Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Friday, 28 September 2007

Science in Australia

Following the theme of education and learning in the Antipodes, here are some comments on several Australian books about science and scientists. This is a review of a book of essays about the early development of science in Australia. These essays convey the impression of immense energy and industry. Clearly many people were hard at work in the archives preparing the way for future research programmes in the history of local science and technology. The book itself is a handsome and high quality production, combining some of the bulk and sheen of the coffee table volume with the compendious footnotes of the doctoral dissertation. The notes average a hundred per paper, making this book an excellent starting point for further reading.

This review describes a book written by a physicist on the wonders of science and its relevance to culture and religion. As the director of an observatory at Narrabri (NSW), and host at hundreds of half-hour tours, the author wrote:

To me it was profoundly unsatisfactory to send people away from this beautiful, highly sophisticated, and yet apparently useless instrument, surrounded as it was by thousands of sheep and a vast expanse of wheat, without having shown them that it was really part of an even greater world of which most of them were unaware, the ancient and invisible college of science.

This is the third book that he produced to make up for the lack of time on the tours. It is very clearly written and one has the feeling of a truly devoted and humane scholar speaking courteously and unpatronisingly as he presumably did with his visitors at Narrabri.

This book titled Life Among the Scientists is a more ambitious academic undertaking. Four researchers in the history and philosophy of science spent some time (spread over five years) talking to researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Research Institute in Melbourne. The idea was to challenge received views about the way science works. I think they did not succeed in their larger purpose but I hope they had a lot of fun.

The main purpose of the enterprise is to challenge received views of philosophy and methodology of science, but the writers have not engaged at all with the most robust and fruitful body of ideas in the field. This is a striking example of the phenomenon they describe as 'socially structured forgetting' or 'structural amnesia' (p 101). They have neatly excised Karl Popper and the whole tradition of evolutionary pistemology from their account of the philosophy and methods of science. But Popper's work surely represents either the orthodox view of scientific method (as accepted by a number of eminent scientists who took their philosophy seriously such as Medawar, Eccles, Monod and Einstein), or a formidable rival to the traditional form of Baconian induction, still championed by David Stove.

Transmission of ideas and the New Zealand Workers Educational Association 2

Photo: Professor Horace Belshaw.

This short series focuses on the transmission of ideas, using the New Zealand WEA and those associated with it as an entry point.

I left my first post hanging at the point where Professor Condliffe studied in the UK, in so doing coming in contact with John Maynard Keynes, among others. Here I drew out the point made by the NZDB article on Professor Condliffe that contact with leading British economists, especially Keynes, reinforced Professor Hight's early teaching that economics should be used for solving economic and social problems.

This, to my mind, draws out another important thread in the history of thought in both Australia and New Zealand, the changing way in which economists have seen their role. These early economists were influential in a way that their modern colleagues can only marvel at.

In 1920 Condliffe returned to New Zealand as professor of economics at Canterbury College. He initiated research into the New Zealand economy, and in collaboration with several students, notably Horace Belshaw, published seminal work on the agricultural sector and trade cycles.

I mentioned my uncle in my first post.

Horace Belshaw was born in Wigan, Lancashire, England, on 9 February 1898, so he was some seven years younger than Professor Condliffe.

Horace's parents migrated to New Zealand in 1906. He matriculated from Christchurch Boys' High School at 15, and went pupil-teaching at his old primary school until he was old enough, at 17, to go to training college. Brief periods as an agricultural instructor and in military service in New Zealand were followed by secondary school teaching in Ashburton. His university study was all done extramurally through Canterbury College; he focused first on geology, but switched to economics under the influence of James Shelley and J. B. Condliffe.

In 1921 Horace Belshaw was awarded an MA with first-class honours for a thesis on the dairy industry. Canterbury College appointed him a tutorial class lecturer in economics, first on the West Coast and then in Timaru.

Family tradition records this as a WEA tutorship. However, there is probably no conflict here because of the close links between Professor Condliffe and the WEA. I suspect that it was both.

There is a striking difference with Australia of the same period. I know of no Australian university or adult education mechanism mounting the same type of sustained remote area adult education

In 1924 Horace Belshaw received an award to study at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge. There J. M. Keynes brought him into the vigorous discussions of the Political Economy Club. Family tradition has it that Keynes described him as the brightest student ever to come to Cambridge from the Dominions!

Linking this to my theme about the transmission of ideas, there is (I think) a modern pre-conception about the remoteness of Australia and New Zealand in this period. By implication, both countries were cut-off from trends in western thought. This is, in fact, far from clear. If we look at Horace Belshaw, we can see how his links with Professor Condliff gave him access to economic thought that was at the leading global edge of the time.

At Cambridge, Horace completed his doctorate on agricultural fluctuations and published an important article based on it in 1926. His ability was recognised by appointment to a temporary lectureship at Cambridge in 1926--27 and then, at the age of 29, to the foundation chair of economics at Auckland University College.

Returning to Professor Condliff, he published A short history of New Zealand in 1925. In addition he completed doctoral research on industrial organisation in the Far East and was awarded his DSc in 1927. He also completed most of his research for New Zealand in the making (1930), one of the first economic histories of the country.

I will return to this story at a later point, tracing out (among other things) some of the contributions that New Zealand academics have made to the development of global studies in development economics.

First post in the series. Next post.


Holmes, Frank. 'Belshaw, Horace 1898 - 1962'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007 URL:

Fleming, Grant. 'Condliffe, John Bell 1891 - 1981'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007 URL:

Thursday, 27 September 2007

The Mechanics Institutes in Australia

Following Jim's piece on the WEA in New Zealand it might be interesting to check out this post that I wrote a year or two ago on the Mechanics Institutes of Australia, a very similar kind of adult education movement. (A couple of the links are dead).

Possibly the Scottish presence in NZ contributed to the enthusiasm for education!

Transmission of ideas and the New Zealand Workers Educational Association

Photo: John Bell Condliffe, 1891 - 1981, New Zealand Dictionary of Biography.

I thought it appropriate in this, my first substantive post on this blog, to start with a New Zealand story, one that links two of my interests.

The first is the mechanisms, the channels, through which ideas are transmitted, a process that changes their form.

The second is the reason why such a small country as New Zealand generated so many international academics in fields such as economics and anthropology.

These two are linked. Part of the link lies in the nature of educational development in New Zealand. Part lies in the the New Zealand Branch of the Workers Educational Association.

The comments that follow are personal and do not pretend to be definitive or even rigorous. They are personal impressions, marking a starting point for further discussion.

Growing up in an academic family in New England with New Zealand connections, I knew about the WEA.

My father had been an active member of the WEA. His sister and Vic Fisher, her husband to be, had met at a WEA camp in Auckland. My Uncle Horace had been persuaded by Professor Condliffe to give up a secure position as a school teacher, something that distressed his parents to become a WEA tutor in Westland, the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island.

Professor Condliffe was actually born at Footscray in Melbourne 0n 23 December 1981, moving to New Zealand with his family in 1904. At the age of 16 Condliffe took up a cadetship with the Customs Department in Christchurch, but continued to study part time at Canterbury College.

Now here it is helpful to look at some basic demographics.

In 1907, New Zealand's population was less than a million. New South Wales, by contrast, had a population of between 1.5 and 1.6 million of which something under 39 per cent lived in Sydney.

NSW had just one teacher's college and one university, both located in Sydney. New Zealand, by contrast, already had a number of teacher's colleges and universities spread across the country. It was simply much easier to get educated in New Zealand.

Further, and I am not sure when this began, New Zealand had distance education years before Australia. By the early 1930s, my father as a teacher at a one teacher school did two Master's degrees by distance education, with books coming by train north from Auckland.

During his undergraduate years John Condliffe first met James Hight, the professor of constitutional history and political economy. Hight encouraged Condliffe to study economics, and in 1915 he graduated MA in economics and won a senior university prize. His thesis, published that year in the New Zealand Official Year-book , was the first systematic account of New Zealand's economic history using trade statistics.

The war years were eventful for Condliffe. He was actively involved with Hight in the establishment of the WEA in Christchurch and began the first economics course by lecturing on his thesis topic. During the early years of the WEA in Christchurch and Wellington, he tutored many future Labour leaders: Walter Nash, Peter Fraser, Tim Armstrong, Ted Howard and Harry Holland.

The WEA seems to have filled a real gap in a way not seen in Australia, satisfying a thirst for adult education. So it became a mechanism for the transmission of information and ideas.

In 1915 Condliffe was transferred to the Census and Statistics Office in Wellington as part of an experiment to bring economists into the public service. Now I found this interesting. It would be many years, I think, before Australia had any equivalent.

In 1916 Condliffe was enticed back to Canterbury to a lectureship in economics under Hight, and for the next year he taught a variety of courses: statistics, economic geography, constitutional history, economic theory and economic history, as well as WEA classes.

After a period of war service, in 1919 Condliffe was awarded the Sir Thomas Gresham scholarship at Cambridge University. This was Condliffe's first real taste of university life and it impressed him greatly. Contact with leading British economists, especially J. M. Keynes, reinforced Hight's early teaching that economics should be used for solving economic and social problems.

Here I would add one point to the story drawn from the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography. Scholarships were a key mechanism by which those in the dominions - and they seem to have been especially important in New Zealand - were drawn into broader intellectual life.

At this point I will stop this story and this post, coming back to Professor Condliffe's story in a later post.

Next post in series.


Fleming, Grant. 'Condliffe, John Bell 1891 - 1981'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007 URL:

For a history of the WEA in New Zealand see.

Statistical data is drawn from various web searches.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

History of Australian and New Zealand Thought - update

I have let this blog sit with just an initial post to see if there was any interest in participating. I now have one volunteer, so that makes it worth while proceeding on an experimental basis.

In discussion, Rafe and I have agreed that the blog should be more correctly called the History of Australian and New Zealand Thought because of the linkages between the two countries. Both are also very different, but those differences also help highlight the linkages and similarities between the two.

The next step is to work out a statement of blog directions and policy. Our feeling is that we need an open pluralist blog to allow for different perspectives.

I will post some more ideas later. In the meantime, we are still looking for further volunteer contributors and welcome all ideas and suggestions.