John Calvin Against the Minister for Higher Education

I have been provoked to return to two of my own published articles that appeared in The Naked Wasp, the Chisholm Institute of Technology student union newspaper in April and May of 1989. The provocation came from a fellow Christian scholar from Africa who is concerned about the secularising potential of market-based higher education. My correspondent wonders the degree to which Christian higher education has bought into a view of schooling and education that not only promotes a view of the religious neutrality of scientific research but also has the practical consequences of leaving already vulnerable further impoverished as neo-liberal market “modernisation” works its wonders across the African continent.
The initial article that I “returned to” is “John Calvin against John Dawkins” which I republish here in its original form from 17th April 1989, The Naked Wasp 12:5 p.18. The second article “And Miles to go Before I Sleep” was published in The Naked Wasp 12:6 p.18. (As I recall this was a few weeks later).
“John Calvin against John Dawkins” has been re-written over the years. My purpose in publishing the 1989 version of it and the accompanying article are to try to convey something of the time and the issues that were then being raised a year or so before what have since been called the “Dawkins reforms” came into effect. The merger of Chisholm Institute of Technology with Monash University came into effect on July 1st 1990. (Readers may know that I “took a package” and left the employ of Monash at the end of 1998.) In terms of my previous post on this blog, this was indeed on of those “defining moments” for myself (but also for Valerie, my wife, and sons as well).
“John Calvin against John Dawkins” became an essay that found a prominent place in our efforts to promote Christian higher education and it was the basis for talks that I delivered at various student conferences convened to assist Christian university students. But I was one of the “lucky ones” and could confront the depth of the crisis from the “front line” as it were. And having been at Chisholm for 8 years I had been forced to confront the inherent crisis that was eating away the integrity of scholarship on the inside – the “study side”; the “student side” –  of higher education, not just at Chisholm, and not just what we were going to confront at Monash, and not just in Australia or our region. The Hawke-Keating governments dressed their version of neo-liberalism for higher education as a “market-socialist” agenda under the banner of “economic rationalism”. The obvious strategy was to put any and all potential critics immediately on the spot as reactionary, self-interested, elitist, anti-progressive, “academic”, economic irrationalists. Christian higher education in this country was always going to be involve deep difficulties, long before this “economic rationalism” spun its magic. But certainly since the mid-1980s the problematic of Christian higher education has deepened and we should also note the global dimensions of this crisis too.
The editor of the Naked Wasp, at the time, did me the honour of asking the newspaper’s cartoonist to illustrate my article with a humorous representation.




First, however, it would be appropriate to draw in rough and schematic terms the current spiritual situation as we find it. West civilisation is in the process of radical and far-reaching change. The gods of Science, Reason, Progress and Technology are all making demands upon “post-Christian” society which the man-in-the-street is increasingly unwilling and unable to accept. As third-world countries adopt the revolutionary humanism which has shaped European society since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the entire globe has been caught up in the maelstrom. Ordinary citizens, fed and catechised with the dogmas of our time from an early age, are very often paralysed; something very serious has gone wrong. But how do we diagnose the disease? How do we know what to do so as to bring about some healing?  Pessimism and a sense of futility reigns. The only options appear to be a more sophisticated lifestyle, with further refinement of our consumer tastes in art, literature and private hobbies.

But what of our public responsibilities? How is the nihilism, emptiness and blatant materialistic opportunism of the powerful to be understood so that the underlying ideology that gives birth to this  departure from humanism can be effectively resisted? How can government and nation, economy and society, be changed so as to encourage, rather than to discourage, the cultivation of human talent? Is it possible to study so as to gain some integral and unified perspective upon: the breakdown of the ozone layer; the destruction of the earth’s vegetation; the smog and pollution in our air, water and food; the melting of the ice-caps and the erosion of the coasts and the depletion of arable land the destruction of the earth’s animal life; the traffic problems of big cities; the population explosion; droughts and famines that are affecting African and Asian peoples; the massive destruction of food surpluses; the spread of HIV infection and AIDS; the rise in terrorism among and between the nations; Glasnost and the Cold War; the world’s refugee problem; homelessness; resurgent Islam and fundamentalist regimes in East and West, Europe, America and the third-world; arms proliferation and the problems facing efforts at arms reduction; inflation; crime and police corruption; institutionalised immorality and the search for profit in all kinds of previously questionable practices; psychiatric and other mental disturbance; divorce and marital strain; and so on.

The list would be impressive if it wasn’t so depressing. Surely the university, as a place of serious and disciplined learning, would be a place where students of all kinds and specialties, could come to frame for themselves a coherent and integral perspective from which to contribute to the many-sided discussion of these momentous issues?

Surely the university would be the place where students would be encouraged to form a non-self-centred, non- provincial, global outlook? Surely the university would be the place where one could investigate the inner-connectedness and the inter-connectness of all these matters? Surely the university and its proud traditions of honest and objective scholarship would be the place where we could discern where western society had made a wrong turn? Surely the university would be the place to gain historical and philosophical insight into the underlying religious/cultural commitments which have brought the cultivation of the planet to the brink of such manifold disaster?

But no! The university has been emptied of that kind of commitment . The nihilism which is the presupposition of the person-in-the- street, as he sucks on his tepid meat-pie and scans the football results in the newspaper, is the same nihilism which is leading the armies of university and college bureaucrats into a deepening crisis. Like lemmings, universities and colleges throughout Australia, and the rest of the industrialised world, are moving ahead into becoming unabashed form of “degree factories”; over-paid senior executives in tertiary education, completely dominated by “corporatist values”, have thoroughly capitulated to the government requirement that financial profit be the primary, if not sole, purpose of scientific research in all fields.

Academics, fragmented by an arbitrary, but fiercely defended, professionalism are quite incapable of indicating any alternative direction. This is due to their pious inflexibility; the many serious problems mentioned above can only be addressed, they presume, if  specialists working on problems one-at-a-time are given back their autonomy. That constitutes their response. That’s it. But do they ever stop to consider in what this “autonomy” consists? Do they ever, except in moments of intensified political struggle, come together to consider this problematic? Only rarely, and only on the fringes of academic life, do they do so. Despite what their individual theories might assert about the inter-relatedness of all knowledge, their actions more often bespeak a firm commitment to the view that their corporate responsibility can be neatly divided into mutually reinforcing water-tight compartments. Even so, the problems are not so easily isolated from each other.

Universities may be organised to isolate history from philosophy, from the laboratory of the natural sciences. But the problems which confront us cannot be addressed by specialist academics working in splendid isolation of each other. In point of fact the problems which we confront may have been exacerbated by the professional fragmentation which has become the hall-mark of academia.

Even if any one academic specialist wishes to come to terms with the problems, as he or she sees them from the perspective of one particular discipline, it will yet require the closest possible co-operation with many other specialists. Yet such co-operation has been found to be extremely difficult within the hallowed halls of enlightened academic self-interest which is the modern academy. The university finds itself in the embarrassing situation where it has used up all its resources on an institutionalised internal squabble in which each science goes its own way, and in so doing is induced to put itself forward as the true source of those theoretic insights upon which the entire enterprise of higher learning is to be based. This process may have produced some valuable insights in times past, but it has now broken down completely.

Under the impact of the Australian Federal Government’s restructuring proposals, the universities of Australia have been required to transform themselves into so many multi-faceted business schools.

The internal intellectual competition between disciplines which has hitherto provided the theoretical leadership for the entire enterprise of learning is now being re-constructed under a public-business philosophy which gains its momentum from a world-view which is liberal, socialistic, bureaucratic and materialistic.

Salvation for modern people, in decades past, may have been proclaimed in the name of scientific research. Yet such salvation has been found to be a false prophecy as alternative scientific specialties fought each other for pre-eminence, with equally convincing counter- perspectives. But now this general theoretical competition has been re- interpreted to be but one form of market-place competitiveness; the university is now to be interpreted in terms of “the market”. Specialists in the various disciplines are now required to form their programs and to re-form their curricula, so to maximise their “competitive advantage”. Each discipline in the university/academic curriculum is viewed as a centre of self-interest and the Government’s policy is being implemented as the epitome of “enlightened self-interest”.

In other words, business management rhetoric has become the Queen of the Sciences.

An abstract theory called “monetarism” (or “economic rationalism”) is foisted upon the entire academic community, as each academic sector labours with the burden of being a “cost centre”.

The Federal Government’s proposals are put forward as the sure and only way out of the dilemmas which beset us. It is not so much a commitment to Reason and Science (as it was previously) as it is a desire to ensure that academia in its entireties forced to contribute to the national community in terms which everyone can (presumably) understand: financial profit. The universities are now to be organised on the principle that the monetarist approach, as adopted hitherto by business schools (BCW 10/2016: i.e. as the “best practise” of prevailing “theory”), is the only and/or most effective means of running tertiary education.

It is very pertinent to observe that at the outset of Mr Dawkins’ ministerial career he claimed to be reversing the destructive influence of monetarism. Now that the Federal Minister of Employment, Education and Training has had his say, the universities of the land are controlled almost totally by an ideology which is thoroughly compatible with monetarism.

There is, indeed, a very interesting reversion at work here. John Calvin, Reformation prophet, whose name has often been wrongly, yet inextricably associated with the Capitalist’s profit1, explained the purpose of university study in these terms:

Indeed, men who have either quaffed or even tasted the liberal arts penetrate with their aid far more deeply into the secrets of the divine wisdom. (Institutes I:V,2).

Battles, Calvin’s translator, adds in a footnote: “To Calvin, liberal studies were an aid to comprehension of the divine wisdom conveyed in Holy Scripture”. In other words, university study is of inestimable value on the human pathway to wisdom. It is part of that human cultivation of the earth in which all people will find and fulfil their vocation. It is indispensable for men and women as they work in all spheres of society. Such knowledge will encourage wise and useful living even in the marketplace. But Dawkins’ reforms have reversed all this. For him, and those of his school – a nation-wide horde – those who have self-indulgently quaffed the divine wisdom of mammon have gained the one thing necessary to understand all the secrets of the liberal arts.

In other words we are in very desperate times. The universities of Australia have been taken over by a sect. This sect has Federal and State Government blessing. The sect has received the backing of the major political parties. It will not be content with simply ensuring that a responsible fiscal policy be adopted by the various university bureaucracies. No! It is intent on transforming the entirety of the intellectual outlook of those trained in the universities of this land.

Further investigation and analysis of this sect and its doctrines is called for. It is the conviction of this writer that university study and research can be greatly invigorated by a Christian critique of science and philosophy. But a Christian contribution should not stop short at pious critique. It must move ahead with deeds as well as words. And that will require painstaking and unremitting labour. It will not emerge magically with the click of some spiritual fingers.

Bruce C Wearne 17th April 1989AD

Naked Wasp 12:5 1989 p. 18





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