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My Absent Career 1: The end of an error

Last updated on 1 Jan 2023

So this month ends my likely last teaching contract. For the past two decades I have been sporadically teaching, first at Melbourne, then Queensland, then Sydney, Bond [the less said about that the better], UNSW and back to Melbourne. But I never got a permanent position, and age, I think, has the most to do with it. I’mm in a reflective and maudlin mood, so allow me to be autobiographical.

I was born on Remembrance Day 1955, in a country town (Mansfield Victoria) near where my parents owned a general store (we call them “milk bars” in Australia) that would shortly be flooded out by the newly completed dam that formed Lake Eildon. A few years back drought uncovered the foundations of my ancestral milk bar. It was not nearly as significant to me as I expected.

Neither of my parents were well to do. We were stubbornly lower middle class, and nobody on either side of my family was the least bit academic. At that time, when I began school in 1960, there was no standard curriculum (people did not yet move around a lot when they had kids), and so I missed out learning to read and write, as reading was taught earlier in a school I moved to, and writing too, so by moving schools I was left out. My handwriting to this day is very bad ball and stick writing.

However, around the time I turned 6 my parents moved to a new milk bar, so I got first dibs on all comics (mostly DC in those days. Only The Phantom was available otherwise), and taught myself to read from the speech bubbles. My dad also subscribed to Amazing Stories and Astounding, scifi pulp magazines, and it was the Golden Age for scifi, so this was my introduction to fiction (not literature, exactly, although some may have committed it accidentally, such as Flowers for Algenon, by Daniel Keyes, which along with Asimov’s Ugly LIttle Boy is the only time I cried while reading a short story).

At school I was regarded as a weirdo, but harmless. This may have something to do with my undiagnosed (as the diagnosis was not available at the time amongst educationalists) Aspergers*. Be that as it may, only three teachers were ever sympathetic to my plight: my third grade teacher (whose name I have now lost), my sixth grade teacher (Mr Dewan, a lovely man who really cared for his pupils in a time when strapping was rampant. My fifth grade teacher would strap all the boys on a Monday because they must have gotten up to something bad on the weekend), and my sixth form Applied Mathematics teacher (whose name I have also lost but whose face I can still visualise).

So I ended my secondary education by being thrown out of school, because my Aspie behaviour was seen as wilful disobedience by the Headmistress, who hated me from day one. I did not complete by Year 12 certificate until some years later at night school, and even then I coasted. But that is for the next instalment.

In my first form year I had several friends. One of them is now a curator at the Melbourne Museum, and another was an environmental scientist in the Northern Territory, so there must have been something in the air at Beaumaris Secondary School. All I managed was to set first to the chemistry lab curtains when another friend struck a match and applied it to a Petrie dish of rocket fuel I was making based upon a formula for explosives I found in the University Library one day. Without further access to science education, and being extremely good at Pure Maths (basically algebra) but failing Applied (because we did not have access to calculators and statistical programs in 1973) there was no way I was going to become a scientist. As I noted above, my family did not have tertiary educations and such was considered a waste of earning power.

As a side-note, my father died in 1968, the night I first heard The Beatles’ White album, and in particular “Good Night“, sung by RIngo. I still cannot listen to that song without tearing up. This peripherally affected my education by making me depressed for the rest of my life. That was also not an available diagnosis to educators back then. The Australian ethos was, and to an extent still is, “Tough it out”, a form of Secular Calvinism I have discussed before.

So, how did I get from “barely passed high school” to a PhD in history and philosophy of science? Stay tuned.

* The deprecation of Asperger’s to a form of Autism in the DSM is entirely due to a genetic fallacy in my opinion. Hans Asperger was a Nazi; Nazism is bad; therefore Aspergers Syndrome is not a good diagnosis. But Aspies are distinct from other forms of autism, and I suspect something valuable has been lost in that deprecation. In fact I think the entire notion of a spectrum of autism is misplaced.