PESA Pen Picture Series – Peter Stevens

Anti-Vietnam War protest March from U.S. Consulate 7 Wynyard Street to Hyde Park, Sydney (does not feature Peter)
PESA Agora has commenced the PESA Pen Picture Series, written by Kevin Harris about some of our early members of PESA. Now that PESA is in its second half century, is timely to remember friends and colleagues from the early days, some of whom have now passed away.

 

Peter Stevens was a man of small build and soft voice, but you could always pick him out in a crowd, even from a distance.  Peter was the one hurrying faster than the rest and always carrying a load of books along with a bundle of papers tucked securely under one arm.

Notwithstanding his junior position as a post-graduate student and part-time tutor, Peter’s reach and influence was immense at Sydney University in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The secret to that was that he straddled the fields of Philosophy, Economics and Education.  In Philosophy he was caught up in the infamous split of the Philosophy Department, and settled in as a Doctoral student in the Marxist camp, learning from Marxist scholars and also from anti-empiricists such as Alan Chalmers.  In Economics, which was totally riven but hadn’t officially split, he sided with the ‘political economy’ group and learnt from people such as Rod O’Donnell (and thus came to know Rod’s wife, Carol).  And he arrived in Education at a time of change, when philosophy of education began to be taught.  Here he was given a three-year contract to act as a tutor under Bill Andersen’s wing.

Peter saw the interconnections between all three disciplines well before the rest of us, and he was indefatigable in sharing and promoting what he was learning.  Most prominently, he brought anti-empiricism and neo-Marxism across from the Philosophy school to the Education Building, he took a leading role in the uprising in the School of Economics which led to the ‘Political Economy Now!’ movement, and from economics he brought (literally, carrying them at pace across the campus) the early papers of two relatively unknown economists, Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis, to the postgraduate students grappling with analytic philosophy of education.  Largely thanks to Peter, those stuck with empiricism in Sociology of Education and those poring over Hirst and Peters in Philosophy of Education, quickly found there were a number of alternatives, all of which eventually seemed to coalesce neatly with the teachings of Louis Althusser.  Peter had quite literally changed things: this being manifested concretely in his presentation of the first Marxist paper at a PESA Annual Conference (1975) and its subsequent historical publication in EPAT (Educational Philosophy and Theory).

Peter was also an indefatigable organizer and was largely responsible, with Carol O’Donnell, for the unexpectedly huge success of the ‘Political Economy Now!’ Conference, the ‘What to do About Schools’ Conference[i], the formation of the ‘Radical Education Group’ and the founding of Radical Education Dossier. (He was also lead organiser of Sydney’s two major Anti-Vietnam Marches).

It would be fair to say that Peter was mentor to many of us who were rising through the ranks at the time (see the acknowledgements to him in books by Michael Matthews and myself), but two (maybe three) things conspired to deprive him of the personal success he deserved.

The first was the return from the USA of our dear friend Warren Fenley, riddled with terminal cancer.  Warren knew that no treatment could help him and strongly desired that no one, especially his wife and two baby daughters, should see him degenerate into death.  So Warren and Peter made a pact:  Peter gave Warren a bed in his house and closed off all contact and correspondence till the end came.  I lived very close by and saw Peter often through the ordeal:  broken and shattered, he nevertheless nursed Warren till the very last moment.

The timing could not have been worse, coinciding as it did with the expiry date of Peter’s contract, and the University, rather than showing human gratitude or sympathy by making an automatic renewal, stuck to due process and put the position to open advertisement.  Jim Walker led the applicants, and given that it was absolutely undeniable that Jim had by far the better CV, Peter simply had no chance.  Suddenly the dynamo who straddled three Faculties had no job in any one of them.  It remains a moot point to this day as to whether the University felt compelled to follow due process or simply saw a means to get rid of the radical who had been at the forefront of all those movements and who, openly and proudly carried his Membership Card of the Communist Party of Australia.

Peter scraped by for a few years on the money he could get for occasional marking and tutoring.  He published one further piece (co-authored with Richard Archer) in EPAT, along with a Rejoinder to a Rejoinder, and a small piece in Radical Education Dossier, No.5, February 1978, and the next thing we knew he had gone.

[i] People tend not to realise that these Conferences preceded the publication in Australia of Bowles and Gintis’s highly influential book Schooling in Capitalist America. It was Peter who initially brought their work to our attention, and who imported a dozen copies of the book for the Organising Committees to read.

Kevin Harris

March 2021

 

Image:  Wikimedia Commons: Anti-Vietnam War protest March from U.S. Consulate 7 Wynyard Street to Hyde Park, Sydney, NSW 09.jpg;  courtesy of the SEARCH Foundation, from the collections of the State Library of New South Wales.  Digital image ID: FL4525423; http://digital.sl.nsw.gov.au/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=FL4525423&embedded=true&toolbar=false;  1 February 1966, Source: Tribune negatives collection, State Library of New South Wales, http://archival.sl.nsw.gov.au/Details/archive/110370621; author: The Tribune / SEARCH Foundation.

 

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Full Citation Information:
Harris, K. (2021). PESA Pen Picture Series – Peter Stevens. PESA Agora. https://pesaagora.com/columns/pesa-pen-picture-series-peter-stephens/

Kevin Harris

Kevin Harris is Emeritus Professor of Education at Macquarie University. He is enjoying retirement, but his father had it much better when he retired in 1970.

As a schoolteacher and then an academic for almost fifty years, he is fully conversant with publicly perceived outbreaks of educational crises, and maintains his faith in the proven excellence of our teachers and the world-class reputation of our academic researchers, to save our children from allegedly slipping too far down spurious world-wide rankings.

I have previously romanticised myself sufficiently; those interested can look up Educational Philosophy and Theory, 44(5), 450-463. I am now going on 83 and, with apologies to Shakespeare and Keats, I now ‘suffer the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’: that is all ye need to know.