Fleecing the Nation

By Robin, Libby | Journal of Australian Studies, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Fleecing the Nation


Robin, Libby, Journal of Australian Studies


When W K Hancock returned to Australia in March 1957 after twenty-five years expatriation in Britain, he cast around for anew `flagship project'.(1) He wanted something broad--`span' was one of his favorite words--and he wanted something `national'. His new job was director of the Research School of Social Sciences of the Australian National University (ANU). Hancock had been closely associated with the founding of the ANU, serving on its foundation committee from 1945-9.(2) A `national' project would fulfil the new university's perceived obligation to the nation and also capitalise on its Canberra base. It could also reassure Hancock that there was virtue in his situation at the `periphery', away from the pulse of empire that beat in London at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, where he had been foundation director since 1949.

Hancock felt ignorant of the land of his birth, describing himself as an `old New Australian', and hit upon a question: `Suppose I begin by trying to understand the wool industry?'.(3) The wool industry, he reasoned, offered an entree to the best of Canberra: `economists and historians in my own university or in Canberra university college, scientists in the commonwealth scientific and industrial research organisation, officials in the department of trade or the bureau of agricultural economics. I wonder if I could persuade some of these people to join a Wool Seminar?'(4)

He did. The wool seminar comprised thirty-six papers presented approximately fortnightly over a period of two and a half years from June 1957 until November 1959. It drew on speakers from the university sector, CSIRO, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and other instrumentalities.(5) It had a core group of about twenty `regulars' from a range of disciplines. Because of Hancock's insistence on plain English--`specialists ... need to make themselves intelligible and interesting to specialists of a different stamp'(6) -- the interdisciplinary team really tried to communicate with each other. Seminar meetings were supposed to be entirely devoted to discussion time, all papers being precirculated, but this did not always work out in practice.(7) The papers of the wool seminar became the backbone of a book, The Simple Fleece, published in 1962,(8) edited and shaped by Alan Barnard, economist and author of The Australian Wool Market.(9) Hancock may have regretted not being able to edit the book himself; he was prevented by personal circumstances (including the death of his first wife and the unfinished state of his major biography of Jan Smuts(10)). But perhaps he also saw his role as director as one who should `open up' new ideas rather than `mop up' earlier ones.(11)

The wool seminar was striking in its `interdisciplinarity', in an era before such words were fashionable. It wilfully bridged `the two cultures' of science and humanities, just at the time when this great divide was made famous by C P Snow in his 1959 Rede lecture in Cambridge.(12) The seminar was striking in its unanimity of cultural voice. The wool industry was not just a `national' project--it was a patriotic project with which distinguished Australians wanted to be associated. The aim of this paper is to use the `moment' of the wool seminar in the late 1950s to examine the history of the Australian nationalism built on wool and to reconsider some of the unspoken cultural baggage which the seminar did not--or could not--scrutinise.

Woolly Thinking and its Silences

Without wishing to dispute the pioneering interdisciplinarity of the wool seminar, I want to examine closely the silences of the seminar, especially the fact that surprisingly few cultural insights emerge from the seminar's official published form, The Simple Fleece. The book ultimately begs the question of how an understanding of the wool industry could actually assist in the process of re-educating an `academic person and a citizen' of Australia in the 1950s and 1960s.

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