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Cultural cringe + market economics = lower education

At a price increase of 113 per cent in fact. Pretty tough on the film and sound production kids at UNSW who lately made a professional-level cleverly written and well-produced mini-series. Some of them would certainly shine in television dramas of the future if the ABC were not being starved for production money.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:

Pretty tough on the kids in the poetry program at Sydney, under brilliant teachers. “A poem is a small pot that carries mystery into the world,” says a website there, God bless it. If any mystery gets carried into the world in future, it’ll be at 113 per cent mark-up.

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A friend of mine, a splendid poet, Eileen Chong, graduated that course and is laying down a body of work which, like the great Judith Wright’s, will coruscate in the world of kids not yet born. Just another poet. Like those deadbeats W. H. Auden and Robert Lowell, keeping to the corner and legislating the world to us in their bursts of lightning. I think of the writers at UTS under the prodigiously skilled Debra Adelaide. I wouldn’t be sending any ship to Mars without some of these kids on it.

History is a big sign of contradiction in the humanities, of course. It used to be OK when it dealt with pre-European occupation in a chapter, and then went on to cover convict transportation, then – with grateful sighs – the finish of all that and our redemption by hitting-above-our-weight instances of invention, innovation, the maturing of society, Bradman’s batting average (and a glorious thing it was!), participation in foreign wars, et cetera.

The problem arose that some of our historians began to concentrate not on hitting above our weight but on where some of the blows had landed. As well as that, our settler history seemed increasingly minuscule in scale compared with the ever-expanding so-called pre-history provided for us by anthropologists and palaeontologists. And those lefty historians made a great deal out of that – no one more than Henry Reynolds, that abomination in the eyes of the right.

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I wonder what the Coalition thinks when they see a program like the recent Four Corners on the quest for a COVID-19 vaccine. Tehan wants more kids doing science, but Australian researchers on that broadcast uniformly said they’d be much further along if they did not have to spend so much of their time lining up for scarce research money. So if we want to increase the number of scientists, what about the news they might bring us? What about the CSIRO scientists who were warned off speaking on climate change, and were sacked when they did so? Jeez, Dan, get your rifle. There must be Marxists loose in the bottom paddock at the CSIRO!

As for future jobs, do we trust this government to know where they’ll be? It is a government, after all, that promoted a 1700 jobs gain in constructing and running a coal mine in the Galilee basin as if it represented employment nirvana. It’s not that anyone begrudges people jobs in an area where they’re needed. We just want people to have jobs that last.

I find a meeting of minds between market economics and an abiding sense of cultural inferiority here. We’ve had it shown to us by COVID-19 that our manufacturing base is too narrow. But there is a profound sense that we are not up to cleverness. We are blessed by massive resources, so we don’t need to manufacture clever things like medical equipment and quantum applications. Like a true colony we are happy to import refined goods and culture, as in the past. Our dreams and visions are extraneous to need in an economics which cannot define their value.

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Gary Becker, one of the Chicago economists from whose well Tehan has drunk deep, has defined marriage in terms of comparative advantage as a contract in which two parties maximise their utility. Really? Really? Whatever happened to, “Had we but world enough and time, This coyness, lady, were no crime.” Much neo-conservative economics fails to capture the essence, and thus decides to overcharge it for being what it is.

In 1939 A. D. Hope described Australia as the Arabia Deserta of the human mind, where second-rate Europeans pullulated timidly on the edge of alien shores. The new economics has driven us right back there and created ironies. Such as that it is easier to study Australian literature at the University of Harbin in Manchuria than at Sydney University. (Harbin is, by the way, a research university, Mr Tehan, with sophisticated biology labs and a rocket-launch pad.)

But for us, meantime, such glories have market economics delivered! And what glories are still to come? We shudder, we pray. We write.

Thomas Keneally is an Australian novelist and essayist.

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