Why Australia hates thinkers


Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

David Gonski  from Future Fund.

David Gonski from Future Fund.

In one of Federal Parliament's many wonderful moments of Orwellian doublespeak, Labor announced recently that it would fund education through cutting education. Yes, so much did Julia Gillard appreciate the years of research conducted by Gonski that she thought it best to make it more difficult next time round for Gonski and other academics to conduct research. In case none of this is making sense, Gillard recently announced that Labor will pay for part of its Gonski schools funding reforms by cutting $2.3 billion from universities. Excellent!

This may sound mad, given that universities are Australia's third-largest export industry. Social function aside, our economy needs universities. But I can also see how it makes perfect political sense for Labor to pillage the ivory tower. 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.

In contrast to France, where philosophers often grace the covers of Le Monde, and England where Slavoj Zizek writes regular columns in The Guardian Weekly. In Australia, we have Peter Hartcher on anti-Gillard autopilot and the bile-flecked bleating of shock-jocks like Alan Jones.

Jo Hildebrand (far left) appears on ABC's Q&A.

Jo Hildebrand (far left) appears on ABC's Q&A.

Each week I watch Q&A praying for an expert, begging for someone who knows what they're talking about. And each week I get Joe Hildebrand accompanied by a flurry of tweets by the emotionally unstable. In fact Nick Osbaldiston and Jean-Paul Gagnon recently found in their research on Q&A that only 5 per cent of panellists since 2008 had a research background. Even in an entire show devoted to education issues, Professor Gonski sat in the shadows while Pyne and Garrett proffered glib inanities and vapid insults. No one learned anything.


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). I think we need commentators from all walks of life. The problem is that as a country we are hostile to those who are well-educated. We prefer home-spun wisdom to years of research. Our language is peppered with vitriol reserved for those who think for a living: "chattering classes", "latte-sipping libertarians", "intellectual elites" and now Nick Cater's most unlovely term "bunyip elite". If we want to emphasise the importance of something we say that the issue "is not just academic". Any idea that takes longer than a nano-second to understand is howled down. Or perhaps, more precisely, any idea that threatens conservative orthodoxy is consigned to the divine irrelevancy of the academy. I've never heard Tony Abbott be told that his Rhodes scholarship and privileged tertiary education meant he was out of touch with the common man. Calling someone an "intellectual elite" is simply a way of ridiculing those who think for a living about how the world can be a fairer place.

There's no doubt that Australia is a vast, sunny, intellectual gulag. The question is why. It's certainly not for want of thinkers. We're home to some brilliant minds, including Nobel-prize winning author J.M. Coetzee, cultural theorist Anna-Marie Jagose and legal theorist Martin Krygier. Yet how often do we hear them speak? Why aren't they chased down for their opinions on policy and social issues rather than wheeling out ageing politicians and professional laymen again?

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.

There's also no room for cleverness in our models of masculinity or femininity. For women, intelligence equates with a dangerous independence that doesn't sit well with your role as a docile adoring fan to the boys at the pub. It's equated with sexual unattractiveness. And for men, carrying a book and using words longer than one syllable is a form of gender treason. It's as good as wearing bumless chaps to a suburban barbecue. Real blokes have practical wisdom expressed through grunts and murmurs. Real Aussie chicks just giggle.

It's not just a hostile public sphere that keeps thinkers at bay. Academics may also not want to enter public debate. And I can understand why. Firstly, they receive no rewards in terms of career advancement for writing for the public. And secondly, many may not want to engage with a knife-drawn public prone to Goldstein-style Two-Minute Twitter Hate Rituals. Academics are often timorous folk who specialise in showing the complexity of issues, not offering tweet-sized solutions. Social media doesn't democratise debate. It limits it to the resilient. Snark triumphs over insight, and commentary is reserved for those with voluminous folds of scar-tissue. Sensitive thinkers rarely fit this bill.

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.

Alecia Simmonds is an adjunct lecturer of law at UNSW and Merewether Fellow at Mitchell Library.


  • This is fantastic, Alecia, and spot on. Remember when Zizek was on Q&A and the general response was "look at the funny man flapping his arms about, lol!" The current cultural/intellectual dialogue here is grim.

    Clem Bastow
    Date and time
    May 14, 2013, 8:16AM
    • And this is why I'll leave again. Honestly, it's simply too demoralising being here.

      Date and time
      May 14, 2013, 9:32AM
    • "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). "

      Interestingly an article about involving experts in public debate, illustrates the personal abuse of those who do enter the debate. This actually restricts the desire of people to enter the debate.

      Date and time
      May 14, 2013, 11:12AM
    • They had A.C. Grayling on Q&A the week BEFORE the religion episode.

      The night he was on he was asked about the footy, I think.

      When teachers are paid enough to turn up to work in their second or third Porsche/BMW/Koenigsegg then this materialistic cashed up bogan culture might begin to take notice of intellectual endeavour.

      Till then, it hasn't warmed in 17 years.

      Riddley Walker
      Date and time
      May 14, 2013, 11:16AM
    • That is because that is exactly what Zizek was doing. That, and not really addressing viewers' questions. Being unable to engage with your audience - even if it means simplifying things for them - is not a sign of a great thinker.

      More generally, I do not really buy this idea that Australia is anti-intellectual. We are certainly a society that places a great deal of value on formal credentials. And is it really realistic to expect too many PhDs to pop up each week in the mass media?

      Date and time
      May 14, 2013, 11:22AM
    • Why on earth would one watch q+a in a search for intellect?

      It's like searching for humanitarianism in hitler's bunker.

      I tell you a good show to consider- it's called vice and it's a foreign correspondent type format that you can download now. Watched the ep on egypt last night- what a mess and it's exactly the same prob in syria now where the opposition seems worse than the dictatorship.

      vice - only 6 episodes so far I believe.

      Date and time
      May 14, 2013, 11:38AM
    • Watching Lawrence Krauss on Q&A was completely cringe worthy - Imbecilic mouth-breathers laughing at childish semantics of points they completely didnt understand. Same with Dawkins last time he was on.

      You could see the frustration / disappointment in the eyes of both - they were dismayed at the moronic "Qs" being asked and astounded at the complete lack of comprehension of the "As" being given.

      Date and time
      May 14, 2013, 11:56AM
    • Bejo - what are you waiting for?

      Off you go.

      Date and time
      May 14, 2013, 1:08PM
    • I think we can both agree that Q&A isn't the forum for proper discourse. Getting rid of the pollies, the twits spamming their thought-bubbles and probably Tony Jones would help, but then all of about 3 people would watch it.

      And kudos to Dawkins for getting out there and trying to engage with the public Nevertheless, the guy is a pretty terrible debater and got owned by Pell on the night. Mostly I think because he seems to be clueless about philosophy.

      Date and time
      May 14, 2013, 1:19PM
    • And I heard a state national party politician on the radio bragging that he had not read a book since he left school.....! Pathetic, shocking, sad indictment on our system....
      I agree with the article...though Hartcher isn't all bad and sometimes writes well.

      Date and time
      May 14, 2013, 1:24PM

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