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Newsletter 344

Published June 29, 2020
Andrew Jackson's new guard of honour

This week is an orgy of issues. The art column looks at the new iconoclasm that’s sweeping the western world, and asks if Captain Cook deserves the bad rap he’s getting from the protestors. A piece for the Blog tries to sum up all the objections to the proposed destruction of the Powerhouse Museum. I couldn’t, in all conscience, refer to it as a “relocation”. It’s vandalism, pure and simple, undertaken by a state government that has already shown its willingness to trample public opinion, heritage and environment in order to push through pet projects with no hint of accountability or transparency.

The ‘move’ of the Powerhouse to Parramatta will destroy a world famous museum and obiterate one of Sydney’s major cultural assets. The pay-off will be a recreation centre. The cost will be billions. I only hope this piece of writing helps mobilise opposition to a landmark act of destruction. After six years of this I can hardly believe it’s still rolling. At last count the government had already spent $14 million on consultants alone, in an expensive effort to justify the unjustifiable. The full price of this brainless, pointless exercise – including all the hours it has cost its opponents – will be incalculable.

There’s a certain synergy in this week’s movie review, of Michael Winterbottom’s Greed – a fictional bio-pic of a greedy British billionaire. Alas, it’s a film that suffers from an impossible clash between satire and social consciousness, with the humour being constantly undercut by the director’s urge to make statements about global inequality and exploitation. Only a rank ideologue could approve this act of artistic self-sabotage, no matter how worthy the cause.

There is one issue not discussed in this week’s postings that needs to be addressed – namely federal Education Minister Dan Tehan’s briliant new higher education “reforms” which will see the cost of an arts degree more than double while a technically based degree becomes less expensive.

As someone who got his arts degree for free, thanks to Gough Whitlam’s ideas about the role of higher education, I wonder if I would ever have gone to uni under the proposed scheme? As a precise response to Tehan’s proposals, I can hardly improve on Ross Gittens’s Sydney Morning Herald piece in which he analyses the changes and finds they will cost the government nothing while promoting a familiar ideological agenda.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

A new rule of politics seems to be that no matter how badly the pollies have stuffed up some area of government responsibility, they can always make it worse. Enter the hapless federal Education Minister Dan Tehan who, doubtless acting under instructions from the boss, has just announced another set of passive-aggressive changes to university funding.

Leaving aside the small details of the scheme, there is one particular point that needs to be highlighted. By making degrees in the humanities, communications and even the law, more expensive, Scummo and his gang are hoping to prevent young people having a chance to develop skills in critical thinking, or indeed pursue anything in the social, political or cultural line. Kids from wealthy families will still be able to undertake arts degrees as an indulgence, but those from working class backgrounds (like yours truly) will have to convince their parents there is a benefit in getting a degree that doesn’t lead to a specific trade or vocation.

The price hike is being justified on the grounds that it’s more important to encourage students to undertake degrees that will give them a direct entry into the workplace. It plays on the age-old antipathy for arts degrees felt by engineering students and others involved in complex, skills-based courses. It’s a deeply philistine proposition that cuts against the grain of the historical mission of the university, in which the humanities provided a foundation for all students.

Today the oportunities for studying the classics or theology are aready severely limited, but such courses taught students to use their minds in a way that a technically-based course does not. John Henry Newman, in his classic study, The Idea of a University (1852), called for a cirriculum that encouraged students to think, to reason, to compare, to discriminate and analyse. This is hardly conducive to the assembly-line production of those “quiet Australians” Scummo prefers, who will leave all the big decisions to a beneficent government (and a group of helpful mates).

In a world where potential critics were nipped in the bud, where everyone worked at a specialised task in order to try and stay ahead of an economy in which housing becomes progressively less affordable and job security more fraught, it’s only to be expected that the electorate would become less interested in anything that doesn’t pertain to immediate self-interest. Such an electorate might see nothing inherently wrong in destroying a major museum or turning cities into adventure playgrounds for developers. If the Powerhouse Museum is destroyed, we will be considerably closer to that totalitarian dream of a dumb, complacent, obedient society in which people begin by willingly doing what they’re told to do, then find one day they no longer have a choice.