Why I am Still Working on my BA (1971)

This is the text of a talk given on two occasions in Point Lonsdale on the 17th and 20th of November. It is also my tribute to the Hugh Stretton (1924-2015) whose perceptive scholarship emphasised the great wealth that derived from a national economy’s households. His critique of the kind of spiritual forgetfulness that became an implicit part of public education is well worth remembering.

Still Thinking, Discussing and Questioning.

Why I am Still Working on my BA (1971).

In the disciplines which embraced this sort of positivism… students were taught that their values and their moralities were almost literally childish. … They must leave all their soft, childish subjective values outside the classroom. If they don’t they can’t hope to see facts clearly, or to think for themselves as adults and scientists. (Hugh Stretton “The Political Effects of Positive Social Science” 1987).

I have lived and worked in Point Lonsdale for 17 years.

Many people ask me: “What do you do?” I find this a difficult question to answer in a way that satisfies me and doesn’t confuse the person who has asked me the question.

Let me answer this question – presuming that you are interested in hearing my answer in this way:

I am a Monash Graduate from 1972. Monash’s Motto Ancora Imparo is Michelangelo’s statement “I am still learning”. And that pretty well sums up my answer to the question!

In 1998 I accepted a “Very Early Retirement” VER package from Monash which enabled my wife and I to buy a little place here. In this talk I aim to tell you something about the work I continue to do in order to spark your thinking about Thinking, Discussing and Questioning, about “things” we do and have done in everyday life, sometimes even without thinking, or talking or raising questions, about them. It might spark your thinking about the variety of responsibilities you have, the various social roles you perform.

I suppose I could bore you with a list of “things I am doing” to show how I continue to think, discuss and question – but in a nutshell let me say that I write, that I act as mentor to various students, that I undertake advocacy work and I will also occasionally agitate.

To say that I do a lot of thinking about my thinking may sound weird, even “deep” or “academic” or even “philosophical” but what I want to say is that this is actually “stuff” that we really all know about from what we all do, the work we all do every day.

My “work” is to think, speak and question. I should also add that I also do a bit of imagining. I admit that I spend time thinking about thinking, and when I talk it is often about what has been communicated, and so I also ask questions about the questions people ask.

The difficulty is that it is not only about abstract and complex things that we sometimes prefer to not talk about. Somehow we become block-headed about the very things that are most relevant; we think in a fog, distracted by this or that and I want to ask you to wonder with me why it is that we sometimes ignore some of the important things that we are doing or have done.

OK then here’s my example of how I started off as a block-headed student of sociology the scientific discipline in which I have qualifications. I have a modest list of publications that indicate that what I have written there are others around the world who think my writings deserve a footnote or two in their own work. So how did I start sociology in this block-headed way with my head in a fog?

In 1969 in my first sociology class we were required to write up what is called a “social observation exercise”. This involved going out and “observing” some or other “social setting.”

Now I had studied physics and chemistry in Matriculation and in those sciences “observation” meant a laboratory experiment. So I got to wondering, how was I to “observe” a social experiment.

But what is remarkable to me now looking back is that I ignored what is so very “actual” about the very social setting I then decided to “observe” – this was a game of football and we were engaged in social science. So I wrote about a game I imagined. But how to do it in a scientific way? Was the ground on which the game was played a kind of beaker with the players the different chemicals we added and the umpire was the Bunsen Burner underneath? I made a ham-fisted job of it and got a “P” – a bare Pass. (No numbers in those far off days).

Now, as I look back now I also ask myself why I didn’t write about what I knew about football and the social relations in which football happens? Part of the reason is from why this exercise was included in my studies at “uni”? This “task” has been one of the opening gambits of sociology teaching. I decided to observe “playing football” – how else – but what I wrote was all over the place and I guess I needed to learn that social science was not about viewing society in the framework of a laboratory experiment. I never got beyond the recent game in which I had played, completely ignoring the “fact” of my “experience” in playing the game.

What was that experience? As a 12 year-old I had enough sociological “stuff” to go on to write something very relevant for sociology in terms of my insider knowledge about football, organizing football, from a young age. I had been the “mover and the shaker” in South Blackburn starting a Sunday afternoon local football competition. True. It happened this way: when we moved to the State High School from the State Primary School I felt “in my bones” that there was more to life than simply remaking social life with new friends in my Form 1 class. We had come to high school with friends from all the local primary schools and so I thought up a scheme and implemented it by which teams of boys from the former primary schools would play against each other and continue the competition we had enjoyed when Primary School teams faced each other in mortal combat. That was a really important part of Primary School life and I guess I wanted to hold onto that. So that is how the Blackburn and District Junior Football League began as a result of my obsession.

Now when the husband of the daughter of a family friend tells me he has been to University of West Virginia to get a Masters degree in Sports Management, I joke with him and say that I did that when I was 12 and with no academic training necessary! It was pure instinct (or addiction).

But I ignored something that – I think you will agree – was a really interesting sociological topic and instead tried my hand at being “scientific” in sociological “observation.

Looking back I now have a different view of how this “exercise” was part of the curriculum and how the entire BA was then justified, and how those teaching sociology justified teaching this subject to us who simply wanted to “understand society”. Well it seems clear to me having taught sociology at the “uni” level and also thinking about the way I had started out in the discipline back in 1969. The little task was consistent with the view that a university degree was part of being taught “how to do social life”. And perhaps we entrapped ourselves because we Baby Boomers were dead keen to “make an impact”, we boys and girls had been told all through high school that we were Australia’s future leaders. Our school success proved it. So “uni” was to some extent fixated on our future; but it was abstract and it was even highly presumptuous. Looking back I wondering why it seems to have been so intentionally forgetful.

We might say we were encouraged to focus upon what we were going to achieve; our identity was going to be made by our forward-looking, scientific leadership. That was the bias in the teaching, encouraging us to ignore, down-play or just forget what we had done previously – we had to move on whether we had high marks in “Matric” or whether, as in my case, we had been an obsessive 12-year old football addict who started a local football competition. It’s not that anyone ever told us explicitly to forget our Matric marks, or ignore our family upbringing. But it was a message in the air – a hidden curriculum assumption.

My point is that in the sociology exercise it never even occurred to me that what I had done – the football competition I had helped to form as a 12 year-old – was relevant to what I was going to do “in the future”. If I had said as much to my lecturers – “Now look here I have been the executive founder, the pro bono CEO of the BDJFL!” – they would have thought someone had put something in my coffee. And looking back I can say that the university was too absorbed in trying to figure out how to teach its students how to control the future – yes that was the motive I think they wanted us to share: a “dare to struggle; dare to win!” kind of positivism – and we were the Baby Boomers who had long been told by parents and teachers that we who had made it to “uni” were the ones who were going to bring in a bright and glorious future – and some of us admittedly have done amazing things despite the presumptuous fog that is generated by this view – but we were so geared up that we didn’t even give much thought in our studies to how we had already succeeded. And if we had started the BDJFL or obtained a “Leaping Wolf” badge in Cubs, how could that be truly relevant to our studies? We assumed that these were simply matters for the scrap book; we had to move on; they had to be left behind.

Of course when bragging time came around in the caf, our Matric results would be paraded. But what I am wanting to suggest is that there are lots of good things we do without even planning them – they, as it were, fall into our lap and sometimes we could actually develop a good understanding of things, of ourselves, of what we have been given, if we pause to keep them in view. And that, at least, should be part of sociology and any effort to teach people about social responsibility.

I want to suggest that as much as we concede an element of truth in Mark Anthony’s pessimistic world-view for this “vale of tears” – The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones – that we do not neglect that other and more enduring fact of Divine grace triumphant; the pleasant aroma of the good things we have been privileged to be part of can still be alive and detectable long time after we have moved on, another reminder in incontrovertible ways of who we are.

So that means that next time I talk to you, I will still continue working on my BA by giving a more penetrating discussion of the “social settings” in which our many-sided responsibilities come to expression. And I will try not to talk too much about the football competition I initiated when I was a 12 year-old football addict.

Friday, November 20, 2015

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