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The 'radical scholar' in today's universities

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 27 March 2013

From time to time I read accounts of how today's universities are in crisis, in one way or another, or from one cause or another. You will hear, for example, that our universities are broke, or that 'research' has driven out 'teaching' as the point of the university, or that everything has been 'dumbed down', or that 'managerialism' is in control, or that vice-chancellors are paid too much, or that the Left has taken over. It is eleven years since I stopped working in a university, twenty-five years since I was running a department, and thirty-four since I was teaching students. What would I know about today's universities?

Well, only what I read, but I can easily remember the way things were in the 1960s, as a young academic, and the seventies, as a young professor. There was never enough money at any time, though higher education was still growing. I learned how to raise money for research because at most times you needed to do that to accomplish what you wanted to do, despite the existence of the Australian Research Grants Committee, the precursor of todays's ARC. Universities couldn't go broke, because they were funded almost completely by governments. If a building burned down, as one did at the university where I was an undergraduate in the 1950s, it was replaced via a government grant.

There weren't many managers. There was a Registrar, who was a kind of secretary, and a Bursar, who was a kind of Treasurer. It was a while before Vice-Chancellors had a Deputy. The computer belonged to Physics. The Librarian had power. Research was important but not dominant. Teaching occupied your mind, your time and your energy while it was on: you just had nothing left for the book or article you were supposed to be writing, and vacations were for that purpose, once you could get past reading essays and marking.


Someone led me to the website of a geographer at the University of Melbourne, Simon Batterbury, and a piece he had written on 'the radical scholar'. In my early days such people were Marxists, and in the seventies the Marxists were joined by those who wanted 'gender studies'. By and large they had a voice, and were protected even by those who disliked what they stood for, on the ground that universities ought to be safe havens for people with unpopular ideas.

Dr Batterbury's essay is worth reading. He sees 'radical scholars' as people who are there 'supporting the vulnerable, environmental causes, justice in many forms, attacking corrupt regimes and institutions, and exposing hypocrisy - particularly in capitalist regimes'. They have 'enriched' the university, and seem now not to be the minority in terms of prevailing thought, but the majority.

If I follow his argument correctly, these academics can build effective and notable careers as long as they bring in research money, because that is the now the real test of the virtue of an academic. And the successful ones do just that. What they don't do, any more, is go down the old Marxist path of building alliances between 'students and workers'. One reason they don't is that to get the grants they need to publish, and that means ignoring everything else, including the needs of students and of their colleagues. Some of them are selfish.

Another reason for their lack of interest in 'activism', hinted at rather than asserted, is that by and large they have populated the wider community with former students who think rather as they do. Anyway, union membership is down to 18 per cent, and most workers are uninterested in an alliance with students or even academics.

I rather felt, having read his essay a couple of times, that Dr Batterbury was rather critical of all this. And (if he's right about the reality) so am I. But then, I'm an old-fashioned logical positivist, who likes good questions, and good argument and data. Words like 'justice' and 'equality' are slippery even in theory, let alone in the real world. Why academics, as academics, should be involved in 'environmental causes' also escapes me. I would have thought that one studied them.

Max Weber and his most brilliant student Robert Michels made an important distinction between studying human activity and supporting it. I think it was Weber who said that if an intellectual really wanted to help a cause then he should do so by stuffing envelopes, or some other humdrum but useful work: if you enlist your intellect in the cause, he warned, you will corrupt your intellect. It still seems like good counsel to me.


OK, I'm beyond the pale. I feel that that just as academics of an older time supported the status quo, so do today's, with all the righteous indignation of our government about the dispossessed and disadvantaged. If that is the case, then who are today's radical scholars?

I am beginning to think that the real radical scholars in today's universities (and I'm talking throughout this essay about academics in the humanities and the social sciences) are those who try to examine the world dispassionately, and are not driven by a burning conviction that this or that aspect of contemporary reality is fundamentally wrong and must be remedied - with the help of a research grant.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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