Australia: an “intellectual gulag”

by Toby Manhire / 22 May, 2013
Column claiming that Australians “hate thinkers” sparks fiery exchanges.
Not an intellectual: Kylie Mole from The Comedy Company


Alecia Simmonds is not pulling her punches.

The Gillard government’s slashing of university funding was made possible because of the regard in which intellectuals are held in the country, writes the Fairfax columnist at the Daily Life website.

It wouldn't make sense in most countries. But in Straya, we don't give a dead dingo's donger about academics. Universities make a perfect target because, like few other Western countries, Australia hates thinkers.


It just gets more caustic. “There's no doubt,” writes the law academic, “that Australia is a vast, sunny, intellectual gulag.”

Perhaps there's a link between the myth of Australian egalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. Australian history is popularly told as a story of democracy, equality and classlessness that broke from England's stuffy, poncy, aristocratic elitism. We're a place where hard yakka, not birth, will earn you success and by hard yakka we don't mean intellectual labour. Although, of course, equality is a great goal, we've interpreted it to mean cultural conformity rather than a redistribution of wealth and power. The lowest common denominator exerts a tyrannical sway and tall poppies are lopped with blood-soaked scythes. Children learn from an early age that being clever is a source of shame. Ignorance is cool ...


Ultimately, there is nothing elite about academics. Their wages are embarrassingly humble, they work ridiculously long hours and for most the aim is pretty noble – to create knowledge that will help make a better world. In a bizarre twist of logic exemplified by the short-lived Rudd mining tax, Australians have come to see elite multinational companies as having the same interests as the everyday person and academics as haughty public menaces. The former self-avowedly exists only for their own profits, the latter commits the crime of thinking about people.


It's no wonder Gillard chose to pick on academics. They're the perfect targets: too socially obscure to be missed and too loathed to be defended.


It might not have triggered the maelstrom that surrounded Germaine Greer’s attack on Australian cultural cringe almost a decade ago, but Simmonds’ article has provoked a wide and often angry response. Much of the condemnation has focused on a line that is almost an aside.

“My problem is not that our public sphere harbours ill-educated members (like the imbecilic Andrew Bolt who never made it past first-year uni),” begins one sentence. That prompted Bolt, a well-known conservative pundit, to retort:

I wonder whether Simmonds is confusing the general with the personal. Australia has in fact shown great respect for some great academics ...


I don’t believe she’s upset by any general attack on academics or the “well-educated”. In fact, her abuse of me contradicts her professed premise, since she clearly believes branding me an “ill-educated” imbecile who “never made it past first-year uni” will diminish me in the eyes of her readers. If we really reviled the educated as she claims, her insult would be no insult at all.


She has contradicted herself.


It was Bolt’s own “ridicule” of Simmonds – particularly over a piece she wrote about feminism and vegetrianism, he argues at the Herald-Sun, that has prompted a personal animus.

And it is true. I have ridiculed Simmonds. But was my ridicule of her based on some supposed contempt for the nuanced, the educated, the sensitive, the deep, the humble and the wise, all striving to make the world “better”?


Or did I criticise Simmonds as simply silly? Someone whose fashionable education had merely given her vacuity a polish - and left her with a dangerous disregard for the right of others to voice opinions with which she disagreed?


Bolt finds an unlikely ally in Jeff Sparrow, the leftwing author and editor of the journal Overland. “Unfortunately Simmonds’ piece exemplifies precisely the hauteur that allows anti-intellectualism to build a popular base,” he writes at NewMatilda.com.

Anyone who doesn’t possess a university degree is an imbecile? That would be some 60% of the working population, casually dismissed as moronic. Going to uni might not, in and of itself, make you a member of an elite. But class, ethnicity and geography still play a major role in determining access to higher education. It behoves progressives – particularly those in academia – to remember that there’s plenty of very, very bright people out there who never attended a university but who nonetheless might have something to say.


Yet throughout her article, Simmonds equates (implicitly and sometimes explicitly) "thinkers" with academics – as if anyone outside higher education were entirely incapable of abstract ideas.


The esteem in which intellectuals are held seems to be a recurring theme in recent times in Australia. (The last similar piece in New Zealand was Chris Barton’s Herald feature last year, as far as I know.)

Earlier this month, the ABC looked at the state of the country’s intellectual elite, as diagnosed by a new book.

Its Sunday Extra programme, which you can listen to here, introduced the item thus:

It's a charge often brought against universities, artists and even us here at the ABC - why are Australian academics so often hostile to contemporary Australian life and scathing about our Western heritage?


In his new book, Australian Intellectuals, Gregory Melleuish argues: “This culture of intellectuals [has become] embedded in key institutions ... a subculture isolated from mainstream Australia in intellectual ghettos. It is a world which bristles with hostility, negativity and nihilism.”

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