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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Everyone to whom much was given - of him or her much will be required


I come here, in this 100th birthday year for the city of Canberra, arguably the 63rd of ANU, and the 53rd of that great afterthought – its undergraduate faculties – with both good news and bad news.

First what I suppose is, for the non-masochists among us at least, the good news. Some of you will have read that Australians enjoy the greatest median wealth per capita in the world.

I need hardly tell you that you can be sure that the median person in Canberra sits on the very top branches of the Australian tree. Average income here is about 25 per cent higher than the national average. There are small clusters of suburbs in other parts of Australia where the averages might exceed ours, but there is no conurbation – no whole community – where the average burgher is so rich and so comfortable as in Canberra.

But this is not the good news. Or even the bad news. The real news that I am inviting you to contemplate is the idea that this might be as good as it gets. That we here represent the absolute apotheosis of civilisation, good taste, creature comforts, learning, education, good health and culture.

This, my friends, is heaven upon earth – and, amazingly, this, my friends, is our little secret.

This agreeable state of affairs has its good and bad points, depending upon how one sees things. This place – this subset of the ACT which is ANU – may well represent nearly everything that is fabulous about this heaven.

There are people here whose memory of this university is longer than mine. This university and this city have grown and prospered since the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s. When I sometimes  think sadly that for Canberra or for ANU, for the people of Canberra, or for the people of Australia, the very best may be behind us, I remain reasonably sure that the evidence will appear to be against me for some time to come.

I say this not to criticise this institution, which has been for all of us in different ways both a mother and a father, because we can see that every year it teaches more students, produces more doctors, masters and mistresses, and bachelors, and helps place more and more Australians, from all parts of the nation, and from the rest of the world, in positions where they can exercise great influence over human affairs.

ANU sits high on international league tables not only as a university, but as a community and as a citizen. Fashions wax and wane, and the fashions of today are not necessarily those of the times when we were here. We can sometimes be too nostalgic for a past that others cannot remember. We were lucky – perhaps particularly those of us from the earliest days, particularly because the institution was then much younger, more flexible, and perhaps not so serious all of the time.

Increasingly one speaks to academics here and elsewhere who are grim, employed during one of the greatest expansions of the university system that Australia has ever known, but feeling besieged, lonely and worried. Worried not only about the prospects and their job security, but about their disciplines and their institutions. Not expansive, adventurous and daring to think outside the boundaries, but cautious, careful and with their heads down. Led to believe that in these particular times – just as we are triumphing the highest living standards we have ever known – that the economy and the circumstances are too straitened to make a gamble, to invest in the future, or to use one’s imagination.

My worries are by no means confined to ANU, or indeed to the university sector. One can say that all the more comfortably because many of the problems of universities, or of the community generally, are common to the sector, not confined to particular places. But it is ANU that I particularly love.

When I came here, ANU had a history faculty that was by a long distance the best in Australia, and any number of the scholars there were leaders in their areas. A good time later, it was alleged that the faculty led by Manning Clark was a Comintern conspiracy designed to addle our brains, but those of us who were here understand that it was, in fact, a secret redoubt of the Carlton Football Club, where Catholic and communist, Anglican and atheist, Grouper and groper, Marxist and monarchist, ratbag and revolutionary could meet good naturedly to discuss Saturday’s game.

A good many of us will say ruefully that we had all of the advantages in the world, and sometimes all the letters after our names that we could want. And that yet we failed to make much real difference, least of all to the heresy that happiness and human development, heaven and hell can be weighed, counted, measured or even identified by economists, accountants and statisticians.

At the very least we owe it to this womb which succoured us to support it as it seeks to hold the fort on things that actually matter.

[The address given by alumnus Jack Waterford, Editor at large at The Canberra Times to the 2013 Australian National University Golden Graduates’ Reunion in October of this year, published in the Summer 2013 edition of the ANU Reporter]


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