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Australian Notes

Australian Notes

31 October 2015

9:00 AM

31 October 2015

9:00 AM

If you look up the website of the late Australian philosopher David Stove, you will find the following mysterious announcement: ‘The authorized officer of the University of New South Wales has requested that one of David Stove’s articles not be hosted on a UNSW web server. So the David Stove website has been moved. It can be found at http:gerryonolan.com/public_html/stove/davidstove.html.’ The article in question which suddenly so offended the ‘authorized officer’ was first published 25 years ago in the Proceedings of the Russellian Society at Sydney University. Its title is ‘The Intellectual Capacity of Women’ and its first sentence sums up the ‘scandal’: ‘I believe that the intellectual capacity of women is on the whole inferior to that of men.’ It is, and was, meant to be a shocker.

I should make it clear at once that I did not accept Stove’s reasoning, although I agreed it was a lively article. (For that reason it was included in the posthumous collection of Stove’s polemical articles Cricket versus Republicanism.) A good critique of it (among several) is an essay by the philosopher Jenny Teichman The Intellectual Capacity of David Stove in Philosophy, a journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. She thought Stove’s model of ‘capacity’ is question-begging, his model of ‘probability’ would not work, and his ventures into social history rely uncritically on folk wisdom. She also thought that Stove (whom she respected as a philosopher) had come to recognise the faults of his essay, provoked as it had been by the excesses of academic feminism, and would not or did not republish it. Other critics were less respectful and dismissed it as misogynistic ratbaggery. But the late Brian Medlin, the South Australian philosopher who introduced Australia’s first Women’s Studies course in Flinders University (and a long-time ideological foe of Stove, later friend and admirer), took the more usual view especially among philosophers: ‘Since Stove’s thesis is something now forbidden even to thought, I stress that this is an important essay instructive to anyone not too bigoted to learn.’

When, years after this earlier controversy, someone finally drew the article to the attention of an ‘authorised officer’ of the University, that ‘officer’ found it to be in breach of the University’s declared principles and should be censored out of any UNSW web server. He may be able to mount a case about Stove’s article breaching published principles, since the university has for many years proclaimed a policy of restricting academic freedom if it is ‘disrespectful’. The university has also adopted a policy of encouraging young women to pursue careers in science and technology. Stove’s essay may be read (in the view of the ‘authorised officer’) as actively discouraging young women in general from such pursuits. But it would not for a moment deter a committed or gifted young woman from pursuing a career in science or technology, and there is zero evidence that it has.


In the end this stroke of university censorship will only serve to hammer another nail in the coffin of the traditional idea of the academy as a centre of independent and rebellious ideas, of debate and controversy, not of bans and boycotts. (For a brief outsider’s assessment of Stove’s work as philosopher and critic, look up Roger Kimball’s essay ‘Who was David Stove?’ in the New York journal the New Criterion March 1997.) The current Stove case in UNSW is only one small example of the revival of censorship in the universities in Australia and elsewhere. The other day Germaine Greer was ‘no-platformed’ at Cardiff university. Its ‘women’s officer’ had petitioned that her proposed lecture on post-operative transgender ‘women’ be banned because Greer argued that they are not women. Although the university on grounds of Free Speech and No Discrimination agreed to permit her to give her lecture on its campus, Greer withdrew, apparently in contempt. There was no discrimination in her talk- or so she argued because post-operative transgender ‘women’ are not women. (She agreed she may have hurt feelings, but too bad: ‘Try being an old woman.’)

About the same time, the Turnbull government withdrew its offer to part-fund Bjorn Lomborg’s proposed Climate Change Consensus Centre at Flinders University. Lomborg is usually described as an environmental sceptic or contrarian. The Abbott government first proposed to fund the Centre at the University of Western Australia but, following staff and public opposition, the university turned down the proposal. Flinders university then offered to host the Centre but could not proceed when the federal government scrapped its offer of a $4 million subsidy. The Vice-Chancellor of Flinders, Professor Colin Stirling, declared : ‘I am proud of the principled stand taken by colleagues here at Flinders on the issue of academic freedom. We will continue to seek research opportunities that invite the robust, critical thinking.’ Lomborg’s spokesman said: ‘It is disappointing that a significant global research effort attracting top economists to look at development priorities will no longer be associated with Australia.’

President Obama, no less, could have been thinking of Australian universities when he told a meeting of students in Iowa the other day that they shouldn’t expect to be ‘coddled and protected’ from opinions that may be offensive to them, for example, to women. ‘I gotta tell you,’ he said to loud applause , especially from women, that you should not try to silence people you disagree with. You should argue with them. You should not say: “I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” That’s not the way we learn.’

But it is apparently the way we now learn in Australian universities.


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