5 May 2012

Open letter to ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Young

ANU V-C Ian Young

Please read this:

“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Robert F. Kennedy Address, University of Kansas, 18 Mar 1968

These memorable words bring several thoughts to my mind. Obviously, that Americans can speak loftily. But more importantly, there are things that our economics do not recognise or value, and because we don’t count them, they are not cared for and ultimately can be lost. The environment as an “externality” is the most dangerous one, but the arts and humanities are others. We are all cogs in a wheel, and the wheel of rational economics has been rolling on for several decades. This is not all bad, for to recognise value and balance priorities is a necessary activity. But it’s only an activity for a greater good, and when we don’t identify our essential values correctly in its terms, we set ourselves up for loss. A great university is about more than just producing “human resources” (a.k.a. people) for the corporate world. It’s a humanist project to value and explore the best that we can be. Music is part of that. I don’t claim it’s all – the great jazz saxist, Wayne Shorter, said “If all you have is music, then you don't have music”. But we must have music. Thinking further, I remember who we value, who we make films of, and who appears in our historical record with approval. It’s the Gandhis, the Schindlers, the Martin Luther Kings. They take risks, they are brave, they go against the tide, but above all they stand for the things we recognise deeply as important. Manning Clark sits at the centre of your university’s life with some of your largest lecture theatres named after him. Borrowing from Manning’s Manichaen vision, I hope you can see clear to side with the enlargers rather than the straighteners. History, and current Canberrans, will view you well if you do. Otherwise, the devastation of music in Canberra is just another brick in a wall of corporatist darkness.

V-C Ian Young, please choose ANU to be great rather than merely instrumental.

Eric Pozza

This is CJBlog post no. 800.

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