My latest Burning Archive podcast is episode 116. Professions vs. Managers. The rise and fall of the professions. Interview with Hannah Forsyth. Listen here on Spotify and here on Apple podcasts and other platforms. Subscribe, share and leave a review.
In this podcast I do my second in-depth interview of a historian. Dr Hannah Forsyth is a historian of work, education and capitalism at Australian Catholic University, where she has taught global history, historiography, history of capitalism, politics and Australian Indigenous History. In 2020, Hannah gave the University of New England’s Russel Ward Lecture, which can be viewed on YouTube.
But hang out till next week when you will be able to watch my video interview with Hannah on my Youtube channel. She is the author of A History of the Modern Australian University (2014) and of Virtue Capitalists: the rise and fall of the professional class in the Anglophone world c.1870-2008 (2023) that is being published by Cambridge University Press this month. I spoke to her about both books in this podcast.
I was keen to explore with Hannah:
- What is the history behind the rise and fall of the professions?
- How is their story linked to the rise of management especially since the 1970s?
- And how does it all relate to what happens in the modern university?
Hannah’s thoughts on these questions are fascinating, and will connect to many readers’ own experiences in the workplace, in the public culture, and at university.
During the interview, I shared some of my own reflections and oral history of the professions and management in Victoria over my career as a bureaucrat since 1990, including an actual revelation from the Victorian Government archive. I also shared some thoughts on the modern university. Do let me know what you think when you listen to the podcast.
I developed some of these thoughts on the tragedy of the modern university more extensively in a piece in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat: Writing on Governing (buy now for the full reveal)
“But I do not think [Jordan] Peterson or Scruton or Grayling have captured the full tragedy of the modern university, which plays itself out across more disciplines than the humanities. The university has broken its own way of life through its expansion over the last fifty years. It has become a vast feral city in which its citizens can no longer rely on the university to fulfil its fundamental social, moral purpose, which is, in Scruton’s words, to hand on “a store of knowledge and the culture that makes sense of it.”
I feel I have been a witness to this slowly unfolding tragedy, through my experiences of government. I have worked directly with people like Mark Burford, Peter Noonan and Terry Moran who were at the heart of education reforms since the 1980s, especially the mass expansion and concurrent corporatisation of the university through the Dawkins reforms… Universities are infected with administration. University teaching has declined. The competition for overseas student revenue, tenure and prestige in the little fishbowls of academia has crowded out any careful attention to the educational needs of students.
… We all now need to live with the broken institutions these reforms have wrecked. Back before these reforms, Michael Oakeshott wrote about the fundamental mistake of all these reforms. They turned an association that preserved culture into an enterprise that served utilitarian ends. Oakeshott wrote, “A University is not a machine for achieving a particular purpose or producing a particular result; it is a manner of human activity.” Universities might not today articulate their mission in this way, but they know in their bones and their sandstone feet the lost knowledge of how to be a university. When Oakeshott wrote the university still carried its precious living tradition on proud, broad shoulders. Oakeshott spoke to those who bore that living tradition when he wrote, “This knowledge is not a gift of nature; it is a knowledge of a tradition, it has to be acquired.” He could, however, sense the risk in the air: “it is always mixed up with error and ignorance, and it may even be lost.”(Michael Oakeshott The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989), pp.106-7). Lost it was. The living tradition fell from the shoulders some time in the 1980s or 1990s, and has been dragged through the mud and the dust for the last three decades.
The great unrecognised tragedy of modern government is that the zeal of reformers, the crowds of willing students and the surge of new money led to the loss of those living traditions that had been maintained successfully for centuries, with less resources and fewer people, by their host institution, the university.”
During the interview, Hannah Forsyth was more optimistic on the future of quality university education than this fragment from my burning archive. She referred to a radical sociologist, Raewyn Connell, who sees the hope of reform of universities in the democratization of the university. But if we now live in a post-democratic society, is this a forlorn hope? Might a more modest, less utopian aim be to restore association, where now enterprise rules? Might this restoration rather than reform be the way to go? I am not sure. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.
I would love it if you shared the podcast with a friend and share some of Hannah’s insights with a wider group. And why not leave a positive rating and review.
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You can subscribe to my YouTube channel and watch the video interview with Hannah from next week. It is free to do, and by liking, sharing and commenting you help more people discover the Burning Archive.
You can also do my new course on mindful history here.
Have you checked out my books?
- Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat: Writing on Governing
- my book of essays From the Burning Archive: Essays and Fragments 2015-2021.
- my collected poems, Gathering Flowers of the Mind.