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My Absent Career 3: Education and the failure of explanations

Last updated on 1 Jan 2023

One of the things that causes Aspies problems is that you have no independent idea of your own abilities. In my case, Neither my parents, nor my teachers, nor my friends, confirmed to me any intelligence on my part, and while I had the sneaking suspicion that were the aliens to arrive they would ask for me, I really thought I was a stupid as everyone said. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that I could do history and philosophy, but I never thought anything of it. After all, it wasn’t really marketable, was it? That was what I had been led to expect was my lot. Find something (my mother suggested the public [civil for Britishers] service) and stay with it until you retire.

So I couldn’t really process my academic achievements clearly. I received the second high distinction my historiography lecturer E. Daniel Potts ever gave to a student in 40 years, possibly because I disputed his presentation of Marxist history and stood up to give an impromptu lecture to the class (he received it well; not so the other students). So when I re-enrolled and I was invited to do honours right there and then by the department staff, I had no idea what that signified. I guess I thought they were desperate for honours students.

Likewise my competition essay “Is doing my duty one of my duties?” (my answer, no) won the undergraduate philosophy essay competition, I didn’t think much of it apart from, well, if I won, the standard of competitors must be pretty poor. Even so, I wanted to do philosophy, so I transferred from Monash to Latrobe, then one of the best analytic philosophy departments in the world. By this time, I had realised I was never going to get the student assistance known as TEAS (Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme), so I worked full-time while I studied part-time. It took me an extra two years to finish my honours.

Coincidentally, Latrobe was way out in the sticks in 1981, so it had “hitching posts” for students to hitchhike from the campus (more naive times), and one student who picked me up chatted as we drove, and told me he worked for TEAS. I exclaimed, “You bastards lost my application!”, to which he replied, “You’re John Wilkins!” Apparently I was the only person who lost their TEAS application after submission. I was never compensated.

Parenthetically, this had happened to me some five years earlier, when the unemployment officer who took my application for the dole took offence at my long hair and jeans and “lost” my application form down the back of some filing cabinets. This ended up with me being homeless at 18 and sleeping on a beach. But that’s another story. In the end when the unemployment office was moved they found quite a number of “hippy applications” this guy had “lost” and he was sent to prison. I did get compensated at that time, three years later… Every call I made for that year asking when I was going to get paid was met with “The cheque will be there soon”. Hmmm.

So after I submitted my honours thesis (on Stanley Cavell on Wittgenstein, I think), I left study and went on my merry way.

Now, during my final year someone (John Bigelow?) asked me if I wanted to become a professional philosopher. Again, I had no idea what this signified. I replied that I couldn’t, because I had no income but what I got doing publishing jobs (at that time I think I was a proofreader for the CSIRO proofing mathematical galleys. I still have nightmares). So at least twice in my undergraduate studies I missed out on an opportunity. But what does one expect of someone who was Aspie, lacked any self-confidence, and had no role models or guides regarding university?

A cartoon of J T Wilkins as fire chief
John Thomas Wilkins 1868โ€“1949

In one way I was very lucky to even get a university degree. My grandfather, who had a certificate of engineering at age 14, went on to become chief of the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade from 1927 to 1940. I never met him, as he died six years before I was born, but he was the most well-educated in my paternal family for some time. So just doing some tertiary study, even though I was mostly an autodidact, was something of a minor miracle. And even then I couldn’t have done anything except for the progressive prime minister Gough Whitlam, who saved me from going to Vietnam (my birthday for the draft was drawn that year) by withdrawing from the war, and who subsequently removed all fees for university degrees (which the next, conservative, PM did not wind back). So I got my undergraduate degrees for free, apart from student union fees.

I then did a two year diploma in Computing, also free. Eventually I got really bored, and signed up for a Masters at my then employer, Monash University. Sure enough there was John Bigelow again having moved from a rapidly disintegrating Latrobe philosophy department, and he was assigned as my thesis advisor. Unfortunately, he was also head of department and a Professor, so I didn’t see him much. However, an up and coming philosopher of biology was visiting, one Kim Sterelny, so he oversaw my final thesis, saying to me in his inimitable manner, “I don’t know why you are so interested in memes”. My insecurities hit hard and I said to him in some pain, “Should I just fucking give up then?” Kim, to his credit, replied “No, of course not”, but I was somewhat shattered.

My masters was a research degree, which meant that the university got money from the government that exceeded the cost of enrolling me. Hence it was practice to not charge research degree students fees, and I lucked out again. However, not entirely. It is common knowledge to everybody but me that one could convert a Masters to a PhD. My thesis, on David Hull’s Science as a Process theory of memetic evolution in science, was 40,000 words, just 12,000 short of a PhD thesis, and I had cut out at least that much to fit under the word limit. Had I known, I could have had a doctorate at 38, and not 48. But everyone thought I knew I could do that, so nobody informed me of it.

This lack of open explanation in academe is rife. In fact, it is rife in education at all levels. So much of what you need to know is either assumed or is something that folk pick up from their family that have studied in the institutions beforehand. Being an outlier, I had no idea. I was still expecting teddy bears, though less so than when I first enrolled in university. And it is a core reason why I never got my academic career going. I was just too old by the time I was in my publishing prime. More on this later.