In the leadership debate between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott on Sunday night, the nation awaited a contest of ideas. There was a contest, but it was devoid of ideas. The contenders for our next Prime Ministerial seat have forgotten the characteristics that differentiate memorable leaders from the mediocre; great leaders are dedicated scholars and teachers of their citizens, while the mediocre simply manage policies. Gillard and Abbott are managing, just.
So peculiar in the leadership monologues was that Gillard and Abbott both have strong political philosophies that were missing in action. Julia Gillard lives in the Stoic tradition. Her commitment to self-responsibility, egalitarianism, community engagement and a humble indifference to material luxury evince the philosophy. Abbott is educated in the ideals of Conservatism and Roman Catholicism. Thus, he argues a Catholic and Conservative case for the sanctity of marriage and life, a traditional understanding of sexuality and family, and community service. Each has an internal life of ideas steeped in the political and philosophical traditions of their Parties that distinguishes them from the other. In the prime of their public lives, these ideas should inspire a coherent vision that is offered to the citizens who they hope to lead. What they have done instead is let lie fallow the ideals of our age in favour of a hollow utilitarianism that has popularity polls as its barometer of sense and sensibility.
The demise of Australian political vision arises in the same historical moment as the destruction of the liberal arts and sciences in Western universities. In Europe, savage cuts to the academic disciplines that have driven Western civilisation forward for millennia are resulting from the industrialisation of higher education. The European Union (EU) has been especially effective at introducing an instrumentalist ethic into higher education, whose ideal of universities as an arm of industry is meeting with increased resistance from the generation that will inherit it.
Student anger about the EU’s Bologna Process policies has culminated in mass protests across Europe, including a two month occupation of the University of Vienna against the commercialisation of and unequal access to higher education. The main banner of the Viennese World Students’ Day protest in November last year read ‘Education is not for sale’
. The message could not have been clearer; Europe’s young people want their elders to remember education for the sake of education. In particular, they want to revive liberal education and make it more broadly accessible. This is the generation that will have to live with the legacy of educational instrumentalism, but they were summarily ignored. In March 2010, they protested anew against the celebration of ten years of the Bologna Process and in solidarity with students in California
who are suffering from increases in university tuition fees.
The subjects comprising the liberal arts and humanities such as literature, philosophy, history, science and languages are those upon which Western civilisation has depended to generate new ideas and ideals. In Australia, the University of Melbourne appears to be making a concerted effort to preserve them, but as philosopher Peter Singer pointed out
in The Age
newspaper, its management is simultaneously cutting back philosophy and history. These subjects have been the foundation of the liberal arts since the world’s first university, Plato’s Academy, but do not fare well against commercial metrics such as graduate employment outcomes. Yet human history, like philosophy, bears out the importance of a higher education that spans disciplines.
Leonardo da Vinci is often held up as the exemplar of the benefits of the liberal arts and sciences, but there are more recent examples. John Maynard Keynes, the visionary economist who created the blueprint for the welfare state, was able to advance a new theory of economics in the interest of the social good because of his education in classics and history as well as mathematics. Friedrich von Hayek’s antithetical exposition of economics in The Constitution of Liberty is also an exercise in combining disciplines toward a new socio-economic theory.
Philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum
, A.C. Grayling and Peter Singer are sounding the alarm over the destruction of democracy through the erosion of liberal education, but only Orwell expounded the full effect on humanity of forgetting the history of ideas. In his book 1984
, we witness a reversal of the Socratic tradition of questioning, so that by force of peers and elders, even the most rational individuals come to accept that two plus two equals five. And these citizens are happy, eventually, to be divested of reason in a world of unreason. Consensus of opinion has become the constitution of citizenship and accord with the majority the condition of happiness. As with the leadership debate between Gillard and Abbott, in Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a future society, ideas do not exist except by political omission, selection and repetition.
Great nations rise above the good by virtue of vision. This thing called vision; a collection of reasoned ideas made into a coherent whole, has often been developed by citizens educated in liberal universities. When politicians and universities have vision, they are capable of changing the course of history.
It is true that Gillard or Abbott could lead Australia through this new century bereft of ideas and vision. But a country cannot move forward in the sense of creating a future that differs from the past, or making a unique contribution to human history, in the absence of ideas. A renaissance in the intellectual life of our universities and political leadership inspired by the liberal tradition is needed to create an Australia that will matter to the 21st century.