PETER GIBILISCO. Where are the public intellectuals like Hugh Stretton.

Feb 16, 2017

The worst kind of bad social science, Stretton argues, purports to select the things to be explained, and the ways of explaining them, without resort to values and valuation”  

Hugh Stretton 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. 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. Suffice to say that it is an attitude that challenged stereotypes about what a university should actually be about. 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.

Hugh spent his early education at Mentone Grammar and Scotch College, being the beneficiary of an early education program that catered for those with special talents. But in Hugh’s case his upbringing helped to create the man. He never acted like he was born with a silver spoon rather he has been overwhelmingly respected for his heart of gold.

In reference to Scotch College (this is also from the same interview, slightly edited):

“Just before I got there, a remarkable headmaster got there. It had had one of these famous old bearded headmasters for about forty years, very conservative and I don’t think the notion of the Arts had ever crossed his mind in any form and then there came this new man in 1935. I suppose, he was a New Zealander. He had been to England as a Rhodes Scholar, he was a classical Latin and Greek Scholar. He was also a Scottish International rugby player and he had also got a Military Cross and bar as a soldier in World War 1. He also looked like the Metro Goldwyn Mayer Lion, if you know what I mean. He was the most formidable conservative figure nobody would very impute anything radical or naughty to him and he moved into the place and he threw all the portraits of headmasters out of the Memorial Hall where we met every morning for assembly and brought the Carnegie collection of Contemporary Art and spread that around.

“During my time at Scotch College, there was something of a sex scandal, about which we published reports and opinions without any interference from the school’s hierarchy. Now that editor, it makes me proud to say, was Creighton Burns who got much more famous with publishing the Age Tapes and things like that. So the school was an extraordinarily lucky place to be if you wanted to grow up and be something of an intellectual. I had good teachers in a number of things.”

This is how one of Australia’s pre-eminent public intellectuals of the 2nd half of the 20th century explains what for the rest of us seems to have been a fantastic academic career.

Stretton completed the first year of an Arts/Law degree at Melbourne University, served three years in the wartime navy, then won a Rhodes scholarship. At Oxford he took a B.A. in history and became a fellow at Balliol College in 1948. Before he began teaching, the college arranged for him to spend a year at Princeton graduate school where he took courses in a number of social science subjects.

On his return to Oxford, Stretton developed a strong friendship with two colleagues in economics. One was Paul Streeton, a philosopher as well as an economist, an Austrian Jew who enlisted in the British commandos after the Nazi occupation of Austria, and was then severely wounded in the Second World War. The other was Thomas Balogh, Hungarian born, who had experienced both Germany and the US before he settled in England. He was an associate of Keynes, and adviser to the postwar Labour government, which nationalised major industries and created the National Health Service. Streeton and Balogh shared and encouraged Stretton’s pragmatic, historical and institutional approach to economics.

From 1954 to 1989, Stretton taught history at Adelaide University. Among his colleagues were some who had experienced some of the worst of the history that they then taught about in their classes; the Nazi Holocaust, the Stalinist tyranny in Russia, racist apartheid in South Africa. They were unusual in insisting on their common humanity with their oppressors. Their purpose was not to excuse the crimes but to understand them. Stretton admired the vivid effects of their experience on their teaching, and learned much from them.


Hugh Stretton had a phenomenal public career. He published his first book in 1969 titled The Political Sciences which is explained as follows:

“The worst kind of bad social science, Stretton argues, purports to select the things to be explained, and the ways of explaining them, without resort to values and valuation” – R Dare.

Following this Hugh released another six books. They were all highly acclaimed winning many prestigious awards. Hugh also received many Honorary Doctorates that acclaimed such work.

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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