The Ruins of the University

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Lately, we’ve heard an enormous amount about elites, (aka latte sippers). A project for the future might be a post to put to rest this tenacious fallacy forever (I live in hope generally…). Often these dreaded elites are associated with universities. As the news breaks that Dr Brendan Nelson has knocked back some Australian Research Council recommendations for grants, all those lefty academics in their ivory towers are no doubt cowed into submission. What’s academic freedom, after all, when national priorities and political correctness are at stake?

A much more interesting way of looking at the elites vs. battlers debate is to accept the premise that there are competing elites, and competing visions of the good society. This is something done very well by ANU sociologist and political theorist, Professor Barry Hindess, in his chapter in Us and Them: Anti-Elitism in Australia. An edited version is in the Higher Ed supplement of The Australian today, but it’s not available online.

Hindess points out that the version of elitism often attacked in the public domain is one with a long history – the production of reflective citizens through a humanistic education. This is not an innocent programme, and in the past it’s been closely linked to broader ideas of governing the state. In neo-liberal governmentality, Hindess suggests, a different elite is interested in producing a different sort of citizen – self-disciplining, responsible and self-interested.

Hindess writes:

If this is the case, then the future for the modern idea of the university and its associated elitism looks bleak. The neo-liberal focus on the governmental uses of individual self-interest suggests that we should be suspicious of those who claim to act on non self-interested motives and of the elitism that claim entails. But it also calls on the specialised expertise of those who have been trained to understand the workings of self-interest and how it can be used in the regulation of conduct. In place of the cultivated intellect, it favours the specialised skills of the economist. It thereby displaces the role of one kind of intellectual elite by the very different role of another.

The book looks interesting, and it might be a good starting off point for some broader reflections on elites, anti-elitism and contemporary politics and public life.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

What about that hotbed of elitism, funded pretty much entirely by taxpayers money, whose students often go onto fame and fortune without having to repay anything to the State – the Australian Institute of Sport?

Why not privatise that given the corporate sector ends up finding work for most of its outstanding graduates eventually.

“Thorpey says it’s fully sick.”

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

If they are going on to fame and fortune then perhaps it is the last place to start. Maybe tax-payers don’t mind funding that.

In fact maybe tax-payers won’t mind funding any of it and a less draconian outcome that results in the loss of babies with bathwater etc might be possible. Maybe elites might try not to be so irritating and having achieved this there will be less blood on the lattes.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

‘In place of the cultivated intellect, it favours the specialised skills of the economist.’

So I guess the universities will soon be teeming with clones of that untutored Quiggin character. Never even learned to shave, let alone read. The economist’s motto: ‘Books are for Chooks!’

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yes, James, I did wonder if Barry’s been too hard on economists – since we have some cool ones like Prof Quiggin and Jason Soon gracing the blogosphere. I also believe that enrolments in economics are well below their peak. I suspect his point is more about the sort of calculative rationality that’s embodied in several sorts of courses as opposed to humanistic studies…

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

“If they are going on to fame and fortune then perhaps it is the last place to start. Maybe tax-payers don’t mind funding that.”

I do. I’m in the top tax bracket which I think is too much anyway and so I certainly mind how my money is spent by others.

So elite athletes, how about kicking some of it back into the country whose taxpayers funded the body that helped develop the skills that made you rich and famous, instead of fucking off to low or zero tax havens like Florida, Monaco or the Bahamas.

If you agree with HECS and “user pays” for some fields, then why not all – especially sports where you have to succeed in the ultimate free market that rewards elitism.

“Faster, higher, richer.”

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’m inclined to agree, Nabs. Also, having recently visited David Jones, I’m underwhelmed by Thorpey’s skills in underwear design…

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

I don’t disagree very much at all, Nabakov, I’m just suggesting it might not be the place the barbarians would want to start.

I hope my team doesn’t do too much damage to humanistic studies per se, the good fight belongs within in humanistic studies not with humanistic studies. Though wars are like that I guess.

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

jason soon isn’t cool. He doesn’t wear a suit. I rest my case.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

“He doesn’t wear a suit.”

He doesn’t? Debag the rotter and chuck him in the fountain. And then pelt him with empty champers bottles.

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

Like Nab I can’t wait till Nelson gets into the hot beds of elitism and feather bedding all over Australia. He could start with that molly coddling Institute of Sport in Canberra where spoilt mothers boys get fed, clothed, washed and bedded at taxpayers expense in order that they might pursue their hobbies 7 days a week. Why should these drug addicted freaks of nature who just happen to have an unnatural and basically useless skill in handling a round object be cosseted prior to them going on to a life of “sales and marketing” jobs in tax avoiding corporate Australia.

Then let him start in on the featherbedding that any sports freak is supplied with in employment in this country. At a basic level there is the sports injuries put down as work place injuries and fixed at taxpayer and workcover expense. Then there is the slack cut for these boofheads to attend practice and competitions not to mention the sickies and tax deductible donations made to these beefed up steroid junkies “expenses”. What about the cost to the taxpayer of the numerous court cases or hush money paid to the sexually assaulted young women who sometimes get sick of saying yes to doing their bit for Australia by donating head jobs, gangbangs and general sex slave duties for our Aussie Sports heros on trips away from the wife and kids.

Our hospital emergency departments are crowded with hundreds of these semi fit chimps and their drunken mates having their sports injuries fixed every weekend at taxpayers expense.

Not to mention all the time on the ABC radio and TV devoted to these brain dead goons indulging in their hobbies. Must amount to millions. Go Brendan Go.

wmmbb
2022 years ago

Mark:
Which university is that in the picture? I suspect it is not even Australian. How can that be elitist?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Cambridge, I think, wmmbb. I didn’t want to pic any particular Australian university for obvious reasons…

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

Nab. I used to think Jason Soon was an intelligent, if misguided at times, young lad. But then he came up with this post on wearing suits to work.
http://badanalysis.com/catallaxy/index.php?p=406

Oh dear.
Not only that. He revealed in the course of the discourse that he wears a T -Shirt to work.

This is what this once great country of ours has sunk to.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

At least he doesn’t wear those awful Thorpey t-shirts, Francis…

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

“Which university is that in the picture?”

“Cambridge, I think”

Oxford damnit! The other place has grey brown stone and less pointy bits.

Frankly this elitism shit doesn’t go far.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

…enough.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’m open to offers of sponsorship for a study tour to teach me the difference between Ox and Bridge…

mark
2022 years ago

fewer pointy bits, Nabakov. If we’re going to discuss being elitist we can at least get our grammar right…

Sometimes I think this “lefties are elitist!” business will never get resolved. After all, the people that need to be dissuaded are ignorant righties… and they’re not smart enough to read any arguments against the “elitist” crap.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

“In neo-liberal governmentality, Hindess suggests, a different elite is interested in producing a different sort of citizen – self-disciplining, responsible and self-interested.”

I think this gets Hindess, or at any rate “neo-liberal governmentality”, subtly but importantly wrong. You will struggle to find any modern liberal – apart from a few Randian nutters – who advocates self-interest (though some early liberals did contrast it favourably with crazy religious passions etc) or sets out to create self-interested citizens. Rather, it is *assumed* that people will be self-interested. You don’t need to advocate what you assume exists. Much liberal social theory is about how to design institutions to control that self-interest and to channel it into positive activity. There is a separate argument about whether or not these institutions in practice promote self-interest. Robert Frank is the most respectable advocate of the view that they do. But if true that is a side-effect, not an aim.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Andrew, Hindess, I think, would argue that the creation of institutions to channel self-interest promote self-interest. I doubt that he believes that people are naturally self-interested. As a sociologist, I suspect he thinks that people aren’t “naturally” anything.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Mark,

This is a deeply interesting post, worthy of much reflection by raising thorny issues.

I think that talking about “elites” affects the debate to some extent as it is not value neutral, and conjures, for me at least, a pejorative connotation. Anyway, that is just a semantic quibble.

I think what we are talking about here again are values and their degradation.

Since Prof Quiggin has been mentioned in the thread, isn’t the “self-interested”

Scot Mcphee
2022 years ago

Do we know what it was that Nelson knocked back?

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

I suspect that the exemption of the AIS from HECS is because of one or both of two things:

1. It is closer to vocational than higher education, and there is no HECS for vocational education.
2. It is not funded by the Department of Education, and so slipped off the HECS radar.

Education funding has far more to do with history than logic or principle. If we did do things rationally AIS students would be charged an appropriate amount.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Scot, I don’t think we know yet. Andrew, do you know what the process is? I think the Minister’s signature was normally regarded as a formality – given that the ARC process is so intensive and apparently rigorous. I understand a mass of work goes into an ARC application – so the call for some guidelines as to what might be rejected would certainly help people allocate their time properly, as well as smoke out whether Nelson has an agenda.

On the AIS, it may well be considered voc ed but it’s enormously more expensive per person, I’d have thought. And aren’t there some rumblings about HECS for TAFE?

Gaby, thanks. What Hindess is saying is probably not too far from the “homo economicus” but extending the same principles of caclulative rationality into other domains than the strictly economic. He wouldn’t be saying by the way – I was thinking about this in terms of my quick response to Andrew – that people are tabula rasa. It’s a given that in our culture, we tend to be fairly individualistic and also self-interested. What matters is the way this is either harnessed or shaped. The traditional elites were to be trusted precisely because they were not supposed to be governed by self interest but by a “higher” principle (whether cultural, nationalistic or a sort of raison d’etat). That may or may not have been so. But Hindess is certainly suggesting what is a long held theme in sociology – that we have come to a pass where Weber’s “specialists without spirit and sensualists without heart” rule. That also implies, as Weber suggested, that in the sphere of values we have to find some way to reconcile “warring gods” and the instrument we have chosen is markets and quasi-markets, but also the internalisation of risk acceptance, entrepreneurship and a competitive shaping of the self to be a certain kind of productive citizen.

Hindess is very much in the Foucauldian tradition.

Foucault wrote:

“We must cease at once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.”

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Under the ARC Act the ARC makes recommendations to the Minister as to which projects ought to be funded. He is within his legal rights to reject these recommendations – he is the person who is accountable for this spending. The ARC has ‘reserve’ projects that will get funded in place of rejected projects. Overall, the success rate this year was higher than in the past – the most important variable remains the amount of money available, not Ministerial discretion.

I’m not too worried by this. There can be very minor differences in the worth as determined by the panels of recommended and reserve projects.

If people don’t think unfettered Ministerial discretion is a good idea, one alternative would be to copy a provision of the course funding legislation, which is to give the Minister power but to make his decision disallowable by either house of parliament.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Andrew, I wonder though if this is comparable to Nelson’s campaign against “Capuccino Courses”. I think giving either house a power to disallow the Minister’s decision might be a good idea in principle, but I guess a bit empty after 1 July. What I’m interested in is whether the reasons and scope of the Ministerial decision have been made public.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Mark – So far as I am aware there has been no statement from the Minister on this. I don’t expect one.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks, Andrew. I think that such determinations ought to be made public – at least in terms of reasons and the research questions. It would be better if the identity of the researchers were protected.

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