catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Alice Garner on the student life

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Alice Garner, The Student Chronicles, The Miegunyah Press, MUP, 2006.

The popular perception of the universities is likely to range from an unrealistic vision of ivy clad colleges and oak-lined studies to an extension of school with more spare time to spend in the playground, or a grinding apprenticeship for a well paid professional career. Preparation for a lifelong learning and serious scholarship would not rank high but it is a credit to Alice Garner that this aspect of the experience does feature in her account.

One of the least discussed topics, even among highly educated people and intellectuals (by no means the same people) is the ecology of higher learning and scholarship. The design and maintenance of ‘the house of intellect’ in the language of Jacques Barzun. Throughout the explosive growth of the university system and the traumatic reform process that followed, major decisions were made without any clear understanding on the part of the decision-makers of the life of the mind that the universities are supposed to sustain. Among the reasons for this are the neglect of Barzun’s report on the outcome of the American experiment with mass higher learning (The American University, 1968) which anticipated the Australian experience by a couple of decades, and the dearth of reflective writing on student life.

Alice Garner has made a small contribution to the genre, small enough to be capsulated in an essay so the resources devoted to this book could have resulted in a collection to provide a wider cross-section of university experiences. She has done her best to justify the effort.

I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to read the story of a conscientious Arts student from the infamously ‘apathetic’ 1980s and 90s [but, once started] I began to think that there might be something to tell after all – if only to give the perspective of a ‘serious’ student from those unrebellious years, a story not often heard.

The best part of the book is Garner’s account of her studies, the philosophy essays that never seemed to get past definitions, the overwhelming majority of students struck dumb in tutorials, the discovery of hidden treasures in the library stacks, the deliberate progress through the whole of Plato’s Republic, the thrill of handling original research materials in a foreign land. Some of the tutorials worked, like one in Fine Arts with the right mix of people who were prepared to argue and laugh at the same time, and to continue the discussion at the pub. This is a helpful addition to the limited literature on university life that tends to focus on extra-curricular activities. Being a serious student made her quite atypical, as she was in some other ways – she was two years older than her colleagues, had a steady boyfriend throughout the whole time, both parents and a grandparent were graduates, and parental support was provided to eliminate the need to work during term time.

There is a small chapter on the ‘tight little worlds’ of the residential colleges and this prompts some reflections on the general failure of the colleges to deliver their potential contribution to the life of the campus, given their proximity to the scene while the vast majority of students are nine to five students at best. A Current Affairs Bulletin (March 1967) carried a perceptive survey of student life including the comment that the colleges recruited conservative young people and then diverted their energies into the life of the college (though not intellectual life) instead of contributing to the student community at large. Hytten Hall, the short-lived secular college in Hobart, was apparently unusual in this respect. By a mixture of good luck and good leadership (and an excellent library) during the undergraduate years that I spent in residence, it provided something very close to the experience of a community of scholars, while some of our number made significant contributions to the sporting and cultural life of the university. That situation provided a window of opportunity which did not seem to be available to very many of Garner’s contemporaries.

For her the crucial window was the chance to pursue archival research in a French village. This was probably the break that converted a keen student into a dedicated, focused and confident researcher, still haunting the university many years late ‘as a perpetual student’. But there is no need to be apologetic about that, so what is the primary function of the campus?

Unfortunately too much of this slim and handsomely produced volume is devoted to matters that have limited general interest or special relevance to the student life. Most of it could have been written by a schoolteacher or a bank clerk. A good essay has been turned into a small and expensive hard covered book.

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Written by Admin

October 31, 2006 at 9:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Nice read. I like the deviations to other areas.

    I objected to her calling her mum “Helen” in it and she was nice enough to clarify why on my blog. I love it that artists vanity google like everybody else.

    Nobody should stay at university for too long. It’s no good for the brain.

    Darlene

    October 31, 2006 at 10:35 am

  2. Alice Garner did an exceptionally good reading from my novel for Radio National at some point in the mid-90s. I still have the tape (yes, a casette) around the house somewhere – I remember asking the ABC for it because it was so good.

    skepticlawyer

    October 31, 2006 at 10:52 am

  3. After the tantalising reference to the community of scholars in Hytten Hall I suppose I should write a small essay myself on the student life at that time and place. And one of the questions will be, “how much of this could have been written by a schoolteacher or a bank clerk?”

    Rafe Champion

    October 31, 2006 at 9:09 pm


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