I once found myself in a nondescript hotel at the tail end of breakfast; it was just me and the…
Stuart Grant, a well-dressed, bespectacled philosophy academic at Monash University, awoke on a brisk mid-November morning last year to find that he had incurred the wrath of a conservative shock jock after offering Melbourne’s Sunday Age a rather innocuous description of how he spends his Sundays. In the article Grant said that he liked to read philosophy, sip tea, stroll in the local gardens and cook Chinese food with his wife. There was also a photograph of him looking slightly morose wearing black glasses and a hat. The shock jocks didn’t need to say much. Their minions leaped at Grant with the spit-flecked brutality of schoolyard bullies.
“Glasses are always a dead giveaway of the chronically self-absorbed,” said one commentator. “Dead set, this fool needs to go and work at a real job,” shrieked another. Many were variations on an early commenter who asked “Why are we paying for this?” Others were more personal: “If you look up poseur in the dictionary there’s a picture of Stuart Grant.” One shock jock, hardly renowned for his emotional sensitivity, later thought it necessary to remove some comments for being too “mean”. We might reassure ourselves that this kind of aggressive ignorance is the peculiar province of only a small group – that the rest of Australia is more empathic and sage. But I doubt it. Just two months earlier the Coalition had vowed to cut down on “ridiculous” academic research singling out four examples of scholarly “wastefulness”: a project on climate change, another on public art and two on European philosophy. And before this, Labor had announced that they would fund education reform by slashing University funding.
Given that thinkers are crucial to universities – Australia’s third-largest export industry – you’d be right to query the sense in these policies. Social function aside, our economy needs tea-sipping philosophers. But the vitriolic reaction to Stuart Grant’s forgettable description of what he does on a Sunday shows why it makes sense to attack the academy. It wouldn’t make sense in most countries but here in ‘Straya’, we don’t give a rat’s about academics. University academics make a perfect target because, like few other Western countries, Australia hates thinkers.
In contrast to France where Alain Badiou’s new theoretical insights make the front page of Le Monde or England where Slavoj Žižek writes regular columns in The Guardian, academics are noticeably absent from the opinion pages of Australia’s newspapers. France has an entire radio station devoted to intellectual thought (France Culture) where fervent abstract debates rage in precisely the same morning segments when our own radio waves are held hostage to the bilious bleating of shock jocks.
In Australia, sadly, the public sphere is determined by the media and the media seek out media personalities, not experts. Sociologists Nick Osbaldiston and Jean-Paul Gagnon in 2013 found that only 5% of panellists on the current affairs show Q&A had a research background. For the most part, complex policy is discussed in vapid tweet-sized sound-bites by columnists and politicians. Even those few academics who engage in public debate become celebrity heads for single-issues. There is simply neither the media space nor the inclination to nurture public intellectuals who could interrogate, inquire and offer an independent dissenting voice on a broad range of themes.
I am not arguing that only those with a degree should be able to comment on public debate. We need commentators from all walks of life. The problem is that as a country we are hostile to those who are well-educated. We prefer home-spun wisdom to years of research. Our language is peppered with snark reserved for those who think for a living: ‘chattering classes’, ‘latte-sipping libertarians’ and ‘intellectual elites’. When we want to emphasise the importance of an idea, we say that it is ‘not just academic’. Any idea that takes longer than a nano-second to understand is howled down. Or perhaps more accurately, any idea that threatens conservative orthodoxy is consigned to the divine irrelevancy of the academy. Politicians can be former Rhodes scholars without being criticised for being out of touch with ‘the common person’. But if you devote your life to thinking about how the world can be a fairer place then you’re most likely a pretentious snob.
There’s no doubt that Australia is a vast, sunny intellectual gulag. The question is why. It’s certainly not for of want of thinkers. We’re home to some brilliant minds, including Nobel-prize winning author J.M. Coetzee, Michelle de Kretser, philosopher Peter Singer and feminist Annamarie Jagose. Yet how often do we hear them speak? Why aren’t they chased down for their opinions on policy and social issues rather than wheeling out ageing politicians and professional laypeople again and again?
Historian Mark McKenna has argued that our anti-intellectualism has its roots in British working-class culture, but I think that it stems equally from our efforts to separate from Britain. Australian history is popularly told as a story of democracy, equality and classlessness that broke from Britain’s stuffy hierarchical elitism. It’s a place where hard yakka, not birth, will earn you success. And by hard yakka we don’t mean intellectual labour. Of course equality is a great goal, but we’ve interpreted it to mean cultural conformity and anti-intellectualism rather than a redistribution of wealth and power. The lowest common denominator exerts tyrannical sway and tall poppies are lopped with abandon. Children learn from an early age that being clever is a source of shame. It’s cool to be ignorant.
Our models of masculinity and femininity also leave very little room for cleverness. For women, intelligence equates with a dangerous independence that doesn’t sit well with your role as a docile adoring fan to the boys at the pub. Wit and erudition mean sexual unattractiveness. For men, carrying a book and using words longer than one syllable is a form of gender treason. It’s as good as wearing bumless chaps to a suburban barbecue. Real blokes have practical wisdom expressed through grunts and murmurs. Real Aussie chicks just giggle.
But perhaps thinkers are also to blame for our intellectually impoverished public sphere. Some academics may be reluctant to climb down from their ivory towers out of a snobbish disdain for the ‘vulgarity’ of popular debate. It’s like going from Brahms to Vaudeville. For others, there’s simply the problem of being burdened by excessive administration and teaching loads. Fearful of the economic precariousness of freelance work, thinkers are co-opted into a university machine which places no value on publications produced for popular audiences. Employment and research grants are based exclusively on publishing within specialist academic journals. Contributing to popular debate is an activity pursued in retirement.
And then there is the problem of the unhappy marriage between academics and social media. Intellectuals usually offer cautious, well-substantiated commentary which shows the complexity of issues, rather than zingy tweet-sized solutions. And they are often emotionally ill-equipped to deal with a knife-drawn public prone to Goldstein-style two-minute hate rituals. Social media doesn’t democratise debate. It limits it to the resilient. Venom triumphs over insight and commentary is reserved for those with voluminous folds of scar tissue. Sensitive thinkers rarely fit this bill.
If hatred of Australia’s thinkers comes from their supposedly ‘elite’ status, then this antipathy is hopelessly misdirected. Intellectuals both outside and inside the academy earn humble wages, work ridiculously long hours and usually with a noble goal: to create knowledge that will make a better world. In a bizarre twist of logic Australians have come to see elite multinational companies as having the same interests as the everyday person and academics as haughty public menaces. The former exists only for their own profits, the latter commits the crime of thinking about people.
There is nothing natural or inevitable about this unhappy state of affairs and the popularity of new forms of media offering critical perspectives like New Philosopher magazine, Daily Life and now Womankind, may signal brighter times ahead. Smart doesn’t always have to come last to wealth, fitness or beauty and historically speaking it hasn’t: Australia led the world on issues of women’s enfranchisement, the eight-hour day and anti-discrimination law. Behind each of these policy innovations lay a tea-sipper like Stuart Grant, creating knowledge not to make money, but simply to understand and improve humanity.