How repetition and bureaucracy killed original thought in Australia

How will we get a new Hegel without genuine invention? Oxymoron/Flickr

Australia’s problem is that we have stopped producing major intellectual figures. Where is today’s Friedrich Hegel? Even more telling, where are the physicians like Edward Jenner, biologists like Alexander Fleming, or the medical scientists like Frederick Banting?

They appear to be missing in action.

Our real problem is not the arts versus the sciences. Rather it is the decline in high-level creativity across both the arts and the sciences. Both are in serious strife.

Hegel is a great intellectual figure. His works are rich in insight. But strip mining that insight has real limits. The humanities have become a hermeneutical desert. Too often now interpretation trumps insight. Quotation beats down intellect. Originality dies at the hands of tiresome repetition.

This is not just about the one-in-ten million genius. It is as much about the larger culture that produces commanding talents. We have ruined our intellectual culture. Its atmosphere has been poisoned. It has become lethargic and uninspired. Worst of all, it is now downright boring.

Right across the arts and sciences, there is little that is exciting, dazzling or outstanding. The social price we pay for this is the lack of genuine invention. The discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in 1953 is now a long-time past. There has been nothing in the sciences to match it since.

The world now pumps vast amounts into university and industry biomedical research. The results are modest and incremental. The last time we saw repeated breakthroughs was the 1930-65 period. It seems we get big results with modest funding and modest results with big funding.

It is not just universities and industries suffering creative decline. The creative arts are in the same boat. Compared with the high-point of artists like Arthur Boyd, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in the 1950s, the visual arts today are vacuous and uninteresting.

Death of A Husband, 1958, by the late Australian artist Arthur Boyd. AAP Image/Seven Network

There are many reasons we have ended up like this.

Size is a factor. In the past 40 years, universities have become massive bureaucracies. With this has come a bland controlling culture that loathes debate and idiosyncrasy. A shroud of greyness has descended over our institutions of inquiry. No room is left for quixotic brilliance. Better to keep one’s head down and tick the boxes.

There is no place for philosophers like Karl Popper or a Ludwig Wittgenstein, or for physicists like Wilhelm Roentgen or biologist like Karl Landsteiner. The culture has become impatient with characters. It thinks now not in concepts but in careers.

The effects of this are beginning to show. The rate of publication in core areas of the sciences (mathematics, physics and chemistry) is visibly slowing. The same but worse has happened in the social sciences. In the United States, the per capita number of copyrights and patents are less than they were a century ago. These numbers are symptoms of a deeper malaise.

Universities today are addicted to growth. They want Big Arts and Big Sciences. They want Big Dollars. Over the past half century, disciplines multiplied and staff numbers grew. Growth in a modern economy is a great thing. Growth in the arts and sciences is less so. Beyond a modest point, it is a liability.

The number of highly accomplished contributors to the arts and sciences is a constant proportion of the population. In the past half century or more, the growth of universities and other science and cultural institutions has vastly exceeded population growth.

The result has been a general decline of the calibre of disciplines. We spend much more money on these today in real terms than we did in 1960. But the calibre of output overall has diminished.

Bureaucracy can’t correct this. The external grants system of funding research gained traction in the 1960s. As it expanded, the quantity and quality of output per capita declined. As the fascination with impact factors, citation rates and journal ranking has spread widely, core research areas producing lasting work with a long half-life have shrunk.

The more research bureaucracies measure, the less there is for them to measure.

The old system of funding research through general funding of collegial universities was much better. We know this because the arts and sciences of the first half of the 20th century were much better than our own. We see this reflected in the declining rate of production of monumental science papers and classic social science works.

The challenge for us today is to match the acumen and vision of those times. The super-sizing of the university sector stands in the way of this. So does its bureaucratic compulsions. It will take a lot of courage to turn this around. But if we don’t do this then we condemn ourselves to mundane science and to philosophy that endlessly chews on its own tail.

This article is based on a Professorial Inaugural Lecture delivered by James Cook University’s Head of the School of Creative Arts Professor, Peter Murphy, on 25 September 2013.