Friday, June 11, 2010

Does history give undue prominence to scribblers?

I imagine that history does tend to give excessive prominence to writers because historians have to rely heavily on written material. Historians probably spend a lot of time discussing this subject but, not being an historian, I don’t claim to know much about it. What this post is actually about is a minor historical incident in which I think undue prominence has been given to my role because I was editor of a student newspaper. I’m not objecting to the way I have been portrayed. I just think that other people deserve more credit for the contributions they made.

A Spirit of True Learning: The Jubilee History of the University of New England‘A Spirit of True Learning, the Jubilee History of the University of New England’ by Matthew Jordan, was published by UNSW Press in 2004. I confess that I have only just now read the book at the urging of Jim Belshaw, a fellow student at UNE in the 1960s, and now a fellow blogger. Jim referred me, in particular, to a few pages about the history of the room visiting issue (pp 187-191).

At the beginning of the 1960s nearly all students at UNE lived in single-sex residential colleges on the university campus. As Matthew Jordan records, in 1963 the University Council decided to cut back room-visiting between the sexes and then to abolish it altogether from the beginning of 1964. The decision to ban room visiting was taken against the advice of the heads of colleges (which were supposed to be largely self-governing) and was, of course, strongly opposed by students.

My recollection is that before I became editor of ‘Neucleus’, the student paper, the stage had been set for the first issue of 1964 to protest against Council’s decision on the room visiting issue. I was more than happy to go along with that idea and to accept editing responsibility, but at the time (November 1963) I was just completing my first year at UNE and would not have been viewed by other students as a leader of the protest movement. (I can’t recall why the editorship of Neucleus became vacant at the end of 1963. I agreed to edit just one issue to be published at the beginning of 1964 with help from the previous editor and other students who had more experience working on the paper. As it happened, early in 1964, I became joint editor with Jim Belshaw, but that is another story.)

Matthew Jordan writes:
‘Winston Bates led the way. On the one hand, he said, Council talked of moulding students into responsible adults, while on the other, by “imposing blanket restrictions on everyone”, it issued “an insult to the maturity of students and an utter denial of personal freedom”.

The quoted words are (almost) correctly attributed to me but in suggesting that I ‘led the way’ I think Matthew is under the impression that I was also the ‘special correspondent’ responsible for the page one article. Since I was defending the anonymity of the ‘special correspondent’ it isn’t surprising that people might think I was responsible, but the special correspondent knew a lot more than me about Council deliberations. Among other things, the special correspondent wrote:
‘It would seem that the real reason for Council’s action was the fear that certain rumours circulating in North-Eastern N.S.W. about the immorality supposedly rife in the university would lead to a decline in student enrolments’.
My recollection is that the special correspondent was only using the words ‘it would seem’ to further hide his identity.

While I think Matthew’s history gives me undue prominence, 47 years later I am still rather proud of one of the passages in my editorial:
‘Perhaps the concept of freedom in a university needs further explanation. It is not a freedom to do what you want to, full stop; nor is it a relentless search after personal happiness. The college regulations in the “free” university would be framed by members of college with a view to restricting violation of the rights of others.
Surely this is an ideal worth working for. ...’

That could have done with some further editing, but it wasn’t too bad. I hope regulations applying in residential colleges at UNE today have been framed with a view to restricting individual freedom only to the extent necessary to protect the rights of other residents.


Jim Belshaw said...

HI Winton. I missed this when it first came up because I was away. You are right, of course, about the organising. For the life of me, I cannot remember who did the overall organising of the campaign. Memory is an imperefect beast.

Soo Khoo's resignation as editor got you involved in that next edition. I can't remember why he resigned. Returning home?

And that quote is well written. But, then, you always did write well!

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Jim!