What academe was all about

I went to university. … I obtained a special dispensation from the university each year to undertake a full-time course on a part-time basis. I went to work, then went to lectures, ate a light dinner (I was usually too tired by eight or nine o’clock in the evening to eat), then sat up half the night to complete my studies.

Because I worked at a major clothing store on Saturday mornings, my sleep pattern was about two hours on Friday night, no more than four hours on five other nights, and a make-up nine to ten hours once a week. Yet we went out twice a week, as life would have been totally boring otherwise for my wife. We had intellectually stimulating talk on one of the two social nights, with lots of food, drinks, and good friends. I used to collect new friends at the university.

At the end of four years, I had completed a degree and a postgraduate year, with honours in some subjects.

Selling men’s clothes in the major departmental store was a pleasant change of work, and a challenge. I would have been the first Asian salesman in a major store in Melbourne. At the end of my first morning, I found every senior salesman looking at me. Why? Because I had been equal top-salesman for the morning (what a surprise for me). The other guy, apparently, always topped each Saturday morning’s sales. So, for the fun of it, I decided that I would give him a run for his money. But he was a difficult man to beat. He was very good. He also sold the more expensive lines, whereas the casuals were required to ensure that those wanting lower-cost purchases were assisted. This also took more time. But it was fun challenging ‘el supremo’ – and he enjoyed it too, I suspect.

My studies were exciting. I read, I thought, I researched much more widely and deeply than was necessary, had great discussions with some members of staff. My reading (seeking to understand) continued unabated. I thought that I had found my niche in life. … … and there was a (refugee) Jewish German anthropologist who was outside the mainstream of university work because (as he said) he was not qualified in Aboriginal anthropology. What a terrible waste! I spent an hour each week for a year with him.

He was a most insightful scholar, and was obviously being wasted. He guided me in my interest in the origins and development of religious beliefs, myths, and the like. One intriguing statement he made was that I would fit in on any side of the Mediterranean, purely on the basis of my appearance.

… …When I answered a question in a tutorial on economics with a statement challenging the behavioural assumptions underlying the theory being studied (not examined), I was told by the senior lecturer that there was no place for psychology in economics. Now we knew why economists are so irrelevant. … So, what was scholarship all about?

But there were educated academics as well. One, a senior lecturer in economic history, used to ask me to comment on some issue or other that we were discussing. … I used to apply what I understood about human psychology or sociology and offer explanations of my own. Apparently he liked that – and used me as a sort of intellectual punching bag. In the process, I too benefited – I learnt about matters that I had no time to read about. Another lecturer in that subject, of European accent, was also responsive to fresh thinking – thank heavens for that, because all my reading on that subject was done on the trams!

Sometime later, I asked to write a thesis on the sociological variables (value systems, etc.) underlying theories of economic development. Three Australian universities said that they had no one to supervise such a thesis. … On one occasion, when I raised the matter with a professor of sociology, he expressed interest, saying, “Yes, there would be great benefit in studying the economic variables underlying theories of social change.” When I said that I was interested in the obverse issue, he lost interest in me.

(These extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out,’ my first memoir, show that I had found myself swimming smoothly in academic waters. This excited me to want to know more and more, even as I was undertaking two full-time tasks. What interested was that I was challenging my tutors on many occasions; and able to hold a dialogue with knowledgeable academics.

Now, that is confidence for a fellow who had recently been sluggishly wriggling at the bottom of a deep well so dark that there was little hope of any light penetrating the gloom. My personal river of destiny was obviously on the move: the Cosmos does operate in mysterious ways. The lesson? Paddle, with equanimity, as best you can!)