April 02, 2009

This story (the title of which alludes to Jessica Mitford’s October 1974 Atlantic Monthly report, “€œMy Short And Happy Life as a Distinguished Professor”€) really begins with two processes that became obvious to Australians in early 2008. First, there was the evidence”€”clear from the American media’s caterwauling about the subprime meltdown”€”that a world recession was a matter of “€œwhen,”€ not “€œif.”€ And second, there was the fact that Australia approached America in the “€œhave pulse, go to graduate school”€ mindset.

After a quarter-century of avoiding the Servile State’s educational arm, I had reached a stage where, without further university study, I was almost unemployable. In 2008 I turned 47. Let no one say that Australia since the 1980s has ever had anything like full employment for its white heterosexual males over 35. Moreover, as far as authorship was concerned, I”€”along with several others “€“ had traveled the downward path from mild Australian prosperity to almost complete Australian unpublishability. (I described this path in a piece called “€œWizards of Oz”€ for The American Conservative on June 5, 2006.) No joy there.

So when I attended a public seminar about job and training prospects for librarianship, I greeted it with almost indecent enthusiasm. After all, my working life, such as it was, pretty much revolved around libraries anyhow. Every time I prepared an article for consideration by TAC, Takimag, Modern Age, and other notable U.S. magazines, I burrowed my way through library stacks. I had produced three non-fiction books that required, for each step of their preparation, substantial knowledge of archives, databases, gazetteers, newspaper indices, and other areas of which the average Google-searcher grasps nothing. Attempting to become a librarian seemed the logical next step.

The oldest of the colleges hawking its wares at the seminar was, purely by virtue of its being the oldest, the one that appealed to me most. Mistake #1.

We shall here slightly disguise this institution’s real name by calling it Potash University.  Potash was one of the half-dozen notionally pedagogic establishments that Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, in a late and uncharacteristic rush of vote-catching blood to his sober Presbyterian head, felt the urge to found during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Architecturally it is just as depressing and sadistic as this description implies: a veritable orgy of glass boxes and brutalist concrete, indistinguishable from proletarian apartment blocks in Belgrade and Brasilia. The student population of Potash is a scarcely believable 43,000. It would defy even Sebastian Flyte and his blasted teddy bear to get nostalgic about this campus.

Mistake #2: believing Potash University’s claims to have a librarianship-related course at all. What it actually had”€”more fool me for not appreciating the implications of this”€”was a Graduate Diploma in Information and Knowledge Management. Which bears much the same relationship to what you and I would call librarianship, as cannibalism bears to Holy Communion.

From the time of the very first lecture I was overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu. It did not take long to recollect exactly what early experiences I was reliving: namely, high school math. Saying that I was inadequate at high school math is like saying that Jack the Ripper had one or two misogyny issues. I was a veritable freak of mathematical ineptitude, who by rights should have been put on display for freakishness, like Tom Thumb and the Bearded Lady in happier times. This did not derive from any hostility towards math on my part. On the contrary, few could have matched the desperation of my desire to be mathematically capable. My brain simply suffered from what British literary critic Cyril Connolly, in another context, called “€œfierce and mutinous sloth.”€ Pound my little gray cells as I might, no math-comprehending (let alone math-performing) ability ever emerged thence. I always had the sensation of being talked at in Swahili.

And thus it was again, more than three decades later, at Potash. The more fluently the lecturers jaw-jawed about Information and Knowledge Management, the more confused I became. Frantically, I scribbled notes on lecture material that might just as well, so far as I was concerned, have been about thermodynamics, string theory, or any other arcana you wish to name. Periodically a lecturer would punctuate his discourse with entirely insincere requests that his hearers interrupt him if they failed to follow his reasoning. I could hardly obey his pleas. If I had, I would have been interrupting him after every sentence, and he would be, no doubt, still in the throes of giving his first lecture today.

During what spare time I had, I dutifully plowed through as much of the course’s bibliography as I could master. From these, and from the occasional throwaway comment uttered during tutorials, I gradually recognized Knowledge Management for what it was: the latest and hippest in a series of pseudo-sciences, on a par with phrenology, Freudianism, Margaret Mead’s Samoan “€œresearch,”€ and so-called “€œbusiness studies.”€ Indeed, from this last-named, Knowledge Management derived a large amount of its feel-good jargon, most of the rest having been appropriated from Information Technology, with a sprinkling of metaphysics (one talk bore the rubric “€œThe Ontological Framework of Knowledge Management”€). It was no surprise to discover that most of my fellow students”€”who were young enough to be my children, and who may be accurately, if uncharitably, described as comprising the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”€”had already completed IT degrees or were in the middle of completing them. Tutorials revealed what lectures had not: the student contingent’s almost complete incapacity for speaking understandable English. 

In yet another respect, Knowledge Management resembled earlier pseudo-sciences: when it was not meaningless, it was either platitudinous or, more often, downright false. Its practitioners, both in the classroom and on the printed page, rhapsodized with Pavlovian promptitude about something called “€œthe knowledge economy.”€  Once upon a time, in the Bad Old Days (we were asked to believe), people earned money by making things. Now, in the Brave New World, people earned money by thinking things. This Is The Knowledge Economy. We Love The Knowledge Economy. Long Live The Knowledge Economy. Rah Rah Rah!

No amount of contrary evidence could shake lecturers”€™, and textbook writers”€™, faith in this Knowledge Economy gig. The fact that every knowledge-worker I know is about to lose his job or has already lost it”€”even as plumbers, electricians, bricklayers, and other non-knowledge-workers are earning at least six-figure annual salaries”€”was simply not allowed to disturb the prevailing euphoria. Since at least euphoria made a change from impenetrability, I remained mostly silent.

But the real revelation came with what passed for the Potash library. It was a revelation for which one lecture should have provided”€”although in my case it did not furnish”€” adequate warning. This particular lecture maintained that once upon a time, in the Bad Old Days (yep, we”€™re back to that Manichean dichotomy again), libraries were horrible fascist places where users were expected to sit down and shut up. Now, in the Brave New World, libraries are dynamic, sexy, vibrant, multicultural paradises where you can improve your Creativity and Self-Esteem, and if you cannot speak enough intelligible English to buy a train ticket without an interpreter’s assistance, so much the better. These grisly criteria the Potash library amply fulfilled. So deafening was the prevalent noise level that trying to carry out any serious study there resembled trying to carry it out right under a flight path at Los Angeles Airport. Nor did wearisome, old-fashioned rules about abstaining from food and drink while on library premises prevail for a second. It was commonplace for the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’s phalanxes to tap away at every available computer, while simultaneously ululating into their cell phones, scribbling over textbooks with highlighter pens, wolfing down spring rolls, and chugging enough Coke to sabotage even the most robust urinary tract.

* * *

For as long as I could”€”weeks rather than months, I am afraid”€”I endured all this, before nature intervened, in the form of illness. The character of this illness, I cannot hope to describe adequately. William Styron, in his Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, said it best when he wrote that such a collapse “€œremains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its most extreme mode.”€ It prevented, for a long time, my reading anything: the simplest words on a page or screen would, before my eyes, become gibberish. Sleep and appetite became unimaginably distant recollections. Potash’s health services did everything they could to help. It was not much, and could not be much, what with a client base of 42,999 other students for whom they needed to be available. All I remember of the next few days are the panic attacks, the sobbing, the insistent voice in my head which repeatedly demanded that I kill myself”€”as my father had done in 1994″€”and the 4 a.m. ambulance journey to hospital, arranged by a health insurance counselor who had been worried by my admission of how insistent this voice was.

The worst of it all is that, now I am out of hospital and partially functional again, I shall never know whether I could have (as I undoubtedly should have) endured. There are much worse fates, after all, than essaying a silly pseudo-scientific postgraduate course. And almost certainly my illness was brewing sub-clinically, in any case. Nevertheless I am unable to escape the self-torment that would occur after a dishonorable discharge from the army.

Perhaps it is simply ludicrous for any culturally literate, middle-aged individual to imagine that 21st-century instruction at a government-funded Australian university (and Australia has no other kind of university, save for Sydney’s tiny private Catholic liberal arts school, Campion College) will be anything other than a racket of the sort I have described. Almost every development in the last half-century of Australian education has conspired to make these campuses intellectually and ethically infective: whether it be Menzies”€™ decision to perpetrate more of such campuses in the first place; or a subsequent Federal Labor Government’s decision (the 1980s”€™ so-called “€œDawkins Revolution,”€ named for Education Minister John Dawkins) to turn perfectly respectable community colleges into fourth-rate universities by a mere act of legislative will, thereby creating a new student proletariat; or, worst of all, John Howard’s imposition of de facto civil disabilities on native-born Australian students in the most prestigious disciplines. (This last phenomenon is discussed in a book called The Howard Legacy, by Melbourne editor and chemist Peter Wilkinson.)

At any rate, one thing is clear: if you have a small private college of decent scholastic attainments situated near you, cherish it. Don”€™t imagine that its values, or any decently avowable values, will be transferable to a welfarist broiler-house. That was the error I made. That, and the further error of being 47 years old.


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!