On Tuesday night in the Methodist Hall a public debate was held between the W.E.A.. and the R.S. and S.I.L. In the absence of the Mayor, Mr J. Ogilvy presided, Rev. D. Weatherall, who led the W.E.A. team, moved “That the people of Singleton should support the New State Movement.”Neil's grandfather, R H Christison, was one of the WEA speakers arguing in favour of self-government. Although not mentioned in the newspaper piece, the debate took place against a backdrop of the Cohen Royal Commission inquiry into new states which had been conducting public hearings across NSW. For those who want a little more background on all this, you can find it here. I have yet to add the later columns in the series.
There is another connection as well with Neil's story, for my family was also involved with the WEA, especially in New Zealand.
In the New England case, New England historiography is important because it arose in a context where local elites had sufficient power to create institutional structures that, for a period, could survive despite their isolation from the dominant structures. That isolation was both the reason for their creation and the driver in terms of subsequent focus. As the New England power structures declined in importance, as their ability to assert the separate case declined, so did New England historiography decline. Today it is a shadow of itself.Talking to a friend about all this, I said that I regarded my historical writing as in some way akin to an archaeological rescue did. A new building is to be constructed, so archaeologists are commissioned to do a dig to record that which might, often will be, destroyed by a new building. In some ways, that's the position I find myself in with New England history..
My current series of columns in the Armidale Express traces the rise and fall of New England historiography. Without repeating the whole story, New England historical writing was affected by broader trends such as the interest in Australian history at the end of the nineteenth century as well as the rise of the museum movement. However, it took particular local form as a consequence of the fight for Northern self-government.
In this context, the establishment in 1928 of the Armidale Teachers' College and then the University College in 1938 were critical because they created institutional structures with a particular Northern focus including local and regional history. From their establishment, came historical writing first by academics and then by students in Litt B, Honours, Masters and PHD theses. This then laid the basis for books. It also created an interest in family and local history.
By 1981, you had two very different but complimentary institutional focuses.The TC now the Armidale College of Advance Education had a powerful local history school, while the University had a broader focus, if still including a powerful New England element. From the mid 1970, there was a publishing explosion by local writers, students and academics. Their books sit on my shelves now (few are on-line or in print) and are critical to to the work I do. Then it all collapsed.
Central to that collapse was the forced merger of the ACAE, the Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education and UNE as part of the Dawkins reforms of higher education. Dictated by the demands of efficiency and effectiveness in the name of national improvement, the reforms led to the collapse of New England historiography. There was no real place then or now for such a limited focus. Today, fewer thesis are completed in history in general, in Northern history in particular, than were completed in the 1960s.
Does this matter? I think that it does. We live in an age of universals, of national KPIs concerned with some concept of improved national performance. There is no real scope for variety in such a world, especially when you shift focus to the local and the regional.
I don't really care how many Australian universities make to top 100 in global rankings. I don't see this as relevant except in narrowly defined marketing terms. I do care when the effect of the process is to damage teaching or, especially, research in the areas in which I have very particular interests.
Now let me really stick my neck out.
I know of no evidence that shows that that the standard of teaching in Australian universities is better today than it was in the 1960s. I know of no evidence that shows that it has improved over the last twenty years despite the ever-growing emphasis on standards or quality improvement, although compliance costs have clearly risen. I know of no evidence to show that the contribution of Australian universities to local or indeed global intellectual life is higher now that it was fifty or even ninety years ago. Indeed, I would argue the opposite.
So in considering my own interest, the decline of New England historiography, I see this as part of a broader pattern. I stand to be corrected, of course. Perhaps I'm just an old troglodyte, pining for the old age of universities for the elites. I think not, but tell me why I am wrong.