The Intellectual Edge

Cate Carter

I saw the Intellectual Edge last Thursday. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t particularly young. It wasn’t doing a Ted talk or wearing a class ring. It didn’t talk about tactics or Clausewitz and it wasn’t wearing medals. I saw it in a video conference of the Defence PhD cohort. The array of faces confirmed the fact that Defence is a multifarious organisation. It is military and civilian; full-time and part-time; Department and agency; air, sea and land; woman and man. Our professional obligation to advance the institution of defence requires all these voices; people with different perspectives and experiences working towards the same thing. We are too small an organisation not to include everybody, and yet we huddle into tribes, presenting our backs to critique.

The Intellectual Edge it isn’t even an edge. It’s more of a mass. Intellectual mass takes time to grow and thicken. This is where Defence must invest if it has intellectual pursuits, not in micro credentials and ideas expos, but in deep inquiry. As Defence scholars attest, deep inquiry takes years; years of reading and systematic analysis, years of throwing away and starting again, years of being refuted by a bold new work, and finally, the realisation that you no longer believe in your fundamental premise because you have discovered the joy and the curse of new knowledge. In ADF language, this takes longer than a posting, and sometimes longer than your total time in rank, so we have to structure a support system to enable knowledge to be constructed over time.

First that means treating intellectual pursuit as specialist, serious and long term. Our current conceptualisation treats intellectualism as something we can bolt on as a kind of armour against recklessness. Not everyone wants to pursue ideas, but everyone can benefit from them, so let’s not swamp the generalist. Most controversially, the Intellectual Edge isn’t PME and we have to stop conflating the two ideas. Professional military education is beneficial for members of armed forces to understand the historical, political and social context of warfare, and construct arguments for and against their logic. It is a necessary endeavour for a sophisticated force and liberating to its members, but that’s not the intellectual mass that drives that force.

If we go down the path of an intellectualism that questions the very foundations on which the Defence sector and the military profession stands, then we must be prepared to accept that the place where we find ourselves, may not be where we want to be. In other words, in dismantling concepts and ideas, rather than just structures, we may weaken the reason to exist at all. This departs significantly from self-justification and celebration of might.

The second thing we must do is engage with those who do not agree with us. That includes throwing open the doors that are firmly shut and don’t seem to have any handles on the outside. Opening doors allows people in, and those people can help us solve our own problems. We must stop assuming we can do it by ourselves. And we must go out - engage people in their spaces, where they constructed their knowledge. We must learn their theories and listen while they interpret ours, and then think about it. Think about it for a long time.

Third, we must put a price on the pursuit of intellectualism. Defence does not pay people to think, so we need to do that. The value of the entire PhD cohort to Defence over the duration of their combined candidature is $6.8 million and the Australian Defence Organisation saved that cost by not investing in it. That’s a pretty big free gift, and that’s just the beginning. Over the rest of their careers, that cohort will be worth 11.3 million. That’s about $18 million in all. Pretty good investment when you consider one new Boxer armoured fighting vehicle is about $25 million. For return on investment, my money would be on the fifteen people.

A great commitment is needed. Defence needs to commit people, and people have to commit their careers. There are no outcomes, there is only knowledge, and those who commit funds may not witness the result in their lifetime. Moreover, there will be much ground lost over the battle between committing to the pursuit of knowledge and accommodating the bureaucracy in which we operate. Intellectualism needs no dot points. It goes beyond organisational diagrams and it resists making recommendations. It is inherently reflexive, it is measured by what is asks, rather than what it answers, and it has a strong foothold already. It is certainly not an aspiration. I have seen the Intellectual Edge and it is Good.