This book raises some vexed issues about the state of repair of the "house of intellect" in Australia at the present time. It is suggested that three factors have been operating over some decades to undermine the vigor and credibility of scholarship in the social and political sciences, even at a level where one would expect high standards to be maintained. The three factors are (1) the explosion of numbers in the universities and the associated volume of  research and publication, (2) the politicization of large tracts of the social sciences and humanities and (3) a shift in the progressive political program from economics and equality to a whole range of issues, and with it, an overwhelming tone of moral snobbery. If case my critical comments are considered to be too harsh I would like to say that I will stand on common ground with anyone else who is concerned about the future of the humanities in the universities.

See the Postscript for a revised take on the Barry Hindess contribution.

The purpose of  Us and Them is to expose and criticise the conservative, or neo-liberal “big end of town” elites who, it is claimed, have mobilised populist rhetoric to discredit the leftwing “new class” elites and their programs. The book contains eleven chapters after the introduction by Sawer and Hindess. John Higley and Jan Pakulski write on anti-elitism as a political strategy; Marian Sawer reviews the record on populism and public choice in Australia and Canada; Tim Dymond sketches a history of the new class concept in Australia; Damien Cahill describes new-class discourse and construction of the left wing elites; Steve Mickler addresses the anti-elitists on talkback radio; Carol Johnson notes the international influences. Sean Scalmer and Murray Groot describe the contribution of News Limited; Shaun Wilson and Trevor Breusch pursue the linkages between various groups and some of the contested issues in public policy; Michael Pusey explains why we feel let down by economic reform; James Walter argues that anti-elitism is driven by the need to defend an unpopular economic reform program; and Barry Hindess claims that there is a neoliberal push to undermine the traditional humanistic and civilizing function of the universities.

By the usual academic standards this is a reasonably presentable product, with a nice mix of history of ideas, international comparisons and local evidence. Top quality would be expected because the project was supported and workshopped extensively at the highest professional level. The idea of the collection arose in a discussion in the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia at an Academy Colloquium in November 2002. With financial support from the Academy and also the National Institute for Social Sciences and Law the papers were extensively discussed at a workshop in July 2003. The editors acknowledge that “This workshop provided an invaluable opportunity to exchange ideas across a wide range of social science disciplines”.

Having written that the product is “reasonably presentable”, a caveat has to be inserted, along the lines that something has gone wrong in the profession so that “the usual academic standards” are not good enough. This is a heavyweight production because nine of the fourteen contributors are of professorial or senior research associate rank. However, practically every chapter has the tone of a party political pamphlet. The authors write as though anyone who dissents from their negative view of economic rationalism, the classical liberal agenda and the conservative political parties must be uninformed, acting in bad faith or pursuing a dubious ideological agenda. This bias results in unsustainable claims, for example Damien Cahill wrote “…the Liberal-National coalition government, in demonizing large sections of the population, such as trade unions, welfare recipients, Indigenous Australians and migrants, has pursued a two-nations hegemonic strategy”. Apparently it is beyond his ken that reasonable people can be well disposed towards trade unionists, people who are unable to work, indigenous Australians, migrants, women and gays, even the environment, while at the same time being concerned about the abuse of trade union power, the problem of poverty traps in the welfare system and the failure of Indigenous policy over the last three decades. Michael Pusey offers a soft target with another iteration of his discredited commentary on the on the consequences of economic reform. Detailed comments here will be restricted to the contribution from  Barry Hindess.

Barry Hindess and Kant on the universities

Hindess wrote "This chapter focusses on the elitism that [neoliberalism] claims as its particular target. I argue that this elitism is associated with, and is in many respects the product of, a once-powerful view of the place of the university, and of humanities education more generally, in the overall government of a modern state."

In his view the people who emerged from the civilising parts of the universities in recent times are critical of economic rationalism and so the neoliberals have hit back  to undermine the civilising role of the academies. This counter-attack is supposed to proceed on two fronts (a) attacking the intellectual products of the agents of civilisation and (b) limiting the resources devoted to their production. So the main theme of  the chapter is the claim that the neoliberals want to destroy the traditional civilising function of the university in favour of the narrow technical function to produce skilled people for various essential services.

To provide historical perspective he describes Kant’s distinction between the higher and lower functions of the university. For Kant the “higher” function was to serve the interests of the government and the “lower” function was to look after the interests and development of the particular sciences (essentially all fields of scholarship). For Kant the “lower” function was all-important as a domain of free play of ideas and criticism where the state had no business to interfere, in contrast with the “service” faculties which have to be useful in immediate and practical ways.

In those simple times the higher faculties were theology, law and medicine while the lower was philosophy, bearing in mind that everything under the sun came under the heading of philosophy, hence the modern doctorate which can be in any discipline at all. Similary “science” did not have a narrow or techncal meaning but simply meant a disciplined and systematic approach to a topic, whatever it might be, including angling and spin bowling (and especially off spin).

He seems to think that governments are increasingly acting under the influence of the subversive, neo-liberal view to displace and devalue education in the humanities, just because that kind of education is low in the scale of values of neoliberalism. No statements by spokespersons of neoliberalism are provided to support that rather large claim. The implication is that neoliberals attach little or no value to a liberal education in the humanities and they are threatened by people who call neoliberalism into question.

He notes that the idea of training in critical reflection and the case for academic freedom has always created tension but in my view the tensions were healthy until the post-1968 prominence of the adversary culture in the universities. That is the active promulgation of radical Marxist and other leftwing ideas which tend to undermine the rationality and civility of intellectual discourse and also the institutions and traditions which promote freedom and prosperity for everyone.

A major assumption on the part of Hindess and his colleagues is that the leftwing critique of economic rationalism is valid, both at the level of the classical liberal "big picture" and at the more restricted level of policies designed to free up the economy. It can be argued that the case for the civilising function of the humanities in their present form stands or falls on the quality of the scholarship that is brought to bear on those issues (among others) and the quality of the discussion that is generated. It is not hard to demonstrate, on the basis of a dozen or score of books that have been produced to criticise "economic rationalism", that Hindess and his colleagues have failed in the most basic requirement of critics, which is to understand the body of ideas that they find objectionable. The example of Robert Manne is particuarly illuminating on that score, after openly admitting that he understood no economics he nevertheless declared himself opposed to economic rationalism from the start (in his introduction to The New Conservatism) and he later edited a major collection of critical papers. And this is the man voted by his peers to be the leading public intellectual in the country!

The role of the university in the governance of society

After noting Kant’s view of the dual role of the universities Hindess proceeds to a broad treatment of this topic, starting with Locke and Adam Smith where market interaction itself was seen as a powerful instrument for civilisation, reinforcing and even inculcating such virtues as prudence, diligence, punctuality and self control. That notion is carried forward to the present day and he draws a strong contrast between

"the modern idea of the university that stresses the civilising influence of a stratum of cultivated individuals [and] neo-liberalism [which] emphasises the influence of markets and related patterns of interaction…If civilised habits of self-regulation can be promoted in the course of interaction with others, the need for a university-educated stratum of cultivated individuals may be less than the idea of the university suggests…The influence of neo-liberalism thus reflects an increased reliance on governmental mechanisms that aim to enroll individual self-interest in the regulation of conduct, and a corresponding decline in the influence of those that operate in other ways."

This is a remarkable claim, supported by no evidence, that the neo-liberals are consciously aiming to replace liberal education (as a civilising influence) with the discipline of  markets. Some textual evidence would be helpful but none is provided, merely the suggestion of a  strange conspiracy theory. The economic neo-liberals who came to notice as the "New Right" of the seventies and eighties at first had little to say about the aims of education because economic policy was the main concern at the time and the first recruits to the movement were mostly economists. I am not aware of any supporter of free enterpirse and classical liberalism who has any reservations about maintaining flourishing schools of humanities in the form that existed prior to the rise of the adversary culture on campus and the invasion of fads and fashions like deconstruction (which is not to say that the field is supposed to resist all innovations and advances in thinking).

Nor am I aware of anyone who would want government policy to shift in the direction of greater reliance on self-interest to  promote civilised behaviour because it is still seen as the role of parents and others nearby to bring up children with decent values and manners. New Labor in Britain has apparently moved the nanny state in the direction of policing manners and attitudes and if Hindess sees this as a threat I will agree with him.

The peculiar elitism of the modern idea of the university

A central part of the Hindess argument is that the civilising function of the university, when it is working properly, really does produce

"more cultivated or enlightened [people] than their colleagues in the ‘higher [service] facilites’ over whom they are expected to exercise a critical oversight. More important is the suggestion that those who benefit from a university education [especially from the “moral cultivation” part] will stand in a similar relation  to the rest of the population…[consequently, the university] will tend to foster among certain of its teachers, and among their more successful students, the not altogether unreasonable belief that not only are they more knowledgeable in the areas of their respective specialisms than others but also that their capacities for critical reflection are more highly developed. In short, they are encouraged to believe that, at least in certain respects, their capacities for political and ethical reflection are superior to those of their fellows."

From this follows the superior attitude to the cultivated graduates regarding the great unwashed and the dreadful people like John Howard who they elected several times. The problem is that they believe too much of their own publicity and their superiority has to be demonstrated, not asserted. For example, where were the cultivated guardians of public morality while thugs were attacking people attending One Nation rallies? While the teachers unions quietly undermined the effectiveness of the public education system? While pomo derecinated the humanities? While trade unions militants on the waterfront and building sites used violence and intimidation to pursue their ends?

On the topic of the Dawkins reforms and subsequent changes to the universities, it is not necessary to postulate a plot on the part of the neoliberals, it is more obviously an attempt to make the system financially  viable after the growth of numbers under the old “free for all” system got out of hand. Instead of accepting the simple facts of the matter, and maybe expressing incredulity at the mixed bag of policy responses to it (a la Andrew Norton), Hindess has made very large claims about the moral superiority of the kind of people who contributed to this book.

The future of an illusory elitism

Hindess sees the future as bleak for his kind of university,  where the economists would be kept in their place by people of cultivation. He links his case to the paper by James Walter where it is argued that the fashionable "anti-cultivation" mode of thinking favours a transnational elite, thereby making the conspiracy worldwide! The credibility of this kind of argument depends on the capacity of the left elite to subject the agenda of economic rationalism to valid criticism. Their efforts to date are not impressive, as noted above in relation to the books that purport to demolish economic ratinalism which fall at the very low end of the academic scale of quality.  As for the critique of the classical liberal agenda in the broad, the preliminary efforts by David McKnight (Beyond Left and Right) and Kevin Rudd (in his talk to the CIS) simply demonstrate that they have not understood the target of critcism. This raises major issues about the level of discussion of these matters among the teachers, colleagues, friends and advisors of David McKnight and Kevin Rudd (now PM).

The same issues are raised by this collection of papers. How has it become possible for what is effectively an extended political pamphlet to pass as an addition to scholarship, with the blessing of the Academy of Social Sciences and the National Institute for Social Sciences and Law? Three factors appear to be at work.

First, the disappointing standard of scholarship in much of the social sciences and humanities, despite (or because of?) the explosion of numbers in the universities and the associated volume of  research and publication in the last half century. 

Second, the politicization of large tracts of the social sciences and humanities.

Third, a shift in the progressive political program from economics and equality to a whole range of issues, and with it, an overwhelming tone of moral snobbery.

The first factor is an international phenomenon which has been decribed in
some detail by Jacques Barzun. The problem of growth in the academies is treated in The American University (1968) and the more general problems of standards are addressed in the The House of Intellect 1958. For the social sciences there are major works by C Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (1963) and Stanislav Andreski, The Social Sciences as Sorcery (1972). Their critiques have made no noticeable difference and it appears that people read them to enjoy the dissection of rival schools without paying attention to the chapters directed at their own mistakes.

The second factor is also international and it occurred in Australia between about 1965 and 1975. The significant thing is that it occurred so long ago that people need to be well over fifty years of age to have any recollection of a different state of affairs. It seems that the nature and significance of this change has not been explored and documented in any detail because no professional social scientist has anything to gain in terms of popularity, reputation or career advancement by doing so. More is said about this in a review of a collection of papers on the achievement of Geoffey Blainey who suffered severely in the process.

The third factor was identified by Andrew Norton, blogging on Catallaxy, when he noted a shift in the leftwing social reform program from the simple class-based critique of capitalism to a suite of progressive issues. These have little or nothing to do with class but they have been tacked onto the socialist shopping list of reforms, along with a new set of theoretical critiques (radical feminist, queer, postcolonial, Deep Green etc). At the same time, Norton suggested that “from the 1960s on [the left] increasingly defined themselves against a majority who held the wrong attitudes. Instead of attacking the rich, they attacked ’society’.” Consequently, moral snobbery is now an important element of left culture, and this is apparent in most of the statements that are made with regard to current affairs.

The contribution from Barry Hindess exemplifies some of the questionable analysis that pervades the whole book. Confronted with the post Dawkins university reforms he is driven to find a sinister neoliberal "hidden hand" at work but a more realistic account would ascribe the changes to a somewhat schizophrenic mix of two objectives, one being financial viability and the other being increased  efficiency and accountability. The first is sensibly pursued by HECS and cognate reforms, the second is dogged by absurd expectations of the gains to be made by bureaucratic interference with the work of academics.

In conclusion, this book cannot be recommended for its insights or its analysis. Rather, it represents a phenomenon that calls for investigation in its own right. It seems to spring from a pervasive climate of opinion in the academic community that is so narrow in its ideological range that contrary opinions have apparently ceased to register, except as an aberration among people who are considered to be either ignorant or misguided. If this statement is too harsh I would like to say that I am more than willing to stand on common ground with Barry Hindess and anyone else who is concerned about the future of the humanities, to resist the timeless forces of anti-intellectualism and muddled thinking that Jacques Barzun has identified better than most in books like The House of Intellect and The American University.

Postscript. Barry Hindess has indicated in private correspondence that I have misread his argument. It seems that he is depicting a conflict between two kinds of elitism, each of which he deplores. This is contrary to my initial impression that he approved of the function of the humanities to enhance the moral sensitivities, judgement and discrimination of students to produce left liberals like himself. The downside of this, which I lampooned, was the assumption of moral superiority as a result of the process.

Maybe he could have made this position clearer, in any case my commentary needs to consider each of his arguments in turn. First the idea that there is a sinister worldwide encroachment of neoliberalism in the academies. I think this is an over-simplification of  a complex of developments, some of  which make sense (more user pays, a la HECS) and some of which do not (micromanagement of academics). Still, if that is a concern I would like to see what he thinks should be done about it.

Second, the description of the traditional "elitist" aim of the humanities is left hanging without any  clear indication of the way the system might be modified to produce better results. I think the traditional approach can be defended if it provides a platform for lifelong learning, with some exposure to the best that has been said and done in the relevant field and some understanding of the housekeeping rules of the "house of intellect" that Barzun wrote about.

Whether or not the traditional model of the university tends to produce people with undesirable elitist tendencies (including a sense of moral superiority) it seems that certain types of  leftwing indocrination do have that effect, and I think that is demonstrated by the tone that pervades this collection of papers.
Marian Sawer and Barry Hindess (eds), Us and Them: Anti-Elitism in Australia, API Network, Perth, 2004
the Rathouse