June 30, 2005
The Wages of Doctrinaire Anti-intellectualism
Religious fundamentalism has come in for increasing attention especially since the attacks by Muslim extremists on New York City's Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Washington DC. Whether or not the increasing pressure of the US' Christian fundamentalists with regard to introducing creationism (intelligent design) into the curricula of US schools and universities is at least in part a reaction to the 9/11 attack is a moot point.
In a recent article in the International Herald Tribune Peter Watson, author of the 2002 864 page Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century and newly released comparably sized "sequel" Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud, writes on "The wages of fundamentalism".
For decades "big science" -- indeed any kind of science -- has been led by the United States. There are warning signs, however, that American science is losing its edge, and may even have peaked. One reason is that as religious and political fundamentalism tighten their grip, they are beginning to sap America's intellectual vitality.
And while Watson simplistically cites some statistics to support his contention he also makes some telling if well known points.
As a result of fundamentalist opposition, America is already falling behind in cloning and stem cell research, now led by South Korean, Italian and British scientists.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the number of Chinese and Indians travelling to America to study has fallen by more than 50 per cent - they are going to Europe instead.
Yet history shows that fundamentalism leads only to stagnation and disaster.
Watson then recites what amounts to a litany of intellectual disasters brought about by fundamentalist zealots. Pre Christian Israelite zealots "dropped behind the surrounding civilizations both politically and materially, and provoked the Romans, who annihilated them, sparking a diaspora which lasted 2,000 years," while "Christianity in the Roman Empire led to half a millennium of dark ages, ending only with the rediscovery of Aristotle in the 12th century," and "Ascetic Buddhist fundamentalism in China from the fourth century to the ninth century resulted in 4,600 monasteries being destroyed, before the Song renaissance released the finest flowering of Chinese civilization."
Finally, "Islamic fundamentalism beginning in Baghdad around 1067 led to a millennium of backwardness, which still afflicts the Islamic world."
In recent months a small but increasingly vocal group of federal parliamentarians have voiced their disquiet about human abortion under almost any circumstances and oppose cell nuclear replacement (CNR, therapeutic cloning), in which the nucleus of a human egg cell is removed and replaced with the nucleus from a human body cell, such as a skin cell with the view of producing so-called embryonic stem cells for research and possible eventual therapy. This is one aspect of what is a deep seated problem within Australia's political framework, a fundamental and doctrinaire anti-intellectualism, cloaked in moralistic arguments.
So for example during the years that the Liberal - National Party coalition have held federal power the Commonwealth Government's allocation for research and development has fallen from just over 0.75% of GDP (1995/96) to a predicted 0.597% for 2005/06 while its support for higher education moved from 0.72% of GDP to 0.53% (1996/97 - 2003/04).
The latest efforts by the Coalition to have contributions to university student unions become voluntary in order to reduce campus political activism and introduce the mandatory offering of Australian Workplace Agreements within universities to dilute the bargaining power of union representation on campuses while refusing to index university block grants to keep pace with real costs are further evidence of what has all the signs of a doctrinaire obsession to bring the university sector to heel. Did we mention the kind offer by the Coalition through its Minister for Education, Science and Training that it would be prepared to take over full responsibility for Australia's public universities.
Harold Shapiro, emeritus president of Princeton University, in commenting on Jennifer Washburn's 350 page assessment of University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of American Higher Education made the point, "[Ms Washburn] offers a set of recommendations that generally increase the authority of the federal government or other third parties. With the exception of a proposal aimed at strengthening conflict-of-interest regulations, I find these unpersuasive and, in many cases, a little na´ve."
Judging by the bashing the university sector is heir to in Australia at the hands of the current federal government Professor Shapiro's concern would seem prescient.
In his June 30, 2005 Viewpoint Harry Robinson suggests that for the university and research sectors to get a slice of Treasurer Peter Costello's proposed Future Fund,
...a practised manipulator of public attitudes -- oh, to be frank, a spin doctor [would be required]. Not all spin doctors are evil geniuses. Some are filled with good intentions -- these cannot be trusted. Others are amoral and hungry for success in manufacturing consent, to steal a phrase from that wizard of words Noam Chomsky. Such are fine candidates for isolating a few billions to advance the cause of the intellectual end of town.
It may be that many Mind People would shudder at the idea of hiring a spin doctor or getting into the dust of public campaigning.
Scruples when faced with a Philistine government?
It's even more true if Australia's universities are to reverse their falling into increasing intellectual and infrastructural disrepair.
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