DISSENT: The Student Press in 1960s Australia
SALLY PERCIVAL WOOD
Scribe, 2017, 310 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
Dissent didn’t obey strict decade-demarcation lines on Australian campuses in the radical 1960s, writes Dr Sally Wood (historian, Deakin University) in DISSENT: The Student Press in 1960s Australia. In 1961, for example, university students were still mostly from a privileged background and a largely conservative lot in their attire (“jacket-and-tie and short-back-and-sides” for the young men and “stiffly coiffured hair, twin-sets and skirts below the knee” for the women), in their music (classical and jazz rather than rock ‘n’ roll) and in their politics as they placidly read their rather anodyne student newspapers which mirrored rather than challenged the establishment press.
This non-threatening stasis was impolitely disturbed by the rapid government expansion of higher education to meet the intellectual-worker needs of a modernising Australian economy. The consequent infusion of new, working class, student blood recharged a student body that was much less deferential to the mystique of the ivory tower and more ready to challenge the social and political orthodoxies of the age. A more subversive uni rag was at the forefront of this campus transformation.
Wood opens colourful time-capsules of the opinionated articles, heated editorials, energised letters and crazy cartoons from the revitalised student press, covering censorship, sexual liberation, homosexuality, abortion, Aboriginal rights, the Cold War, an anti-Stalinist socialism, poverty and housing, education reform and the environment. The slaughter and lies of the Vietnam War, and conscription (which took one-fifth of twenty-year-old Australian men in a ‘Lottery of Death’), in particular, signalled the high-water-mark of student publishing dissent.
Some issues were slower to take flight. It wasn’t until 1971 that Adelaide University’s On Dit ‘Bird of the Week’ page became extinct as female students threw off their ‘Miss University’ sashes and took control of their bodies. One year later, purged by the Women’s Liberation Movement, On Dit had became the only Australian student newspaper admitted as a member of the Underground Press Syndicate, a global alternative-media collective.
In sixties Australia, each student newspaper issue was keenly awaited and savoured in depth, and the uni rag could wield an influence beyond the campus, being seen as a “credible participant in shaping political discourse and challenging pubic policy”. A decline of the student newspaper followed, however, and Wood dates its demise from the election of a reforming Whitlam Labor government in 1972 which signalled not only a significant achievement of much of the student agenda but also quelled most of the ferment.
The retrenchment of dissent was accelerated by the market-based restructuring of higher education in which the university increasingly became a business, Vice-Chancellors overpaid CEOs, education a commodity, students consumers and a degree purely an instrumental means to a vocational end.
Whilst the university culture, including the student newspaper, has been profoundly and negatively effected by this external economic context, there have been some own goals, too, says Wood. Her prime culprit is a post-Marxist ‘identity politics’ where race, ethnicity, sex, gender and sexuality have sidelined a socialist class politics that had given a coherence and solidarity to the disparate struggles of the oppressed.
“The preponderance of stories about identity”, says Wood, would make the student newspaper of today “incomprehensible” to an earlier generation of baby-boomer undergraduates. Whilst the economic and political foundations of capitalism are not only now met with more assent than dissent, gone, too, is “the university tradition of debate and the contest of ideas” in a world of eggshell-vulnerable ‘identity’.
Whilst the uni rag of the sixties took vigorous sides on issues, it also retained a robust commitment to free speech, and free-wheeling intellectual exploration and debate, carrying articles presenting all shades of opinion. Now, however, in a student world of No Platforming, Monash University’s Lot’s Wife, for example, has a policy against publishing ‘any material that is objectionable or discriminatory’, an “eerie reminder”, says Wood, of the 1950s censorship of ‘objectionable’ literature.
Form, too, has deteriorated along with content, adds Wood. The “bland magazine” format of the current crop of student newspapers with their emphasis on brevity and visuals rather than textual substance resembles an undisciplined blog in tone and structure.
The student newspaper has not only lost its capacity to épater le bourgeois (to shock and outrage respectable opinion) but also its ability, and desire, to dissect the bourgeoisie’s economic and political power. Wood’s call to “reinvigorate the student magazines” of today with a healthy dose of sixties passion and politics deserves to be answered.