There's nothing like putting one's stamp on a new job, creating an impression, and showing off skills to co-workers and subordinates. Professor Jacqueline Rowarth, a fresh appointment at the University of Waikato, has certainly done as much in recent weeks.
A veritable pin-up girl for the agricultural sciences, sporting a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, Professor Rowarth announced her presence in town by giving a feisty interview to this paper - nailing her 95 theses to the academic door in no uncertain terms.
Judging the scholar by her provocative rhetoric, Rowarth has unbounded faith in rational thought and the Protestant work ethic and is sceptical of any human joy not solidly grounded in sweat, tears and a high-end salary package. She reserves especial vitriol for those romantic fools who waste their time and loans bothering to study the arts. Such nonsense is for “outside work hours”, window dressing at best. By all means "feed the soul", says Rowarth, but never at the expense of the “science and scientific research that we need to keep the economy growing”.
We cannot blame Rowarth for so robustly defending her own patch. Successive governments have turned the nation's tertiary institutions into competitive businesses that must squander funds needlessly on marketing, debasing themselves to attract the required number of fee payers. The fine line between seats of learning and degree factories is easily transgressed when politicians are prone to thinking of universities as vocational academies only. Like any modern lecturer, Rowarth is playing the game. Indeed, getting your colleagues in the cross hairs and firing off a few well chosen rounds at their subject areas is the logical extension of this New Rightist mentality that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.
The irony is that blinkered arguments which put science before everything else, especially ones that equate happiness with income levels, demonstrate more the limitations of the discipline than its virtues. Like some fundamentalist preacher who praises the Lord for all things bright and beautiful yet ignores the dark and the ugly, Rowarth's proselytising blindly talks up the achievements of her discipline as though it were an inherent good.
Few would argue the point when she raves about the life-saving aspects of modern medicine or the nutritional efficiencies of some production practices, but what of the science that gave us the atomic bomb or genetically bastardises our food? Science may well be able to save the world, but it can just as easily destroy it.
Without an ethical base, without an awareness of mankind's spiritual dimension, a knowledge of history and philosophy and the insights afforded by art, science would be nothing more than a soul-lessly robotic methodology.
Rowarth speaks as though the arts were some johnny-come-lately adjunct to the human condition, a luxury that can only be afforded in the good times. For her, the "dawn of civilisation" is equated with "putting down roots and farming". To stray too far from these basics not only imperils the materialistic wellbeing of the next generation of New Zealand's middle class but the species as a whole.
Perhaps if Rowarth is capable of setting aside her bunsen burner for a night, she might "feed her soul" with the fascinating documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Ranking among Werner Herzog's best work, Forgotten Dreams takes audiences inside a French cave once occupied by our ancestors, revealing cave paintings anywhere from 20,000 to 32,000 years old.
Whether we are to consider the illustrations of these ancients as evidence of "civilisation" is something carefully considered by both Herzog and specialist scientists with a firmer grasp of aesthetics than our local professor. One thing is crystal clear: the need to make art is something that exists at a deep and fundamental level within mankind. It predates farming or "putting down roots" and it certainly came well before the white-coated test-tube brigade started lording it over the less mathematically inclined.
For many people the prime joy in life is still centred on creative endeavour, either as practitioners or consumers. To suggest they forgo such activities in the name of puritanically conceived "hard work" and science, that there's only one path to happiness, is arrogant and solipsistic.
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