Sunday, October 01, 2006

The next generation of public intellectuals

With fitting irony, this year’s most important Australian essay/blog-post/whatever – “Our future thinkers” Drusilla Modjeska The Monthly July 2006 – has seemingly sunk without trace. The article’s not being available online* obviously hasn’t helped, but the young(er) Oz’s commentariat’s (which largely means the blogosphere’s) usual alacrity in responding to attacks on their own importance has been noticeably absent on this occasion.

Not that Modjeska is having a concerted go at the online commentariat – she has better primary targets in her sights; media/industries that actually involve money and earning a living, viz, academia and book publishing.

Here, she launches forthright into the generational lines that currently define these two key cultural industries. Along the way, she happily dismisses GenY (= twenty-somethings) and the blogosphere together in one short side-swipe:

Those who embrace the new world of the blogosphere say there’s plenty of reading and writing going on – it’s just not in books. The twenty-somethings, they argue, are making their own interventions into public culture in ways that go against the grain.

She’s presumably referencing Mark Davis’ Gangland (1997) here – the Xers’-DIY-spirit-will-eventually-triumph-over-conservative-boomers (deluded) argument, that is, not the (rather contradictory) Boomers Have it Locked Up Tighter Than Fort Knox argument. Which is appropriate enough because almost ten years on, it is now time for a revisiting, cum reality check, of the youthful promise of 90s’ twenty-somethings, and what happens when Davis’ “new” generationalism becomes threadbare and entrenched.

Modjeska, a baby boomer**, nowhere uses “Xer” (and "boomer" only sparingly) in her article – “thirty-something” is used in lieu, if necessarily somewhat loosely (Gideon Haigh, at 40, is emblematic of the generation, which is also alluded to as the "under fift[ies]" - although under-45s would be an empirically sounder age-borderline, IMO).

Thirty-somethings are an age group that can still be called “young”, but in 2006 carry with them some very particular historical baggage from the last decade and a half:

Who takes responsibility for publishing new writers, for nurturing them, investing in them? . . . These were the thorny questions I met again [after experiencing them in 1991] in the mid-90s when a member of the Literature Board.

And now a decade later, I am meeting them in the universities. Where does the responsibility fall for the nurturing and training of the next generation of public intellectuals?

Modjeska’s implied answer to the latter, titular question is pessimistic. But tellingly, she recognises a deeper, and in-real-time pessimism among the currently wing-waiting “next generation” – aka thirty-somethings – themselves:

With radical changes in the culture of both the universities and the publishing industry . . . the question that concerns me here is how the next generation of young thinkers and writers is going to become part of public culture. A gloomier question is whether there will be a thinking culture for them to join . . .

The thirty-somethings who teach in undergraduate courses see a radical shift since their day, when books were still central . . . They ask if we are reaping the fruits of postmodernism . . .

Although I share the sense of a tide running out, taking with it ground that once seemed solid, I am not as gloomy as the gloomier of my young interlocutors.

That these thirty-somethings, old enough to reflect "In my day . . .", are not even named by Modjeska also reflects a new reality, of fear of career damage and retribution within academia. Again the seed of this change can be quite precisely dated, to the Dawkins de-forms*** to higher education in the late 80s:

Dorothy Green . . . saw [the bureaucratised university] coming with the first of the Dawkins cuts that ushered in what Inga Clendinnen calls the Age of Iron. “Cuts to education budgets, Green wrote back in the 80s, “can be as effective as nocturnal visits from the secret police”.

* A (much) shorter, and rather different (removed of almost all generational references) version of the July Monthly article was run in the Oz recently: Drusilla Modjeska “Reach out and touch somebodyThe Australian Higher Ed, 13 September 2006

** Number of honourable mentions of Drusilla Modjeska in Gangland: one (p 58, where she admits boomers' tendency to myopic, 70s pseudo-anarchism). Number of dishonourable mentions: four (see Index)

*** Number of dishonorable mentions of John Dawkins (or HECS) in Gangland: none. Q.v. pp 13 and 243, where Labor's higher education de-forms in the decade to 1996 are obliquely noted.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?