Universities are for thinking – clearly, freely and hard

The educational challenge of our age is to develop our individual and collective ability to think.

What are universities for?

This is not an idle question, especially when you consider the cost of using them – high enough to put some students into penury for the rest of their working lives. That high price suggests our country puts a high value on what universities do.

In earlier times we took a different tack. Governments under Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke said that universities were indeed valuable – so valuable that the nation should spread the burden and ensure their services were available free of charge to users.

Then in 1989 fees were reintroduced – this time without the benefit of the old Commonwealth scholarship scheme, but with the “sweetener” that students could defer paying the debt (initially just $1800; now vastly more) until they earned enough to do so through the tax system.

Ever since that fateful year, with varying levels of success, governments have repeatedly tried the conjuring trick of appearing to be right behind universities while grabbing as much money as possible from students for the “privilege” of tertiary education.

Now we are seeing another bid to limit university funding, presented by education minister Dan Tehan and employment minister Michaelia Cash as a necessary remedy for economic woes.

“Job-ready graduates to power economic recovery” was the benign heading on the media release by Tehan and Cash 11 days ago, but it was enough to spark a furore. “They’re destroying our universities” was the response from GetUp.

GetUp is over-dramatic. The Morrison government’s determination to see students pay more for arts, law and economics study and less for science, maths and various vocational and technology degrees is just one more step in hundreds of changes to tertiary education funding over decades, and universities will survive.

But nor should we swallow the line that this will help universities to be more “job-ready” by churning out graduates who fit the careers that employers demand, or that universities’ main role is to prepare people for employment. If true, that would be a sad reflection on universities today.

A lifetime ago I was a part-time arts student, the field at the centre of this latest controversy. My degree may have helped land me a job, but far more important was what it did for how I think and see the world. I realised that whatever I knew, there was far more I didn’t know.

Most of all, it taught me that education is a process, not a product, and its greatest gift is not factual knowledge but the quest for knowledge. Not truth itself, but the search for it. Not answers, but questions.

In the face of incompetence and failure in these most troubling of times, people demand answers that they can easily comprehend, that will be simple and straightforward. But as with all profoundly difficult situations, there are no such answers.

Consider the history of this land, which has traditionally defined itself in terms dictated by early colonial overlords, that Australian history began with the first effective occupation by Europeans from the late 18th century. But that interpretation of our past is under challenge as never before.

Steadily growing evidence of a strong culture of indigenous land occupation and stewardship have seen growing numbers of academic historians open up the prospect of an integrated pre- and post-colonial history extending back tens of thousands of years. This nation needs to know this.

Consider climate scientists, who have always warned of the uncertainty around distant-future projections, such that some of them might happen much sooner. Now they’re happening around us. Or the medical scientists who have guided government policy during the COVID-19 pandemic. They know a lot, but their most important attribute is that they know they have much still to learn.

The rest of us must be like that. We must learn from climate change and pandemic disease that we don’t know the full consequences of what is happening, and that to counter it we need to be able to think clearly, freely and hard.

Speaking in tones of authority and assurance as if they know the future, leaders say certainty is important and desirable. But we are already learning that certainty of mind is a road to ruin. How many shocks will it take to make them understand that?

Universities can provide job skills and knowledge, but their real value to employers – to all of us – is turning out incisive, critical minds that can see possibilities and pitfalls that others miss. As we understood half a century ago but seem to have forgotten, the nation’s duty is to safeguard that by opening universities to all.

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The warming goes on, and on

The virus has contained emissions for now, but the planet continues to heat up

“The future is grim but the sunrise is beautiful,” US environmental writer William DeBuys once said, explaining to an interviewer that while the evidence about future climate made him pessimistic, he was hard-wired to feel cheerful.

Those words of DeBuys keep coming back to me. On clear mornings early in this Hobart winter it’s been impossible not to feel cheerful. Which is just as well, because the state of our climate is anything but.

There is no better illustration of our parlous situation than this year’s global temperature maps, which show an ominous warming region across a huge swathe of Siberia and central Asia.

For all of this century the Arctic has been warming more than twice as quickly as the world overall, but this year has seen a major break-out. The May mean for some Siberian centres was 10C above their average – on top of steady warming across all of Siberia over the first five months of this year, nearly 6C above normal.

On one day in May, the temperature in the Siberian town of Khatanga climbed above 24C – over 25C above normal and 12C higher than the previous record. Then a fortnight ago Nizhnyaya Pesha, northeast of Moscow, sweltered in 30C temperatures – 17C above normal. Both centres are within the Arctic Circle – in the case of Khatanga 500 km north of it.

A full analysis of this unheard-of warming is yet to come, but a lot of it is likely to be down to the fact that the volume of ice covering the Arctic Ocean has dropped by half over just 40 years. The change has been most dramatic north of Siberia, which is now routinely ice-free all summer.

Less sea ice and reduced Arctic snow cover means both sea and land surfaces are darker-coloured, enabling the ocean and the land to absorb far more solar heat than normal. In heatwave conditions last summer, with permafrost melting at a record rate, peat fires fuelled by released methane broke out. Those that were not extinguished last summer are now flaring up again.

The Siberian experience is just one driver –albeit a big one – of high temperatures globally. Four major global temperature reviews, by the European agency Copernicus, NASA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the privately-funded Berkeley Earth, have concluded that for Earth as a whole, last month was the warmest May ever recorded.

An El Nino event made 2016 the warmest year on record. There is no such event this year, yet both Berkeley Earth and NASA calculate 2020 will break the record again. This when Earth is at its maximum distance from the sun and solar energy reaching us is at its lowest in the 11-year cycle – proof, if anyone needs it any more, of the dominant climate impact of greenhouse warming.

In mid-March the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organisation warned that 2020 would be a pivotal year, in which the world’s ever-rising emissions would have to begin coming down if we were to avoid a catastrophic climate future.

Their timing was exquisite, if accidental. A week or two later, with COVID-19 forcing economies everywhere to shut down, emissions suddenly started dropping. A Nature study published last month found that this year will see global emissions down by at least 4 per cent and probably more.

Leaders everywhere are doing their utmost to get economies moving again, so the downward curve may be short-lived. We do need functioning economies to develop the technologies and systems to reach zero carbon emissions and ultimately to lower carbon levels in the air. What we definitely don’t need is a return to business as usual.

But with a few scattered exceptions (Europe and New Zealand come to mind), in preparing their national recovery plans leaders are not including any effective emissions-reducing measures, let alone the ones we need most – those that will have an immediate impact.

It’s possible that COVID-19 and other destabilising factors will turn today’s recession into a multi-year depression – tragic for humanity but a welcome breather for the natural environment. That would keep emissions relatively low, but it’s no way to secure a safe climate future.

But it’s never too late. “Thriving Tasmania” is an event aiming to draw Tasmanians into a virtual conversation to reflect on how we can shape a stronger future community in the wake of COVID-19. Two identical events – next Monday and on July 9 – will explore the actions we can take to help our state thrive again. Register at www.tasmanianway.org/thrivingtasmania

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When ugly things happen, unity is everything

Political tribalism is fuelling social unrest when that’s the last thing we need

There was never a more telling instance of internet power. Just days after video was posted showing a policeman kneeling on a black man’s neck, and in the face of pandemic lockdowns, mass protests erupted in cities round the world.

The video was evidence of a crime, fully justifying the arrests that eventually followed and the scrutiny that confronted people and governments everywhere, including in Australia, about racism embedded in laws, policies, procedures and customs.

It brings to mind a couple of other recent videos that got a mass audience. One featured three people fighting over toilet paper in the aisles of a Sydney supermarket in March. The other was about a woman in New York’s Central Park three weeks ago who, asked by an African American man to put her dog on a lead, phoned police. Stupid, racist – and all too human.

Against a backdrop of the pandemic and various other events, both the shoppers and the dog-walker were targets of public ridicule. The shoppers have faced court; the dog-walker – notwithstanding an apology – lost both her dog and her job.

But I can’t find it in me to condemn them. The videos didn’t leave me amused or outraged, just sad. Whatever personal shortcomings were on display, the people involved were at breaking point. And they broke.

The power of social media to expose injustice also makes it easy to stoke division and ridicule people. Those small disagreements seem trivial compared to the sufferings of millions through famine, war and displacement, but what lies behind them is anything but trivial.

We are encouraged to see security as soldiers defending the nation and police catching criminals, but that’s mostly politics. So-called security policies that use heavy-handed policing, punitive justice and an unresponsive bureaucracy to divide people actually undermine the real, inner security we all need.

Divisive politics now extends to every corner of society. Behind the robodebt fiasco that drove thousands of low-income Australians to despair is the implication that welfare recipients are cheats who steal from the public purse. The spectre of terrorism is used to target certain ethnic groups, to justify secret court hearings and to bypass other democratic and legal principles.

And then there’s race. School histories never admit it, but Australia was founded on racism. Earlier governments rated our land’s first people so low in the scheme of things that they didn’t even register as human. That attitude remains in different forms, such as political indifference to the disproportionate numbers of Aborigines in prison.

Australia’s acclaimed multicultural policies of the last century involved managing a complex interplay between different races, religions and traditions. That was until the Tampa incident gave conservative politicians a green light to express prejudice and xenophobia for electoral gain, all but wrecking the multiculturalism they claim to defend.

None of these things – cynical politics, wealth disparity, racial inequity, heavy-handed authority, ethnic division, judicial missteps – are unique to Australia. We can see daily the same sorts of issues popping up everywhere, and nowhere are they more starkly evident than in the United States.

Donald Trump is an appallingly ignorant, self-obsessed president who puts electioneering ahead of the national interest, rejects expertise and experience and promotes narrow nationalism and internal division. His administration is now a train-wreck of lies, accusations and general confusion.

Like all Americans, the hapless Central Park dog-walker has a lot to contend with. While she had no reason to be afraid of the calmly spoken black man who requested she comply with park rules and leash her dog, she almost certainly felt fearful during their encounter. She is a case in point that in her country, feelings of insecurity are expressed in more dangerous ways.

But insecurity is global. Chronic racial division, employment uncertainty, poverty, income inequality, a public health crisis and a destabilised climate – even without the devastation of war – add up to the greatest challenges to governments and peoples since at least World War II.

Fighting over toilet paper and making false claims to police are foolish, and it’s bad tactics to protest in public streets when there’s a pandemic. But people do irrational things when deep-seated fears and anxieties affecting whole populations are left to fester for years, or decades.

Like the rest of us, politicians will never agree on everything, but the crises we are living through call for them to abandon empty political point-scoring, acknowledge the truth of evidence and stop attacking messengers.

We need them to recognise that the big challenges we face demand unity of purpose and action, between individuals, communities, governments and ultimately nations. If we don’t achieve that, the ride ahead is going to get even rougher.

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