An article by Barry Jones in The Australian argues that “Public intellectuals should not remain silent in the face of an assault on reason and our liberties”. Jones implores us to become involved in political life and public debate; to promote rational, informed discussion; to understand other cultures and other perspectives; and to understand that the roots of terrorism are not totally irrational and evil, but are the result of long periods of social injustice and marginalisation. Jones is critical of Australia’s politicians, the political system as it operates in Australia, the public service, the media and academics – all people who should be leading public discussion and debate, providing credible information (not political spin), and contributing to community knowledge and understanding.
We live in an era of instinctive, reactive and ill-informed leaders and followers, marked by contempt for truth, living by the dictum that the end justifies the means. It hardly matters whether that view is driven by cynicism or ideology.
The quality of public debate in Australia has been compromised, partly through media indifference and the systematic denuding of the ABC, but also through the retreat of the public intellectual. We have more paid academics than at any time in history, but across the nation, regrettably, they have fallen silent.
In universities and research institutions, professional activity and workloads have increased appreciably, and contribution to public debate is discouraged. The term academic is routinely used in a denigratory way to mean remote, pedantic, impractical or irrelevant. The only consolation is that in the medium to long term, it is elite opinion that wins out.
Reviving politics will involve encouraging knowledge, curiosity, understanding, scepticism and transparency. It will also require a revolution in education to redefine non-economic values and a critical spirit, with heavier emphasis on history, philosophy and language, as well as the skills needed for vocations.
(The article is an edited transcript of “The John Bray Oration 2007: Censorship and secrecy: threats to an open society in an insecure age”, delivered at the University of Adelaide on Sept 4th.)