The Middling Australian Mind

“It’s for us that the university exists, for the disposed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear. We give out the reasons, and we let few of the ordinary ones in … We have our pretences in order to survive. And we shall survive — because we have to.”

David Masters in Stoner

In Australia, if one is to decide where to go after high school, the first thing they do is gather a collection of glossy brochures from university open days in a ritual tantamount to window shopping. Open a brochure and you are immediately confronted with the sight of well-dressed, attractive students as they stand or sit in groups, smiling, laughing, holding books. Rarely if ever is a teacher seen — and if they are that inclusion is made out to be as innocuous as possible.

Each brochure includes concise information about entry requirements, contact hours and degree plans: tertiary technobabble that makes as much sense to the high school student reading them as does the future they have waiting for them beyond their coddled years of schooling. Nothing about these images and accompanying information gives a sense of what it might be to live and learn in these spaces. They advertise a product that is largely unaware of — or at the very least unconcerned with — the larger purposes a university is meant to serve. The brochure tells of a university with hundreds of student clubs and an indoor pool. Of student accommodation just a short walk from the city and a student village lined with coffee shops and takeaway food. The slick sheen of expensive paper, the colourful pop of its infographics — the impression it leaves is one of a retirement village or Gold Coast resort, not a place of learning.

There is clearly something very strange happening to our universities. The right has labelled it a crisis of speech — just another battleground of the culture wars that the progressive left seems to be winning. And they are correct. Otherwise qualified speakers are blocked from addressing students. Academics with works that challenge the politically correct status quo are denied publication. Certain words are barred from discussions entirely while topics are removed from the curriculum if they show any sign of endangering the university’s agenda.

Some strange is happening, but anyone who pins the responsibility for these changes to tertiary education on social justice movements and a deliberate censorship of speech are mistaken. The cultural right has almost certainly constructed this so-called crisis to mobilise an agenda of their own. The issues they point to are largely over-exaggerated or based upon selective cases disproportionately hurting conservatives who are censored simply for the fact that their ideas are full of shit. Still, like every good conspiracy, this one has an element of truth to it.

Broadly speaking, social justice in university is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with institutions being more aware of the ways their policies disproportionately affect those of different background, of people conducting themselves in ways that mitigate systemic prejudices. Social justice has good effects in universities. Like anything in a consumer society, however, it can be commodified, used as a tool to bind and control. It is time the left noticed this too.

While right-wing commentators succeed in recognising this, their critique does not go far enough to associate the ill-use of political correctness in university to its proper causes. The way political correctness has come to structure tertiary education is not a weapon of the progressive left or Peterson’s ‘post-modern cultural Marxists’. There is a reason political correctness and identity politics has been able to proliferate so easily amongst the status-quo institutions and media apparatus of neoliberalism. Here is a phenomenon designed to keep modern capitalism ticking.

Like the eye-catching brochures collected by a prospecting student, on-campus political correctness is the result of a university that has been repurposed to fulfil the every need of a customer. Neoliberalism holds all elements of society to capitalist value judgements. Everything is reduced to two things: its market value and its utility to an individual. This is true even of an education. A degree is more valuable the greater the chance of securing high-paid employment upon graduation; a university the more research it publishes in international journals.

The trend of identity politics is itself a tool in this system. It has become increasingly less about social justice and more about making the individual feel comfortable. Its usefulness to universities lies in its ability to appease the consumer. The issue is that universities are not institutions created to serve individuals. They are the breeding ground of ideas and the engines of societal change (if there is to be any hope of it at all, that is). By its nature, the university serves a community and not a market. It provides a space for exploration and invention apart from the status-quo, which it irreverently challenges. Except that the cool market logic of the neoliberal state has perverted the fact. A consumer cannot think critically of the market no more than a lamb can a slaughterhouse.

Take for example the case of the university tutorial, a weekly class run by a tutor (most usually a Ph.D. candidate) intended to provide more in-depth discussion about the content of a course. The environment tutorials take place in can barely be called a classroom — everything about them is an attempt to hide the fact that the students are in one at all. A tutor tries to establish a rapport of comradery with their students. The first class of the semester begins with icebreakers, questions designed to get to know the people better and to get conversation going. Usually a tutor asks innocuous ones — where students are from, what kind of movies they like. Rarely if ever do they asks more difficult things like why a student is at university or what they hope to get out of the course. When they do, students shuffle nervously in their seats, thumbs twiddling as they formulate a version of their answer that is least likely to draw attention to themselves.

Every class thereafter the tutor might open with a joke. Perhaps they remind their students of their own experiences in undergrad — about the times they avoided working on assignments because they wanted to binge television or get drunk at the pub. At all times, their goal is to appear relatable — a characteristic that is almost always built upon a willing indulgence in the instant gratification of consumerism. The point is to create an environment in which the student feels comfortable in, an environment that allows the student to speak their mind without judgement (even though that is precisely the role of the tutor — to pass judgement).

A classroom becomes a space conducive to discussion, but it is a discussion of ideas students already hold — an encouraging and pleasant reaffirmation of mediocre biases. Nothing about these tutorials could ever prompt a student to collect new thoughts and ideas, to challenge their views even in the slightest of ways. Tutors rarely speak their mind or call out a student even when they derail the discussion with the most egregiously ill-conceived of all irrelevant views. The most a tutor will ever venture to correct is a simple “What you just said is great, but…”. A tactful and non-judgemental nudge in the right direction.

The market does not want its darling consumers to think critically about themselves (again, the lambs). University students still seem to think about certain contemporary issues — make no mistake. It is just that it comes under the cover of a self-absolving consumer. We care about the impeding climate crisis, about the corruption of politicians and the failures of neoliberalism. We endeavour for equality by volunteering in student charities, tutoring disadvantaged kids and sharing progressive articles from The Conversation and The New York Times on our Facebook feeds. A lot of us advocate for things like greater gender diversity in parliament or the cruelty of factory farms (by bringing the topics up in conversation with our extended family). Overall, there is a prevailing since of disillusionment with the future of politics change and an uncertainty surrounding that of our country. We seem to care enough about this to share memes with close minded friends and write lengthy blog posts on Medium that no one ever reads.

While we may even care about such things, students will do everything to avoid being drawn attention to. Increasing numbers of our generation reject capitalism, but a leftist student group is the laughingstock of any campus. See a member of the Socialist Alternative handing out flyers and asking whether students are concerned with the climate crisis or the rise of fascism and one might snort, roll their eyes and make a clever comment about their parents’ income-tax bracket. Socialism is of increasing appeal to many students, but all of us — leftist and young liberal alike — are united in our mockery of those who dare to show they actually care about it. Express your disaffection with your government’s response to the climate crisis, sure, but god forbid you go out and become an activist.

Passion, critical insight, and challenges to the status-quo are actively discouraged in Australian universities. Not for any regime of censorship or political backlash, but for fear of the far more compelling reason of embarrassing oneself amongst their peers. Increasingly, lecturers and course convenors adopt the same attitudes of their tutors and students. They attempt jokes and keep the course material at arm’s length. Ideas are imparted under a heavy veil of irony and an air of casual indifference. Teachers are well liked if they are ‘fun’, ‘interesting’ and ‘charismatic’ — judged by student surveys on entertainment value as if presenting a stand-up act, not a lecture.

There is nothing wrong with a teacher being fun, interesting and approachable. I think most teachers would like to be considered such, but I also think teachers want to be more than that. Fun and engaging, sure, but also ‘provocative’, ‘passionate’, perhaps even ‘affecting’. Most importantly, I think most teachers want to hear that their classes changed their students. The current environment they teach in makes that impossible.

University faculties compete for students. This is a marketplace battle which science and commerce studies are going to win every time. Humanities and the social sciences must make concessions to stay relevant in an environment where the value of an education is the starting salary of a graduate’s first job. What the arts and social sciences cannot achieve in specialisation and salary they make up for in other means. Lower entry requirements, fewer contact hours and the opportunity to study more ‘interesting’ subjects in a decreased degree time are now the hallmarks of an education in the arts. Challenge these conventions, and suddenly a teacher loses both their students and their course. When the customer is always right, they can always take their money elsewhere.

Besides, no student wants to be challenged by their education when they are racking up debt for scant all opportunities in employment. The university apparatus agrees. There is a managerial bureaucracy of increasing power over their academic and educational counterparts. This new class of university bureaucrats are content to give niche courses the axe if students feel a lecturer is too harsh and unforgiving. They are happy to oblige, so long as the school has a steady influx of international students and is getting research published in international journals.

Teaching is decreasing in quality because education is no longer the priority. A university’s reputation is made and broken on its ability to climb global rankings. These are judged largely on research output. Entrepreneurial academics are the most integral to this function. Teachers and support staff are expendable. They are given casual employment, an economic death sentence which all but spells out the contempt tertiary institutions hold for these positions. With the current COVID-19 crisis, universities are bleeding revenue as they lose international students to travel restrictions. Without support from the government’s Job-Keeper allowance, casuals are the first to go. Australian universities are going to lose teachers and courses as their vice-chancellors earn millions.

While the neoliberal university has rushed to refortify itself in time for the market’s next move, the rest of us are stuck with the glaring inadequacies of the current system. These are institutions of indoctrination, not education. Universities were once home to the critical voices of a community that they now exist apart from. There is only the cool resolve of the market, which has no time for considerations as petty as our future.

An institution built on the logic of neoliberalism can do naught else but perpetuate its own fetishized world view as if it is the status quo. This is a process that stifles the creator and smothers the iconoclast. We are forgetting how to form an opinion and show passion for the things we care about. We are losing the courage to be disliked and to have a voice. It is killing us, raising a generation of middling minds to serve unquestionably the middling country we call home.

Australia is a country without a vision for the future. To treat the disease, we must first look to its causes: our universities. One can hardly say that they prepare students for a future beyond their campus borders anymore. An undergraduate is likely to emerge from university three years later just as unprepared for the real world as they were when they were gathering brochures and marvelling at the prospect of a tertiary ‘education’.