A Case for Restoring Universities

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Email Sent 10/6/10

Professor Clive Kessler
Monash University

Re: 'Caught between a postmodernist and a hard case', The Australian, 8/6/10

I was interested in your observations (outlined below) about the adverse effects of postmodernism and managerialism on universities (especially in their social sciences and humanities faculties), and would like to complement this with observations about similar problems in other areas, and thereby make a case for restoration of universities. In brief it is suggested below that:

  • real world damage as a result of postmodern assumptions (ie that social knowledge is primarily a matter of opinion) was already obvious a decade ago (eg in the form of: ineffective governments; dysfunctional behaviour in the community; and long terms risks to key institutions);
  • it is critically important that social sciences and the humanities regain strength and realism (eg to: reduce international tensions; ensure Australia's ability to cope with its emerging environment; reduce the disadvantages facing Australians with indigenous ancestry; and improve support to the democratic system); and
  • the collateral damage to universities and public services from past attempts to boost economic productivity and ensure unquestioning political compliance was unnecessary. Better options were, and are, available.

I would be interested in your response to these speculations.

John Craig

Outline of Article and Detailed Comments

My interpretation of Kessler C., 'Caught between a postmodernist and a hard case', The Australian, 8/6/10: There is a need to consider how postmodernism conquered the universities - noting its dominance in social sciences and humanities faculties. This can be seen as a consequence of contest between 'critical humanists' and 'post-classical discursivists' - and it affects the nature of scholarship and its effect on public culture. Older critical social sciences collapsed, and were displaced by post-disciplinary postmodernism. This has occurred world-wide. This started with economic crisis of liberal world in 1970s (symbolised by end of Bretton Woods, the oil crisis, virtual bankruptcy of New York City, limits to growth arguments, and post-1968 intellectual watershed). The shift was highlighted by Edward Said's extremely influential 1978 Orientalism. Said discredited traditions of disciplinary expertise. Epistemological indeterminacy, in which there were no longer any master narratives, was the new dominant view. Postmodern students must master the epithet 'essentialist' and sneer at any older claims of scholarly standing. Yet the problem was recognised earlier - as what some call the philological fallacy (the view that culture is basically language, especially grammar, and that all human sentiment, action and history are expressions driven by the logic of grammar). The older philologists, and their Orientalist approach, could be criticised - as they paid excessive attention to what they knew (ie language / grammar) but over-rated it. Now after the postmodern revolution scholarly authority is grounded in 'Western discourses about the Malays' rather than on actual knowledge of Malay language, culture, society or history. This has been a costly / tragic displacement. Scholars are ever less able to understand what is going on - and there is no arguing over differences of opinion. In the face of religious fundamentalism and racially 'essentialist' challenges, scholars invoke notions of differences but can't defend freedom against encroaching authoritarian bullies. 30-40 years ago interdisciplinary approach to problems were emphasised (because real-world problems were broader than specialised disciplines). Yet critical thinking had to be grounded in defined intellectual traditions - even when challenging them. Efforts were made to master several disciplines - seeking a convergence / confrontation of disciplines. But efforts at knowledgeable, effective interdisciplinary study have been trumped by a shallower post-disciplinarity - which seeks to discard disciplines. There has been no defence of disciplines, because of institutional weaknesses associated with top-level managerialism. Managerialism from above has combined with postmodernism from below to erode the legitimacy and intellectual authority of disciplines. Much contemporary scholarship is irrelevant to real human challenges. Terrorists confront those upholding human values, and all scholars can say is that each side has its own narrative. There is thus a need for effective critical thinking - which must be aware of its own foundations. This must arise within the framework of disciplines. The alliance of managerialists and postmodernists has led to advance of neo-liberalism associated with managerialist modes of enforcement. The post 1989 world was seen to demand the breaking down of national boundaries - and of disciplinary boundaries. Neo-liberalism had to prevent effective intellectual critique. Critical humanist social scientists were caught in a pincer movement. Managers saw them as a source of destabilizing intellectual criticism - and not good for business expansion. The social sciences were seen to be largely negative / unconstructive - merely critical / destructive. Only what managerialists saw as positive was supported (eg human / industrial relations; and studies of culture / communication focused on IT). Critical social theory shrank. Edwardo de la Fuente ('Vampires latch onto learning', HES, 26/5/10) argued that post-disciplinary enterprises are vampires - yet they seem more like cannibals (ie feeding on great minds of earlier times). New insurgencies against today's entrenched orthodoxies must be expected in future

Some observations about the real-world damage that was already apparent a decade ago from the postmodern assumption (ie that competing claims to knowledge primarily reflect differences of opinion) was presented in Competing Civilizations (2001). The latter referred to apparent problems affecting: government; the community; liberty; democracy; egalitarianism; the rule of law; and education. For example,

'Managerialism' eroded the human capital of public services a decade or two ago, just as your article suggested that it did in universities. 'Managerialism' basically involves the notion that managing is a generalist function, and does not require specialised knowledge of the particular function being managed. 'Managerialism':

  • has a close parallel with the postmodern view that claims to knowledge in human affairs are merely a matter of opinion;
  • suited elected politicians who could therefore justify appointing cronies to 'senior' positions; and
  • often resulted in 'senior' positions being occupied by persons with limited professional knowledge or experience. Thus:
    • the professional credibility of 'senior' staff was vulnerable to being exposed by subordinates with greater knowledge and skills. So pressure to eliminate subordinates with any depth of experience or knowledge of government functions increased - and much valuable public human capital was lost. Concerns about 'bullying' in public administration increased (eg see Driven to Distraction - which highlights the linkage between this and the breakdown of the Westminster tradition of an independent professional public service). Similar problems seem to arise within universities - noting the claims of a 'climate of fear' at the Queensland University of Technology in relation to a dispute which basically related to a postmodern approach to scholarship (A Crisis in Education at QUT?, June 2007);
    • the effectiveness of governments declined dramatically (see Decay of Australian Public Administration, 2002 and The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service, from 2001).

The community generally has been adversely affected by dysfunctional behaviour by individuals, presumably due to a breakdown of established ethical foundations of moral interpersonal relationships. And as a result the state is being pressured to claim moral authority - and this puts individual liberty, and its political and economic advantages, at risk (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty in Australia's Governance Crisis).

Attacking the concept of 'public truth' has serious longer term implications for society generally. Democracy revolves around policy debate, which is meaningless without 'public truth' (ie the concept that all will generally accept the validity of particular statements). Similar constraints apply to a rule of law. Egalitarianism is also put at risk, because in the absence of 'public truth' national unity can only be ensured by social hierarchy - as demonstrated by the example of East Asian societies (see below).

Note added later: In 2014 an observer who had undertaken Arts studies through Monash University suggested that there was a lack of practical realism in the Australian humanities (ie a 'desire for a fairer society without adequate regard for the complexities and may complicate or explain policy possibilities or limitations') [1].

It is critically important that the humanities and social sciences regain strength, and contact with reality. Many reasons can be suggested for this. For example,

  • international tensions arise, and have the potential to translate into conflicts, because cultural differences have major practical consequences which no one currently seems to be seriously analysing or attempting to resolve. This issue was explored in Competing Civilizations (from 2001). In particular, Islamist extremism arguably arises because it is assumed that the political and economic failures experienced by Muslim dominated societies in the Middle East are primarily due to 'external oppression'. However, while those societies often suffer from a 'resource curse' similar to that affecting Australia, their primary difficulty appears to arise from 'internal oppression' related to communal constraints on the change prosperity requires. While extremists are being resisted by Western powers, it should be far easier to defeat ignorance in the academy than it is on the battlefield (see speculations about this in Discouraging Pointless Extremism, 2002 and About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science, 2005);
  • serious risks to Australia's prosperity, status and security appear to to be emerging which demand a more 'real world' approach to social sciences and the humanities (eg see Moving Australia beyond Traditional Multiculturalism). For example:
    • education of children under the proposed National History Curriculum might provide them with a great deal of information about diverse influences on Australia, but not ensure their ability to understand: (a) the difference between what works and what doesn't work; and (b) the foundations of their own society (see Proposed National History Curriculum: Information without Understanding?, March 2010); and
    • at another level the lack of Asia-literacy by opinion leaders and political decision makers has potentially serious consequences (see Risks to Australia from Asia-illiterate Policy Makers, May 2010). For example debating the implications of a possible Resource Super Profits Tax without awareness of its different impact in an 'Asian' context relative to a 'Western' context could be extremely costly. More generally there is a need to recognise the relationship between postmodernism and the intellectual traditions of East Asian societies with an ancient Chinese (rather than the West's classical Greek) heritage. The (east) 'Asian' tradition basically denies the relevance of abstract knowledge. This has diverse consequences including: authoritarianism; the absence of a rule of law; disregard of individual rights; and a requirement for high rates of savings that are macroeconomically unsustainable and put the international financial system at risk (eg see East Asia in Competing Civilizations, 2001; Babes in the Asian Woods, 2009, Understanding East Asia's Economic Models, 2009, and Creating a New International 'Confucian' Political and Economic Order, 2009).
  • the severely disadvantaged position of Australians with indigenous ancestry can probably not really be reduced until they seriously consider the constraints on their capabilities that have a cultural origin (see The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement, 2002);
  • one of the consequences of loss of intellectual capital in public services has become political populism - ie electoral support for policies that sound trendy to opinion leaders though they are unlikely to achieve much in practice (see On Populism, from 2007). Australia's Westminster traditional depended on professionally competent public services to provide a 'reality check' on wilder political ideas. There is a close parallel between restoring real knowledge in university social science and humanities faculties and the restoration of professionalism in public services. Moreover defeating political populism requires better information to support the democratic system both inside and outside the machinery of government.

In your article you suggested that neo-liberalism has been aligned with postmodernism in undermining support for real knowledge of society and the humanities. This is certainly a reasonable conclusion from a 'university' viewpoint, but is less relevant more generally (eg in public services, this process was primarily abetted by politicisation). Pressure was placed on universities to emphasise commercially relevant functions because of a need to boost economic productivity - and this was seen, by generalist 'managers' operating under instructions to boost commercial returns, to require dispensing with supposedly-dysfunctional humanities activities. However there were serious limitations in the methods chosen to improve economic performance - because:

  • requiring individuals / organisations to compete does not ensure their ability to do so in productive functions, and the broader systemic requirements for their success may neither exist nor be created (see The Inadequacy of Market Liberalization); and
  • the unintended consequence of viewing market mechanisms as the best way of boosting economic prosperity included inhibiting the ability of universities and public services to undertake roles that were essential for other reasons (see Neglected Side Effects).

There were, and remain, far better market-oriented options for boosting economic productivity that do not require the collateral damage inflicted on universities and public services (see A Case for Innovative Economic Leadership, April 2009).

Other Concerns about University Educational Practices

Other Concerns about University Educational Practices

In universities, budding teachers can be inculcated with deep antipathy to Western culture, cred and citizens

Scott Morrison is right to blame school teachers for Muslim children walking out on national anthem. The problem begins in universities where budding teachers are encouraged to embrace profound antipathy to the West. Student teachers are now often taught critical theory or post colonialism as part of arts degrees. Both seek to inculcate deep antipathy to West's culture, creed and citizens. This has neo-Marxist roots whose source was Harbert Marcuse a leading figure promoting anti-Western revolution. Paulo Friere (a celebrated education theorist) was inspired by neo-Marxism and Marcuse. Friere founded critical pedagogy which argues that the purpose of education should not be to teach students how to think but to actively teach them what to think. The teacher and student are placed on same level and required to become revolutionaries against 'oppressors' (ie anything associated with worldly success). Friere regards education as an instrument of 'cultural revolution' rather than a means for learning how to think.  Teachers should commit themselves to the people by using classroom to foment revolution against the core values of Western education (eg celebration of individual genius and achievement (individualism); freedom of intellectual inquiry; and pursuit of objective truth. Frantz Fanon, the chief architect of post-colonialism argues that education should be used to foment leftist revolution. He celebrated Islamism as a revolutionary activity - advocating a combination of militant socialism and neo-Marxist minority politics as the basis of war against the West. he sought not only the end of colonialism but destruction of Western civilization through attack on its core values (eg individualism). Post-colonialism / imperialism is increasingly offered by Western universities and is the third most commonly offered history subject. Australian teachers study in this cultural context and graduate into public school system where state-designation minority groups have superior status. Anti-discrimination and vilification laws create obstacles for teachers who might advocate Western values. If she had wanted to promote social cohesion the principal of Cranbourne's Carlisle Primary School would have faced many risks in requiring all students to sing the national anthem. The Victorian Government endorsed the student walk-out in terms of promoting religious and cultural inclusivity - and next year will introduce subjects on 'world views and ethical understanding'. Educational and legal systems need to be reformed to promote values that sustain the free world. Til then teachers will be taught neo-Marxism and students will continue walking out on the anthem as an expression of cultural inclusivity. [1]

Political correctness has led to an expectation of activism in pursuit of causes that are assumed to be 'progressive' which makes it impossible for universities to be places where contentious ideas are debated

Taxpayers are now funding 'whiteness studies' in Australian universities. This reflects self-loathing of politically-correct mindset which has become a reactionary force in society. With the demise of socialism, being politically-correct has come to be associated with being 'progressive'. It used to be regarded as inappropriate to judge people by the colour of their skin. But now there is concern about 'white skin privilege'. Noel Ignatiev (a leading in the area) regards the white race as historically constructed social phenomenon - and that all who have white skin have special privileges. The fact that some 'white' people are poor, while some non-whites are prosperous seems incompatible. Those who participate in critical race theory are expected to engage in political campaigns for 'race conscious mobilization' - a notion that would have fitted in well in Nazi Germany. There are campaigns about young blacks being shot by police, but no concern about much larger numbers who are killed in gang violence. Police are presumed to be guilty irrespective of the facts or evidence. Police thus feel threatened, and are reluctant to pursue law enforcement in the way that had been reducing homicide rates. 'Whiteness studies' is the logical end point of a loathing of Western civilization - and an exultation of the 'other'. Concerns about (say) women's rights (eg in relation to genital mutilation) disappear when doing so could be seen to conflict with the perceived importance of culture and identity. This has made it impossible for deal with genital mutilation and forced marriage in Britain. The emergence of scholarship as activism has destroyed universities as places where contentious issues can be debated. However political correctness has started devouring its own, as students are terrified about the consequences of saying anything that might offend anybody.  [1]

The intellectual openness and truth-seeking boasted of in academe is sometimes a sham, overrun by prejudice and willful blindness  (see CPDS comments in People Who Dismiss Christian Faith Because They Know Better are Building their Houses on Weak Foundations).

Some people believe that they have understood everything and thus that faith reflects immaturity. David Hume and Bertram Russell argued that faith was impossible. Evolutionary biologists argue that the family (and affection for children) is just part of delivering the next generation. Sociologists argue that a nation is just a larger tribe - so patriotism is silly. Everything is corroded by the notion that everything can be seen through - so seeking to understand what life is about is futile. There have been serious attacks on religion - and the anti-theologians of 19th century (eg Nietzche and Feuerbach) posed challenges to Christianity that are far more significant than the new atheists. Feuerbach saw theology as mere anthropology - as people projected their own goodness onto a non-existent deity while retaining for themselves the less attractive attributes of humanity. Christ as the objective basis for Christian faith disappeared altogether. The authenticity of Christianity depends on whether the transcendent exists (ie a reality that we have not chosen but has been revealed - a reality that we could not have known about unless it was revealed). Most Christians see this transcendence as a divine supernatural being who created everything, gave us law and sent his Son as a saviour. Nietzsche showed this god to be dead [CPDS Comment: Nietzsche did not seek to prove whether or not God exists. He merely argued that, if Atheists believe that God is dead, they should also abandon belief in any absolute morality. And Atheists' assumptions in relation to this are clearly merely assumptions]. Thus supernaturalism (ie belief in the transcendent) became impossible for serious thinkers. Many assume that this requires abandoning religion altogether. But there is another way of doing theology which is not super-naturalist. This starts with Jesus as an objective reality. He is one who turned everyone's 'religion' on its head.  Those who oppose Christianity need to do serious work - not just point to the fact that the Church has at times been controlled by evil men and that supernaturalism is no longer relevant. However academics have a skepticism that prevents them even considering what Jesus introduced [1].



Another 'home' for universities

Another 'home' for universities (email sent 5/4/11)

John Armstrong,
University of Melbourne

Re: Calling the humanities home, The Conversation, 4/4/11

Your article drew attention to the fact that there has been a gulf between business and the humanities, and that ‘business’ (through Michael Andrew, Chairman of KPMG, and chair of the BCA’s education taskforce) “wants to see our universities educate people as leaders, as good communicators and as fruitful collaborators.”

May I respectfully suggest that there are other ‘homes’ to which the humanities also need to be called? Senior government officials were long characterized by humanities qualifications. The need for the humanities to now ‘come home’ to government is illustrated by Competing Civilizations (2001) which argued that: (a) differences in cultural assumptions (which are the business of the humanities) are increasingly important factors in world events; (b) the world is running off the rails partly because few have been paying attention to this; and (c) the trend towards postmodern assumptions in Western humanities faculties has had serious practical consequences. Moreover issues that are (or should be) the business of the humanities are also central to Australia’s future strategic position (see Comments on Australia's Strategic Edge in 2030, 2011).

A suggestion (which also amounted to ‘calling the humanities home’) was outlined more fully in A Case for Restoring Universities (2010).

I would be interested in your response to the above speculations.

John Craig

Universities are not just of economic value

Universities are not just of economic value (email sent 15_4_11)

Julie Hare
The Australian

Re: Universities' value to economy 'overlooked and underrated', The Australian, 15/4/11

Your article commented on presumably valid arguments by Melbourne University vice-chancellor, Glyn Davis, to the effect that universities have economic value that is not always being recognised in current policy decisions.

However universities have potential value to the community in ways that are not simply economic (eg in providing sophisticated understandings of options available to community leaders and to governments), and these also need emphasis (see Another Home for Universities). The latter commented on the importance of mobilizing the capacity of universities in relation to development of public policy options.

In recent years decades Australia’s universities (like its public services) have arguably had their motivation and ability to provide the support needed for competent government eroded (partly because of a political desire to maximize their economic value as pseudo-businesses), and this has contributed to growing crises (see Decay of Australian Public Administration, 2002; Australia's Governance Crisis and the Need for Nation Building, from 2003; and A Case for Restoring Universities, 2010).

The need to do more than mobilize the economic value of universities can be illustrated by the fact that Australia’s international environment is dominated by challenges related to the rise of ‘Asia’ on the basis of systems of socio-political economy that are radically different to, and arguably incompatible, with Western models that Australians are familiar with. Despite the significant policy implications of those differences (see Risks for Asia-illiterate policy making) those who provide support to governments in developing policy responses have no way to properly understand the situation they are dealing with, because universities seem either unable or unwilling to do more than propose boosting the Asia-literacy of children (see Understanding China: Focusing Education on the Under Fifteens Would be Fatal).

Unless the expectations of universities’ contribution are lifted, Australians future prospects will be severely constrained.

John Craig

TEQSA: Will Micromanagement Again Triumph over Government? +

TEQSA: Will Micromanagement Again Triumph over Government? (email sent 27/4/11)

Brendan Sheehan,
Inter Mediate Government Liaison and Advisory,
c/- Luke Slattery, Higher Education Editor, The Australian

Re: ‘New standards agency loosens grip of states’, The Australian, 27/4/11

Your article suggested that the establishment of TEQSA (Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency) which is being proposed to take over the regulation of universities would finally “crush the states’ residual role in higher education”. Well bully for the federal government.

A reasonable case can be made that an unintended consequence of federal funding of universities since the 1970s has been to limit the need for interaction between universities and regional communities, and that this has been one (but certainly not the only) factor in the increasingly poor quality of government that Australia has suffered in recent decades (see The Advantages and Limitations of Financial Criteria). The latter refers to universities as one example of a general point (ie that, while control of financial inputs has value in many circumstances, this also has limitations, especially in relation to ensuring the effectiveness of the complex functions that governments are involved in). In particular the weakness of Parliamentary oversight of a state administration seems to be due to a lack of practical and up-to-date contributions to state public policy debates, and this arises partly because universities no longer need to be relevant to state administrations.

Establishing TESQA is inconsequential. It merely demonstrates and marginally increases the already massive constraint on the effectiveness and efficiency of Australian government that arises because the federal government lacks the statesmanship to rise above an obsession with micromanaging constitutional state functions.

A back-to-basics emphasis on ‘governing’ by the federal government would probably go a long way towards an across-the-board improvement in the efficiency and effectiveness of governments in Australia – for reasons that are outlined in An 'efficiency dividend' seems an inefficient way to improve efficiency. The latter argues that: (a) large savings are likely from eliminating the complexities and inefficiencies associated with massive federal fiscal imbalances; and (b) trying to improve the federal government’s financial position by ‘penny pinching’ is likely to have the reverse effect, because it will supress the competencies required for governing properly.

John Craig

More on: Will Micromanagement Again Triumph over Government?

A response to the above email was received on 28/4/11 from an observer with an interest in tertiary education.

In brief: attention was drawn, by way of background, to: (a) a general view within government that accountability is tied to public funding; (b) the many examples where universities are working together with state government and industry, particularly in Queensland; (c) the limited government funding of 'public' universities, the high level of government control over their activities, and the extension of this (under TESQA) to private education providers; and (d) a mistake that had been made in the identity of an Australian editor.

In reply, the following email was forwarded to that observer on 28/4/11

Thanks for your observations relating to my comments on Brendan Sheehan’s article in the latest Higher Education section of The Australian. If you have no objection, I would like to reproduce them on my web-site (with TEQSA: Will Micromanagement Again Triumph over Government?), together with the following.

In response to your observations it is noted that:

  • While accountability validly attaches to public funding, there are massive imbalances in the availability of financial resources between the federal and state government under Australia’s current tax systems– and the federal government’s efforts to micromanage state functions (because of their fiscal strength) seriously distorts and complicates government activities (see Federal Fiscal Imbalances in Australia’s Governance Crisis and the Need for Nation Building);
  • There are many situations where governments are wise not to seek to exert control. For example:
    • Government control over most of the economy (ie activities that are not subject to serious market failures) is counter-productive. Traditional socialist systems under which governments seek to own and control the means of production generally encounter many difficulties – because of: limits to the rationality of central decision makers in dealing with complex situations; and constraints that apply to democratic governments in particular (see Attachment G referenced in Economic Challenges have no purely political solution);
    • Even where governments provide funding for functions, they have often found it beneficial to avoid using that as the basis for controlling operations (eg consider the funding of government auditors / anti-corruption watchdogs, and the attempts often made in the past to establish ‘semi-government’ agencies – whose ability to be freed from political constraints was seen to be essential to their ability to perform their technically complex functions).
    • When the notion of semi-government agencies was scrapped because of the belief that quasi-market mechanisms would be a better way of controlling many public functions, Queensland did not proceed down the privatisation path, but rather favoured ‘corporatisation’ (ie the establishment of publicly owned, but theoretically market-oriented, companies). This generated massive conflicts – because of the expectation that such companies would be responsive to both ‘customers’ and the political pressure from interest groups who wanted outcomes other than those in the interest of ‘customers’ (see comments on Queensland Infrastructure System);
  • While there is a heavy interaction between governments and universities (especially in Queensland), this is not constructive in terms of generating better understanding of the requirements for effective government or economic success. Having spent ‘n’ years seeking to stimulate civil institutions to take some serious interest in this, I can assure you that the situation has been and remains bleak. In Queensland the state government has pursued a stupid (and expensive) ‘Smart State’ program – whose aspiration has been to force economic diversification by ‘political push’ (ie by governing funding an increased supply of ‘smart’ economic inputs such as higher education and R&D). This is ineffectual because providing inputs to economic systems that are insufficiently developed to use them constructively is a formula for waste. And government efforts to compensate by themselves providing ‘assistance’ to potential innovators has the effect of stifling real development of the economy (see What’s wrong with government assistance to fill market gaps). The ‘demand pull’ alternative is to boost demand for those ‘smart’ inputs by an initial emphasis on creating effective commercial capabilities to productively use them (see Commentary on 'Smart State': Illustrating Queensland's Lack of Serious Public Policy). Thus perhaps I should have argued that there is a need to change the character of the interaction between universities and state governments (see Breaking the Iron Triangle – ie the relationship between universities as lobbyists for government funding, business who wants to avoid having to take serious economic responsibility and naïve politicians);
  • The situation facing universities which you point out involves about 50:50 public and private funding and government attempts to exert 100% control illustrates the need to rethink the way in which such functions are undertaken. In this regard it is noted that (to reverse recent declines in economic productivity and take the pressure off currently-overstretched governments) there is probably a need to democratically empower new classes of entities to stimulate accelerated development in economic and social systems whose effectiveness would depend on being able to avoid political control over outcomes, even though there might be a need for some public funding of the process (eg see A Case for Innovative Economic Leadership);

Thanks for your advice about Julie Hare becoming Higher Education editor. When one relies on Internet sources, there is always a danger of making mistakes

John Craig


Bringing linguistics in from the margins

Bringing linguistics in from the margins (email sent 15/11/11)

Annabelle Lukin
Macquarie University

Re: The paradox of Noam Chomsky on language and power, The Conversation, 14/11/11

I should like to provide some feedback in relation to your very interesting article concerning the limitations of Noam Chosky’s approach to linguistics (ie the view that language in endowed with a universal structure) which makes it essentially irrelevant to helping in understand real world issues (eg what seems to be the US’s ‘permanent war economy’).

Some comments that I had on a contacts’ views about Chomsky’s Sydney presentation may illustrate what I am getting at:

“With respect Chomsky (and the Occupy the World) movement are full of garbage.

The global financial / economic crisis is as much due to non-capitalistic economic models as it is due to capitalism (see World facing 'Crisis of non-Capitalism': Non-economist). Globalization has increased global equality (because many hundreds of millions were drawn into global market economy – and experienced rising incomes). Free trade is not the problem – rather the problem arises from the inability of some societies to benefit from it because of rich natural resources and cultural constraints (see Problems with Conventional Wisdom) and the general failure to consider those obstacles. Protectionism is not the answer to anything – because all this does is create weak industries and low incomes. A proactive approach to developing economic capabilities is a far better option (see A Case for Innovative Economic Leadership). There are several different types of problems with democracy: (a) a lack of discipline in public spending in some situations – as illustrated by California and Greece; (b) the lack of institutional support to the democratic process – so that half-baked ideas get acceptance (see Challenges to Australia’s Democratic Institutions); (c) political weakening of support institutions in order to prevent overly-simplistic policy options being exposed (see Ill-advised 'Reform'); and (d) the distortion of the political process by powerful self-interested groups (eg the military industrial complex in US).

However responsibility for many of these problems falls on people like Chomsky – because of their ignorance and laziness. In order to change what is produced by the democratic process there is a need for realistic and practical proposals for alternatives. And these simply have not been forthcoming – and neither Chomsky nor the Occupy the World Movement seem interested in or capable of generating such options. A lot of the world’s problems (including economic weaknesses, autocratic governments and conflicts) arise from the failure of the humanities and social science faculties in Western universities (ie people like Chomsky) to consider the practical consequences of differences in cultural traditions (eg see Competing Civilizations ). This is not something that can be done by business and political elites in Western societies (because it is outside their field of knowledge). It had to be done by people like Chomsky (and those participating in the Occupy the World movement) – but they have simply not gotten off their backsides in recent decades.”

Your article pointed to Chomsky’s desire to assume that language is endowed with universal structure – and to other linguists’ contrary understanding. However the problem goes much deeper, because not only are languages different but ways of thinking are dramatically different, and this has massive implications for societies’ ability to achieve material prosperity (differences in which give rise to many conflicts). For example Western societies think in terms of abstract concepts, whereas these tend to be rejected in East Asia (which does not have the West’s classical Greek heritage) – see East Asia in Competing Civilizations. Moreover the use of abstract concepts as the basis of rational discourse only works in Western societies because simplified social environments have been created (eg through a rule of law) in which ‘rational’ decisions are likely to be effective. In more complex environments ‘rationality’ tends to fail (as shown by literature related to management, public administration and economics), and it certainly fails in societies which the simplified social environments needed for individual rationality do not exist.

Other observations in relation to your article are:

  • The US failed to save Vietnam from Communism because of its failure to understand the way its people think – and the incompatibility of the US’s ‘democratic capitalist’ ideal with people who think in terms of community rather than individual action. I have recently revisited Vietnam (after wandering around with a rifle in 1968) and found that the ‘shanty town’ feel still prevails and the only noticeable difference is that people ride motor cycles rather than bicycles, and the peasants have better quality black pyjamas. The lack of progress relative to societies that rejected Communism and adopted neo-Confucian models (as China, for example, did in the 1970s) is dramatic;
  • It was failure in Western universities (especially in humanities and social science faculties) which left US political elites with no understanding that their methods in Vietnam would be unlikely to work, and that there were better alternatives. Communism was rejected in the USSR when the people understood that it could not work – not because of military action;
  • Similarly the US’s efforts to graft democratic capitalism onto Iraq and Afghanistan are unlikely to be effective (eg Fatal Flaws). Once again there were alternatives that could have reduced the security risks posed by Islamist extremists that would have been more effective than military action (eg see Discouraging Pointless Extremism, 2002). And again it was the fault of people like Chomsky that alternatives to military / security responses to attacks by Islamist extremists were not presented to global political leaders (ie alternatives that would have allowed potential recruits to the Islamist cause to understand that Islamism would not work in practice, and that the way Islam tends to be enforced, rather than external ‘oppression’, is a largest part of the problem facing Muslim dominated societies) ;
  • Similarly the emerging potential conflict between the US and China is arising because of the failure of Western humanities and social science faculties to demonstrate to Western political leaders the practical consequences of differences in cultural assumptions, and thus that ‘soft power’ techniques would be better than military confrontation in defusing the risks of such conflicts (see Comments on Australia's Strategic Edge in 2030).

I would be interested in your response to the above speculations.

John Craig

It is not only Science that is Under Siege

It is not only Science that is Under Siege - email sent 15/6/12

Clive Hamilton,
Charles Sturt University

Re: Science under siege, The Conversation, 14/6/12

Your article highlights the abuse that is sometimes directed against mainstream climate scientists, but did not mention the abuse that can be directed against those (such as myself) who advocate also giving serious consideration to (say) non-anthropogenic theories of climate change. I can vouch for the fact that such abuse can be quite vigorous.

The problem here can’t be solved by mere name calling (eg labelling people ‘climate deniers’, as your article did). There is perhaps a need to stand back from the climate-science debate and consider a bigger picture view of the challenges facing science.

A speculation about the limitations of science and the consequent emergence of frictions is in How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking'? Though this was written with a different goal, it highlights fundamental questions about the reliability of knowledge – and, as knowledge is the primary business of universities, I submit that universities need to do some serious work on the philosophical questions that are raised by this and also by the emergence of post-modern assumptions (which effectively deny the relevance of supposed knowledge) in the social sciences and humanities. Some broader (though undoubtedly inadequate) speculations on the reliability of knowledge are in Confusion of Knowledge in Competing Civilizations while challenges to Western-style traditions of abstract thought have been suggested to be emerging from East Asia's Confucian quite-different traditions (see Competing Thought Cultures).

Problems related to the reliability of knowledge in an increasingly complex environment have also affected governments very generally (see Challenges to Australia’s Democratic Institutions in Australia’s Governance Crisis and the Need for Nation Building). The latter refers to symptoms of confusion about knowledge in terms of trends over the past couple of decades towards: (a) politicization so that public services are dominated by ‘yes men’ who do not point to any limitations in overly simplistic policies; and (b) gaining electoral support on the basis of overly-simplistic ‘populist’ policies.

Some preliminary speculations about what may be needed to overcome the problems facing effective governance in Australia are in A Nation Building Agenda. The latter includes suggestions about making universities more effective by: (a) reducing political demands to do inappropriate things; and (b) addressing confusions that are emerging about the nature and relevance of knowledge such as those associated with: postmodern assumptions; and the limitations of rationality, science and philosophy.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

The Humanities May be Thriving - But Universities Aren't

The Humanities May be Thriving - But Universities Aren't - email sent 28/4/15

ABC Four Corners

Re: Degrees of Deception, 21/4/15

I was interested in this episode because of parallels that seem to exist between deteriorating standards in Australia’s public services (with which I am very familiar) and public universities. The latter seemed to be to be afflicted by politically-driven ‘reform’ processes that were quite similar to those that led to problems in public services and other government institutions.

The ‘reforms’, intended to improve the political responsiveness and ‘business-like’ performance of such institutions, involved: (a) senior appointments which conformed with what political leaders believed was needed – rather than what experience dictated; (b) a belief in ‘managerialism’ (ie the view that management did not require deep knowledge of the issue being managed) which excused appointing inexperienced cronies to ‘senior’ positions; and (c) an attempt to apply ‘business-like’ methods in institutions whose core functions were not actually ‘business-like’.

An account of the reasons that the ‘wheels fell off’ public services as a result of such treatment is in Decay of Australian Public Administration (2002) while references to numerous resulting dysfunctions are included in The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service (2001+). In Queensland, the newly-elected ALP government seems (about 20 years too late) to have recognised that there is a problem – but is arguably not taking that problem seriously enough to actually fix it (see A Westminster-style Professional and Independent Public Service: Good Idea but Wishing Won't Make it So, 2015).

Some observations about the impact of similar (but not identical) influences in universities are in Restoring Australia’s Universities (2010). The latter drew attention to the impact of managerialism and of attempts to make universities into businesses. It also emphasised the pervasive influence in humanities and social sciences of ‘post-modern’ assumptions – ie that much ‘knowledge’ (which is universities’ main ‘product’) is merely a social construct which reflects political assumptions. That post-modern view:

  • closely parallels the politically-convenient managerialist viewpoint (ie that one does not actually need to know much about something) to manage it; and
  • has arguably been having a devastating impact on societies such as Australia in many ways (see Confusion of Knowledge). Adverse effects can be suggested in relation to: government effectiveness; communities; liberty; democracy; egalitarianism; the rule-of-law; education; the advancement of empirical knowledge; and human progress generally.

The problems related to the quality of Australian universities that Degrees of Deception identified may be merely the tip of an iceberg (eg consider also A Crisis in Education at QUT, 2007+).

John Craig