value per student and then compels universities to teach each student within that funding envelope.  Students see themselves as customers, who pay for an education and therefore should get the education that they want.  Students also have in mind their ideal employer, and they want an education that will look attractive to that employer.  Students are also time poor, often with conflicting work commitments which are necessary to keep them from starving or freezing.

So nobody in this mish-mash has an incentive to ask: ‘What is a good education?’

I was very lucky.  I didn’t choose my undergraduate degree, even though I had the opportunity to choose whatever degree I wanted.  As a result, I was able to obtain an education that pushed me to be a different kind of person by the end of it.  My degree was transformative.  It didn’t prepare me for any specific job, but it made me focus hard on the sort of person that I wanted to be by exposing me to a lot of the best people from history.

Had I chosen my degree, I’d have chosen poorly.  I’d have done Science or Commerce, thinking that I needed to get a Future Job.  In doing so, I would have missed the opportunity to develop as a person.

Tertiary education focuses too much, I think, on giving students the freedom to choose whatever they want and then pushing them through exams as cheaply as they can.  The constant focus on examination, the stifling structure of the 6-unit subject, and the pandering to students’ misguided expectations means that we miss the opportunity to challenge students with the risk of failure.  How can students expect to become leaders if universities refuse to demonstrate leadership?

Put another way, I wish universities would ask: ‘What sort of student do we want to produce?’

At the University of Marktopia, I want BA students to graduate with a broad appreciation of history, culture, and the arts.  I want them to have specialised in a particular field, informed by their general knowledge of music, literature, and philosophy.  I want them to be able to write and to argue, to deliver a rousing speech and to pen an engaging essay.  Their honours years are dedicated to advanced study in their chosen field, capped with a research essay.

My BSc, BEng, and BEc students would graduate knowing an Asian or European language so they can access the latest research from the non-Anglophone world, and so that they can communicate their own research to non-Anglophone audiences.  I want them to be able to communicate complex mathematical and technical information to a wide range of audiences.  Their honours year is dedicated to science communication and public policy, taught in HASS departments.

My medicine students and law students would all be postgraduates, already holding a BA and/or a BSc.  My medicine graduates have both an understanding of medicine, but also of broader social issues related to medicine.  My law students would cover the Priestley 11, specialise in a particular field of law (public, private, international, military), and be able to champion change and critique of the politico-legal system, informed by contemporary legal theory.

This is entirely unrealistic.  We all know that the University of Marktopia is full of students asking if the whole semester is examinable.  Most of them probably don’t even show up to lectures.


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