Graduation address given by Ken Irving Turner

Ken Irving Turner gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony held at 4.00pm on 30 May 2008.

Mr Turner is a former Associate Professor and Head of Department of Government, University of Sydney, and recipient of the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa)

Graduation address

Sixty years ago I was here being awarded a Bachelor of Arts Degree. The ceremony impressed me, especially its setting in this beautiful Great Hall. I would like to thank the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor for the unexpected honour of a Doctor of Letters award and for the opportunity to refresh pleasant memories. I greatly appreciate the efforts of those who sought to honour me. But I have much more to thank this University for than that.

I began Arts as an immature sixteen-year-old with a limited idea of this University’s role: I was there to become a secondary school teacher for the NSW Department of Education. Fortunately, Arts did for me what it is supposed to do. Besides teaching me useful skills, it nurtured lasting interests. Above all, the ‘History 1’ course, from prehistory to the Renaissance, gave me a taste for broad sweep history and interested me in the explanation of historic continuity and change.

So I graduated wanting more, in particular a better understanding of the dynamics of Australian history. A few years later I began a Bachelor of Economics degree as an evening student, taking Government and Public Administration as a major. Much of my subsequent intellectual growth I owe to that Department, especially Professors Dick Spann and Henry Mayer, the gentlemanly scholar and the stimulating intellectual dynamo. Both were generous with support for students and junior colleagues. Both felt a duty to contribute to and promote the study of the community in which they lived. Subsequently I worked for almost thirty years in that Department. Its bright students and stimulating, friendly staff provided an excellent context for teaching and research.

One continuing aim of that Department was to fill gaps in Australian (especially NSW) political history. Progress was worthwhile but slow, since this was a prime interest for relatively few staff or students.

Although I became accustomed to students telling me that I’d taught their parents, it seemed wise to retire before the grandchildren arrived. Fortunately, in retirement I was recruited by good friends David Clune (manager of the Research Service of the NSW Parliamentary Library) and Michael Hogan (a Government Department Professor) to help with their publication, The People’s Choice. This three-volume study of the context and events of all twentieth century NSW elections completed a long term Government Department project. That led directly to Premier Carr’s formation of a Sesquicentenary History Committee to fill in other gaps, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of responsible government in NSW.

On this Committee I collaborated again with friends like David Clune, Michael Hogan, Jim Hagan (Professor of History at Wollongong University) and Rodney Cavalier, the multi-talented chairman of a well-chosen and effective team of volunteers. It added to my enjoyment that my dear wife Lorna proved to be a capable unpaid personal secretary, who understood the need for my frequent trips to Sydney from the Central Coast for “working lunches”. By its expiry in 2006, this Committee had completed almost forty publications and online projects. One became a best seller and joint winner of the Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.

Such “filling of gaps” might seem old-fashioned. For me its justification was to provide context through comprehensive texts and to make resources more accessible, in order to facilitate the teaching of history in NSW. History currently needs that help. Since it is not seen as having market value, institutions like State Records or the State Library struggle against budget cuts. Even in the Universities, history is being sidelined. Yet the need for history’s insights has never been greater.

Last month a newspaper mentioned an American Professor of Management Science, author of thousands of books. Each took less than an hour to produce, because a computer programme wrote the books for him. This may be an urban myth, but it highlights a problem. Information technology (blogging, conversations on-line, user-generated content, etc.) offers exciting prospects for wider participation, empowerment and fun. Yet these innovations need to be complemented by old-fashioned critical skills, if the results are to be more than noise and “armchair activism”. To see past self-indulgence, polemic, and spin, we must be able to evaluate the accuracy of messages, the credibility of sources. The search for perspective and judgement through the teaching of history may not have direct market value, but good history teaching scores highly on a more discriminating test of value to the community. Of course, the study of history is not the only way to develop perspective and judgement, but it can make a valuable contribution.

In addition, enthusiasts for the new technology often scorn existing political institutions, even politicking itself. At the recent summit one forecast that direct links through the Internet would make citizens producers of policy. In fact the rising flood of opinion makes political skills more necessary. It is not enough to state a more diverse range of opinions and demands. Vision and patient persuasion are needed to construct widely acceptable programmes out of conflict and then see to their implementation.

Finally, I’d like to be one of the first to congratulate the new graduates. Well done – but please see graduation not as the end of something, but as a beginning. I hope that you, like me, will have a satisfying career, with colleagues who stimulate your continued intellectual growth. I’d also encourage you to look for opportunities for voluntary work of value to the community, not only because such efforts make the community better to live in, but also because they are so personally rewarding. I certainly found it so.

Thank you all.