Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Past is Not Always Better - and the University of Blogging

Rereading my last post, I suppose that I should make it clear that I am not one who believes that the past is always better. It's obviously not.

As a simple case in point, over the last week I have been to two displays of HSC major works at my daughters' school, one on visual arts, the second on design and technology. The overall standard would, I think, have amazed someone from 1961.

Yet while the past is not always better, we can use comparisons from the past to challenge current positions, to pose questions about the way our society and system operates.

Take, as an example, the continuing dialogue between Neil and myself on issues like multiculturalism (most recently here 1, here 2, here 3).

If you look at our respective writings, you will see that we are in agreement on the core issue, the need for an Australia that recognises and accepts difference. Where we often part company is in the interpretation of matters, of ideas, surrounding that core point.

Multiculturalism itself is an example.

Neil considers, he will correct me if I am wrong, that the official interpretation of multiculturalism that was dominant for a period was right and proper and blames the Howard Government in part for its decline. By contrast, I have argued that that imposed official interpretation was pernicious and divisive, working against the very thing that it was trying to achieve.

So far we are clearly on opposite sides of the culture wars. This apparently continues in our interpretation of past and current events.

Neil has a strong focus on the need to redress the wrongs of the past and mourns the way in which, as he sees it, certain things are being torn down that were in fact the recently dominant Australian orthodoxy. By contrast, while accepting that there were past wrongs, I have a strong focus on the rights of the past, mourning in turn the way that the imposition of the idea sets of which multiculturalism is part destroyed things that I considered to be valuable.

All this would would appear to place us on opposite sides of the history wars, a sub-set of the culture wars. And that might be the end of the story if our respective blogs were no more than streams of opposing opinions, each reaching out to those who agreed with us. In practice, the fact that the conversation between us is a genuine dialogue changes the equation.

In his multicultural series that I referred to earlier, Neil put forward certain views quoting an official source in part support. I challenged the historical accuracy of the views put forward in that source. Neil investigated and found that I was, at least in part right.

Now this is intellectual honesty of a high order. I found the points that Neil made intensely interesting, generating a stream of ideas that I will write about in due course. Neither of us have shifted our core positions, but we have opened up new areas for discussion and potential agreement.

I must say I do wonder sometimes how readers take the dialogue, including the sometimes very long stuff that I write as I try to explore issues and my own views. All writers, bloggers included, like to be read and my stuff is very often far from reader friendly. In fact, it breaches pretty much every rule for on-line writing.

That said, I find the whole process - both the writing and the reading including all the other blogs that I read - very satisfying.

I grew up in a world of constant intellectual debate, of interest in ideas. To some degree at least, and this is a point I have made before, blogging has recreated that world.

In the relatively short period since I started blogging, I have written far more across the range of my interests than in the previous twenty years combined. Challenged as I have been, I have been forced to constantly extend and to refine my ideas. In doing so, I have built up a body of new writing that itself provides a source of continuing stimulation.

The effects have been quite pervasive. My newspaper reading has expanded as I look for stories, ideas for my own writing. I find myself thinking about issues, responses while having my morning shower. It has begun to re-energise my professional life, an area where I had gone very stale. The burble of ideas is back.

The nearest past equivalent that I can see is my first period as an undergraduate at the University of New England, if without the sound!

There is the same sitting in the Union chatting (visiting blogs to see what is happening, responding). There is the same need to prepare seminar papers and essays (the posts). There is the same external critique and contribution (counter posts, comments). There is the same requirement to listen to (in this case read) papers prepared by others. Then there are the obligatory visits to the library (the internet) to collect material and the same temptations to pursue by-ways, to just browse! Finally, there are the international students bringing new perspectives to issues.

I have said before that blogging can be a liberal education. But it's more than that. At its best, it is in fact an external University in its own right capable of delivering an education on almost any subject area you care to name.


I have been asked whether I would be happy for a piece that I wrote on one of my blogs to be included in a new book on work life balance. I was happy to agree. So in terms of the University of Blogging, it appears that one of the students has achieved that traditional academic dream of having a piece of work accepted for publication!


ninglun said...

I think the conversations we have been having are better than the ones I recall in the Sydney University Union coffee shops circa 1962!

Jim Belshaw said...

Actually Neil, I think that our conversations are more like postgraduate or departmental seminars!

In retrospect, I was very lucky to be at UNE at the time I was.

The University was and still is strongly residential, so it had a fairly intense campus life. I arrived there in the morning and spent the rest of the day on campus. The I was often back there at night for a party, function or performance. Some days I spent more than twelve hours on campus at a stretch.

I should write a little more at some point - I have done so in aprticular contexts - actually talking about the texture of life.

ninglun said...

Interesting, isn't it? I found the thought on multiculturalism in the late 80s and early 90s liberating, not divisive. I felt my Australian-ness was enriched by it, and felt no need to let go of Waltzing Matilda, Anzac Day, Banjo Paterson or Judith Wright. In fact I really enjoyed sharing them in multicultural classrooms, while getting back Li Bai, Du Fu, and so much else... Not to mention a major improvement in the quality of Chinese Restaurants.

And my finding out more about Aboriginal Australia post 1988 was a source of hope rather than an overwhelming source of regret, even given the dark side of our shared story.

But there you go.

Jim Belshaw said...

Perhaps part of the answer here is when we came to certain things, Neil.

I came in contact with Asia in the sixties. I remember attending a posh birthday party in Bangkok in January 66 for a bloke who had been 2ic to Sarit. There it was explained to me why Australians were second class citizens in Asia.

In, I think, 1984 I was on an official ministerial visit to Indonesia. Visiting an aerospace establishment, an Australian trained engineer explained why Minister Habibe had such a low opinion of Australia and Australians.

During the sixties I articulated in my own mind what it meant to be Australian.

Neil, I have to go. I will continue in the morning.

ninglun said...

Interesting experiences, Jim. It may make a difference that I have mainly been concerned with, and got to know, people from China (especially) who have chosen to stay here. And yes, I have encountered views of Australia and Australians which are not always flattering. The Chinese stereotypes of us sometimes include: cruel, heartless (look at how we treat old people!) and lazy...

But it is I guess the transitional folk -- those becoming in varying degrees hybrids -- that I have encountered. It's an interesting phenomenon.

My friend M says in Shanghai he feels Australian, but in Sydney often feels Shanghainese.

And I too am half asleep right now...

Small Business USA said...

I think the discussion of past better or worse does not really do anything. In different times there are things that are better than others, nothing is all good or all bad.

The important part of viewing the past is attempting to identify what is good and worked well and attempting to apply that in current life while avoiding that which is bad.

This is difficult in its own right since good and bad are perceptions skewed by personal perspective. Add to this that culture changes and the general perception changes with it making something that was very important no longer of any consequence.

For some this is difficult because not all people adapt the new set of norms. Others are not able to accept the new perception of good and bad.

At one time a tempered employee was more valuable than a young viewpoint, today experience is a hinderence to the procedural structure of companies. Is one better than the other?

Jim Belshaw said...

Responding to David first before returning to my discussion with Neil.

David, your comment raises a number of different issues. Starting with the end-point first.

You wrote: "At one time a tempered employee was more valuable than a young viewpoint, today experience is a hinderence to the procedural structure of companies. Is one better than the other?"

We have both written on this one in our different ways. Both of us would, I think, conclude that one (the first) is indeed better than the other.

The problem that can arise when change is required including compliance to new approaches is the way in which experience (perceptions of the past)can impede the new.

As you say: "For some (adjustment to change) this is difficult because not all people adapt the new set of norms. Others are not able to accept the new perception of good and bad."

Perceptions of good and bad are, as you suggest, "skewed by personal perspective". They are also, again as you suggest, affected by broader change.

This is where I think that I may part company with you.

When researching as a historian I try to put concepts of good and bad aside. I try as best I can to understand that particular far country within the frame existing at the time.

Now this endeavour is bound to fail. But I think it important in professional terms to try as best I can.

Now in this context, and writing as an historian, I do not think that there are such things as lessons of the past. History just is, a field of intellectual endeavour.

So here I think that I part company with you when you write: "The important part of viewing the past is attempting to identify what is good and worked well and attempting to apply that in current life while avoiding that which is bad."

The position is very different when I am writing as a commentator or as a social, political or policy analyst. Now I am interested in the influence of the past on the present. My views and perceptions become central.

To the degree that the past is used (misused) to support current nostrums, then I may wish to challenge particular uses of history. I am also interested in what history can teach us for present application. So wearing my commentator or analyst hat I come back to a common position with you.

While I sometimes bore people rigid, I have found that a dose of history, the application of historical techniques to arguments, can sometimes be very productive.

For reasons I have written about before, to some degree we (at least in Australia) live in a-historical times, increasingly cut of from our past.

Much of my professional life has been spent working as a change agent, an irony that is not lost on me given my desire to preserve elements of the past.

When I go into a new organisation, one of the first things that I have to do is to get to understand its culture. Culture just doesn't emerge, notwithstanding the current obsession with re-invention. It always has historical roots.

Assuming for the moment that you do not want to turn the organisation into a green fields site by razing everything to the ground, you have to start with what you have before you can bring about change.

I can usually tell pretty quickly whether or not proposed changes will fail.

If I find a new broom management, say a new CEO or managing partner, dismissive of, ignorant of and impatient with the organisation's past, then I know that change is likely to fail. If I find, as is often the case, that the organisation's folk memory is poor, then I know that the change process is in trouble.

In doing all this, I apply skills learned as an historian because I am trying to understand what is. Once I know that, I am in a better position to work out what might be.

This is turning into a post in its own right, so I will finish here.

ninglun said...

I have been asked whether I would be happy for a piece that I wrote on one of my blogs to be included in a new book on work life balance.

Congratulations. Well deserved.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Neil.