Hackett Hall being constructed in the 1930s at the University of Western Australia
I was talking with an old friend this week. He is both old in the sense of how long we have been friends, (over 30 years), as well as old in his own physical age, (well into his seventies.) He is one of the most gentle and wise men that I have ever known. If I get a bit stuck then I pick up the phone and he is always happy to have a chat. A few times over the years the situation has reversed itself and he has called me for some counsel. Which was in of itself very humbling.
One topic that came up concerned a large box of old university papers that he had received. They dated from the late 50s and early 60s and were all papers and dissertations from surveyors who studied at Australian universities at that time. He didn’t know what to do with them all, and there were very many. He spoke about all the accumulated wisdom in those cardboard boxes that stood to be lost.
My friend is still active in the surveying community and gives irregular lectures and presentations. I asked him what the quality of the old material was like when compared to what was being produced by students in universities today.
He answered with some sadness in his voice, (I’m paraphrasing here.) “There is no comparing them. It just isn’t possible. It’s almost as if they come from two different planets. The stuff that they’re writing today wouldn’t have even had got them into university back then, let alone stood up against what was produced by final year students.”
He went on to detail the complete regression of the field. We then spoke about the standard at universities today and he had no hesitation in admitting that irreparable damage had been done. Keep in mind that he knows nothing about “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings”. When I attempted to explain these concepts to him he was initially confused and then aghast at the very idea of such things.
The discussion led towards the topic of progress. Millennials seem to be of the certain opinion that people are better today, particularly in regards to attitudes and prevailing wisdom. Past generations are labeled as racist, sexist, and ignorant. The sexism and racism tropes are not really worthy of any discussion at all. As far as ignorance goes the contents of those boxes would beg to differ. Our forebears worked harder than us and they were smarter than us. It’s sad but true.
I don’t have any grand pronouncement to make here. Human beings have always been stupid but in previous times the institutions of higher learning were a bulwark against rank ignorance. But somehow the ignorant infiltrated the defenses and now they run the show. Things come full circle as they always must. King Henry XVIII destroyed the monasteries in England which were the bastions of higher learning of that age. But things recovered over time. The only difference now is that it’s not so obvious that the walls have crumbled and the wisdom of the ages has been swept aside so that it resides, mouldering and almost forgotten in cardboard boxes.