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Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Book review: Sydney: The Making of A Public University, Julia Horne and Geoffrey Sherington (2012)

Universities in Australia are mainly public institutions and more and more people go to them for an education. The University of Sydney was the first and this book provides an interesting history of what was, at the time, a radically different kind of university. Founders aimed to make an institution that based access only on merit; there were few other such universities in the Anglosphere in 1852 when Sydney was established. They also aimed to remove the institution away from influence from the established churches, then highly influential institutions in their own right in the colony of New South Wales, and of course in the other Australian colonies as well. Sydney also helped, by the way students were granted access to its courses of study, to mold and shape the public school system that started to be developed around the turn of the 20th Century, and it also served as a kind of model for universities that were soon established in other colonies including in New Zealand.

So far so good. In the first pages of the book such information is available. But the book suffers from its proximity to academe. I have come to see the pathology as a kind of surfeit of objectivity. Where a community of academics might see something in the text that is a radical departure from accepted norms, the general reader will not. A point clearly made, from the point of view of the professor writing the book, can be completely missed by another person, someone who does not have the same grasp of the facts as he or she does. And points have to be made clearly if you are aiming for a general readership. This might seem unfortunate to an academic who is keen to avoid anything that resembles an episode of the Simpsons, but it's the only way to make something that can be easily assimilated by those who live outside the hothouse confines of the academy. It has to be asked: whose cognates are you going to use? To appeal to a general reader you have to use the cognates that he or she possesses.

In this book points are not made clearly enough. There are photographic add-ons with useful captions, true. But the text would benefit from exposure to someone who makes a living out of writing for the popular press, like a journalist or copywriter. It's a shame, really, because clearly Horne and Sherington have an interesting story to tell. You just wish that they had concentrated more on individuals, especially students. Where they use a key personality working in the university's management, the outlines of conflict and resolution fade into sentences full of mere facts. Something stronger and more highly-flavoured is required, and you get the feeling that the authors simply cannot bring themselves to season the text in that kind of manner.

I started this book with high hopes. I certainly did learn things. But the book just isn't as compelling as the facts of the case imply, and the authors are unpromisingly happy to just let the facts speak for themselves without going to the trouble, very often, of telling us what they mean. As a result I soon became bored with the book and put it aside. To do justice to its subject the book needs more sharp angles, more colour, and greater contrast. A bit of a disappointment.

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