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Hugh Stretton: one of Australia's best public intellectuals

By Peter Gibilisco - posted Friday, 16 December 2016

Back in 1996 I concluded my undergraduate studies in sociology at Monash University. In those days a "major" concluded with a Practicum and mine was titled "A Post-Modern Economics". I had begun to formulate my own ideas about sociology and economics, and my initial contact with Hugh Stretton's writings inspired me to do so. Hugh's contribution to pragmatic social understanding was not as well-known as it should have been, even though he was prominent as a critic of the public policies that had arisen from the "economic rationalist" reforms of the Hawke-Keating Government (1983-1996).

Since then, my own academic involvement has been a matter of developing insights inspired by Hugh Stretton's "pragmatic social democracy". My work has very much been a matter of understanding my own situation. Hugh's scholarship has helped me understand the impact of public policies concerning disability support upon my own life.

Recently, I was privileged to contribute to a seminar on the NDISand what I have been able to say there has everything to do with the impact of Hugh Stretton's work upon my own efforts as a disability activist. In this article I would like to pay tribute to Hugh's contribution and to commend his work for further close examination by scholars and also public policy researchers.


Hugh Stretton's values

Following his example, I take great delight in challenging people's stereotypes. In my work I have repeatedly challenged the stereotypes that have led to a misunderstanding of disabled people. Hugh Stretton challenged stereotypes in his own academic work. He was a curious presence because he was hard to pin down in conventional categories. In basic philosophical terms he defied stereotyping when it indicated a failure to understand reality. He did this in his university career.

Consider the following example from Markets, Morals and Public Policy (1989); a book published on the occasion of his retirement from Adelaide University and edited by Robert Dare.

Some years ago a noted British political scientist regarded Hugh Stretton down the length of a luncheon table and asked whether he was still a historian. The reply was brief and a little irritable; he was not and had never been one. This exchange happened within a handful of years of Stretton's resignation from the Chair of History at the University of Adelaide, a post he had occupied for 15 years and now relinquished for a readership – in History. Departmental colleagues over more than a generation have taught comfortably beside Stretton, and many more former students attribute a life-long interest in history, professional and otherwise, to his inspired teaching. How should we account for this curious union? How should we describe the place of this self-professed non-historian among historians?

I will not answer that here. I leave it for readers to take up Hugh's writings to determine why he would say such a thing and what he intended by it. Suffice to say that it is an attitude that challenged stereotypes about what a university should actually be about.

Some years after beginning to delve deeply into Hugh's writings, I began to understand the values that inspired his challenge to (what I am calling) stereotypes. I was privileged to be able to delve into Hugh's individual perceptions of people and their values, and in every case it confirmed to me his love for and forward thinking about academic life.

I actually met Hugh in 1996 at the Brotherhood of St. Laurence, Geoffrey Sambell Oration, and that was when I caught a glimpse of his teaching abilities.


One of the last times I got to see Hugh was in 2003 as a keynote speaker at the inaugural SPRC conference held at NSW. In this conference Hugh was able to highlight to me his extraordinary talents as a public intellectual. I also want to say that Hugh's principled love for teaching was manifest in his phenomenal openness – I would call it a gift – for students like myself; at that time I was a forty year old PhD student.

He was a true gentleman, greatly admired by all those who knew him. And as I have said this is written in the hope that we, who are still responsible for how social policy meets the demands of justice, can still learn from the life and the teachings of Hugh Stretton.

The principles behind Hugh

Let me give what I understand about his pragmatic social democratic principles in Hugh's own words. This is from an interview I conducted with Hugh Stretton at Latrobe Bundoora, Thursday May 5 1998:

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Hugh Stretton was born in 1924 and died in 2015. This article was composed with some "ghost-writing" assistance of Dr Bruce Wearne. A special thanks to Bruce, for his mastery of editing and helping to tweak my piece and to Christina Irugalbandara for her excellence in academic support work.

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About the Author

Peter Gibilisco was diagnosed with the progressive neurological condition called Friedreich's Ataxia, at age 14. The disability has made his life painful and challenging. He rocks the boat substantially in the formation of needed attributes to succeed in life. For example, he successfully completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne, this was achieved late into the disability's progression. However, he still performs research with the university, as an honorary fellow. Please read about his new book The Politics of Disability.

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