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So much for liberal education

By Gregory Melleuish - posted Friday, 7 January 2005

A recent article in The Economist (reprinted in The Australian on December 15) bemoaned the lack of political diversity in American universities. It contended," “Academe is simultaneously both the part of the US that is most obsessed with diversity and the least diverse part of the country".

It pointed to a survey of more than 1,000 academics that showed that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by something like seven to one in the humanities and social sciences.

If the situation looks lopsided in the US, a country that has a large and relatively diverse university system, then it is nothing short of desperate in Australia with its small and homogenous set of public universities. The lack of intellectual and political diversity in the humanities and social sciences in Australia is perhaps their most significant defining feature.


No surveys have been conducted, but any sustained contact with the humanities and social sciences in Australian universities brings one face to face with a stultifying conformity that is soon quite mind-numbing. There is the obligatory Howard bashing, anti-Americanism and belief in the depraved past of both Australia and Western civilisation. Academics in these areas are possibly the only group in the country, outside doctors’ wives, where Green voters are in a majority.

Such conformity has dire consequences. Our intellectual life is defined by its plural nature. It is, as Michael Oakeshott expressed it, a continuing conversation, but that conversation is composed of thousands of smaller conversations that sometimes separate and sometimes entwine themselves around each other. We require such a multiplicity of conversations because the ideas that humans produce are as various as human nature and the circumstances in which people find themselves. To reduce that multiplicity to a singularity is to reduce our appreciation of the human condition to a very narrow focus. In the context of the university, it leads to an intellectually impoverished environment for students. Students should be provided with a range of ideas so that they can examine for themselves both the virtues and the weaknesses of particular intellectual positions.

To collapse many conversations into one is to reduce the vitality of the intellectual life of a society or culture. For ideas to develop and grow, individuals holding those ideas must be in touch with those who hold different positions so that they do not grow complacent and arrogant in their own rightness.

Unfortunately, this is not the situation in Australia and much of the blame can be attributed to the intellectual conformism of academics in the humanities and social sciences and their unwillingness to concede the moral legitimacy of those with whom they disagree. The history wars can be understood in these terms.

A conformist academic establishment stifles debate by declaring the moral illegitimacy of all those who disagree with it. This prevents any form of vigorous conversation occurring within the universities. Instead, it is left to journalists and mavericks such as Keith Windschuttle to engage the academics from outside the universities. The result is not a conversation but a shouting match that is more like a gladiatorial spectacle than a debate.

The real issue must be how to ensure that Australian intellectual life has a healthy vitality founded on a multiplicity of conversations. In the US David Horowitz has argued for an academic bill of rights that would protect those engaged in non-conformist conversations, and some state legislatures are producing bills along this line. One must remain sceptical of any attempt to legislate virtue.


Australia has a homogeneous set of public universities that look too much like replicas of each other. These universities dominate intellectual life in this country. There are only a small number of think tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs and an equally small number of private universities. More think tanks and private universities would provide a counter to the conformity of the public university.

Eighteenth-century England, the place that created the industrial revolution and parliamentary democracy, was also a country whose universities slumbered in obscurantism and bigotry. Its intellectual life was conducted elsewhere. The arts and social science faculties of Australian universities have not yet sunk to the state of 18th century Oxford and Cambridge. And they will not do so if they are challenged by ideas emanating from other institutions that ensure that they do not fall victim to their own dogmatism. The key is to create the conditions under which other institutions, including private universities, think tanks and institutes, are able to flourish. At one level, this must involve greater support for such institutions by individuals and organisations concerned with the intellectual and cultural health of their country.

At another level, this should also mean governments creating a more favourable environment. For example, donations to such institutions could be made tax deductible.

The objective is a culture and intellectual life that is vibrant. Such vibrancy requires diversity, and at present our public universities are failing us in this regard. We need to find ways of overcoming this failure.

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First published in The Australian on December 20, 2004.

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About the Author

Gregory Melleuish is associate professor of history and politics at University of Wollongong.

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