With Patrick McCaughey

June 11 / 62

Festival of Ideas Director Patrick McCaughey studied Fine Arts and English at the University of Melbourne and became The Age’s art critic in 1966. After working in New York on a Harkness Fellowship, he was appointed Professor of Visual Arts at Monash University in 1972 and went on to become Director of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1981. In 1988, he left Australia and was successively Director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Yale Center for British Art. In 2003 he published his Australian memoir, The Bright Shapes and the True Names, and in 2006 the Miegunyah Press published his Voyage and Landfall: The Art of Jan Senbergs. He lives and works in New Haven, Connecticut.

The 2011 Festival of Ideas, on the theme The Pursuit of Identity Landscape, History and Genetic, offers the perfect forum for hearing one's eminent colleagues speak on their own particular field of expertise. The sciences may be different in this regard, but one of the ironies of university intellectual life is that only students get to hear world class experts speak on their subjects. At Yale, I used to think how odd it was that only undergraduates could hear Linda Colley on the evolution of the British ideology, or Claude Rawson on Jonathan Swift, or Tim Barringer on Victorian art and culture. Each of them are internationally acclaimed figures. I am sure a similar situation exists here at the University. 

The Festival of Ideas will bring many of Melbourne's most prominent scientists, social scientists and humanists onto a public stage, to speak about central issues in their discipline. How the past has shaped the Australian present, for instance, will be the theme on which such notables as Jim Davidson, Rebe Taylor, Geoffrey Blainey and Stuart McIntyre will reflect.

If we seldom get to hear our immediate colleagues doing their stuff, hearing from leading figures at other Melbourne universities is even rarer, and next to non-existent for interstate scholars and experts. From Joe Camilleri at La Trobe to Mark Baker of Monash on the Israel/Palestine conflict, to Beverley Kingston of the University of NSW and Iain McCalman of the University of Sydney, a notable array of Australian intellectuals will present papers at the Festival. 

A Republic of Learning, to borrow the Vice-Chancellor's telling phrase, is an incomplete and inadequate state if it is confined to our immediate, daily colleagues. We need to hear from outside our own disciplines and institutions to refresh them.

Much attention has been paid in recent years to the virtues and values of interdisciplinary work, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success. The Festival of Ideas provides the opportunity for the interdisciplinary without making it into an educational ideology. Thus, on the Friday afternoon of the Festival, 17 June, an environmentalist, Tim Bonyhady (ANU), an art historian, Janine Burke (Monash), a geneticist, Ary Hoffmann, and an agrarian, Rick Roush, will each take as a theme the Australian landscape, its distinctiveness and its role in forging an Australian identity. The landscape of the imagination and the landscape of fact will be dramatically juxtaposed.

The other beneficial characteristic of the Festival of ideas is that discourse - the evening Keynote Lecture - is balanced with discussion - the daytime panels. A diet of lectures, no matter how good, becomes too much to absorb and mentally digest. Brief papers followed by argument and dialogue between eminent persons of learning and contrary persuasions, where the play of personality is as important as the exchange of ideas, is a vivid and memorable way to new ideas, new directions, the unexpected. The Festival of Ideas aims to provide many such occasions to create an atmosphere both edgy and exciting.


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