The Pursuit of Finer Human Hungers

May 16, 2007 at 4:01 am (Uncategorized)

I had to file a story today, so I wasn’t able to attend the Lowy Institute’s Wednesday lunchtime seminar, which is a bit of a shame after the comments Warwick and I traded following my post last week. I’m very interested to go back and see if my impressions are any different second time around. I noticed that on the think-tank watchdog site Warwick linked to his comment that they call the Lowy Institute a ‘neoliberal’ think-tank. What does that mean? I find all these terms so obfuscating. I suspect they’re intended to be. I know it broadly means ‘new liberal,’ but what does that mean?

In Australia, we speak about people being liberal or Liberal. Confusingly, there are many instances in which the two are at polar odds. Even members of the Liberal Party find it confounding. Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser, for instance, has been an outspoken critic of the Howard government precisely because Fraser believes the current Liberal Party has stripped away the liberal values he says once defined their cause. Other people scoff at the idea that the Liberal Party was ever anything other than the opposite – a conservative old boys’ network working hard at the top to keep the majority down.

But when I think of the meaning of the word ‘liberal,’ I can’t help but still associate it with a kind of generosity of spirit, an openness to the world. A liberal education, in my view, is not being stridently lectured at about the evils of abortion by a Federal Health Minister. No, I think a liberal education should be about encouraging a general broadening of the mind, not the hysterical mass closure of it. I think of ‘liberal’ in terms of ‘liberation,’ and when I think of the intellectual nature of things, I think a liberal thinker is one who is open and unprejudiced.

Trying to figure out what these terms really mean is part of the way I try to continue to educate myself. I believe in the late, former Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson’s definition of education. His is the idea of education I constantly strive for, especially whenever I am in danger of feeling prejudiced against any idea, person, or thing. It goes like this:

Education is, above all, and ever has been, the process of learning how to think honestly and straight; to distinguish between the true and the false; to appreciate quality and beauty wherever it may be found; and to be able to participate and to desire to participate with intelligence and tolerance in that most important of all forms of free enterprise: the exchange of ideas on every subject under the sun with a minimum of restriction, personal, social, and political.

In a word, education means – and I think this is the best definition of it that I have ever discovered – the “creation of finer human hungers.”

So the educated person will place the desire to put muscle into missiles or men below the desire to put dignity and decency into living; moral values into action; beauty into words or images. He will put the search for the good life in peace and freedom above every other search.
– Lester B. Pearson, May 27, 1961



  1. Warwick Shapcott said,

    You’ve raised a good point, Di; there’s a lot of confusion surrounding the use of the term ‘liberal’, and some of it I suspect is intentional. I think the confusion stems from the fact that, historically, liberalism has two key aspects, one individual, the other economic. Part of the confusion is that the emphasis placed on each seems to have shifted over the centuries, and it’s compounded by the fact the distinction between society and the economy holds true in theory but not in practice. Thus, you could argue Howard’s economic liberalism undermines the liberty of the individual by placing them at the mercy of big business. This may be what Frazer has in mind when he is critical of the Howard government.

    As far as I can make out, ‘neo-liberal’ is an American term that is more or less synonymous with what Australians call ‘economic rationalism’. Even Americans seem a little hazy on what neo-liberalism actually is, but in some respects it has very little to do with liberalism as conceived in the late 19th and early 20th C. In short, it values individual freedoms, rejects a state-controlled economy in favour of a free market and is critical of the welfare state.

    The problem with a term like ‘neo-liberal’ is that the term ‘liberal’ has been used to denote different things at different times in history. I gather that liberalism in the 18th century meant both personal and economic liberty from state interference. I’m thinking that some time during the 19th century, liberalism took on aspects of socialism, via Marxism, and the emphasis shifted to individual liberty based on state-control of the economy – an example of this might be the American New Deal of the 1930s. In the ’80s, however, Thatcher, followed by Reagan, followed by Keating, shifted liberalism back towards its 18th century mode: free individuals and a free market. Recall Thatcher’s infamous ‘There is no such thing as society’ – a very (19th century) liberal sentiment.

    ‘Neo-liberalism’ seems to be the new buzz word for this latter strand of political economic philosophy, but it’s confused further by the fact that US conservatives like Bush Jr use ‘liberal’ as a term of abuse for social progressives. What he has in mind, it seems, is the individual aspect of traditional liberalism, not the economic. There was a good short piece in the Economist about this a couple of years back, ‘Liberalism and Other Insults’ (Nov. 4th 2004), but I’ve lost my copy and can’t find it on the web. You might also try The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, 3rd Edition, indispensable for just these sorts of questions.

    I like that Pearson quote. Would that it were true 🙂


  2. doctordi said,

    Thanks, Warwick! Aha! You’ve fallen for my cunning plan! I was actually hoping you’d come to the rescue and fill in all the blanks on this question, because whilst I really do want to see it all laid out like that, I’m too lazy/otherwise engaged/easily distracted to go and do all the yards this kind of clarifying sometimes requires. I owe you one.

    I like the Pearson quote too – he had so many beauties. And we have to strive for these things, don’t we? Even in a world gone mad. Perhaps especially then.

  3. Llew J said,

    On the independence of the Lowy Institute:
    I’m not really able to spend much time debating the label of the politics; liberal/ Liberal/ neo liberal/ Left/ Right/ conservative, etc…As interesting as I find it, I just don’t have the time to be that prolific – I struggle just to keep up with the content of the debate.
    I can however identify opposing points of view when I hear them, and I am happy to report on my experience thus far. Allow me to assure you that on top of an interesting schedule of events, an independent presence is exactly what the Lowy Institute has delivered in the last 24 hours – allow me to elaborate.
    Last night I was privileged to hear Dr Stephen Green discuss the position of the United States in Asia and outline what he saw as some of the challenges in the future of the region.
    Dr Green has a very impressive CV thus far. He has worked for the NSC and served as a special assistant to the US president (Bush) for national security. Currently, he is an advisor to Presidential hopeful John McCain – it would not be surprising to hear more of him. The Dr was energetic, insightful & knowledgeable. He was also every bit the picture of a moderate Republican as he outlined the vague policy of institutionalisation in the region.
    Today at the Wednesday Lunch Lecture I was just as fortunate to be present at the lecture of Professor James Piscatori as he discussed the Future of Political Islam, particularly as it pertains to Iraq.
    During the professor’s speech/ lecture, he outlined what he saw as the various potential approaches to Islamism, at the end of which he defined his preference as: Intentional Neglect – which suggests, among many other things, that conflicts (of all varieties) within Islam need to play themselves out without any interference from non Islamic representatives, regardless of the consequences.
    While he was equally knowledgeable and affable (although he did tremble when he discovered in question time, that he had stumbled on the ground of another academic who was present), I cannot comment on the colour of the professor’s flag, or on the label he or others would give his political disposition.
    What was obvious was the difference in approach to the topics. And what struck me in reflection, is how fortunate I was to be able to come to the same location within 24 hours and hear such high quality lectures on the topic of international relations which are such polar opposites in perspective.
    The Lowy Institute & Independence – so far to me, the terms are synonymous.

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