Volume 1 Number 5
Values for a Changing Society
01 January 1988
In today's Australia it is no surprise that most of us find the name of one of our foremost social thinkers hard to pronounce.
In today's Australia it is no surprise that most of us find the name of one of our foremost social thinkers hard to pronounce. After all, few Australians can get our tongues around the name of our highest mountain, Kosciusko, or its discoverer, the explorer Strzelecki.
Jerzy Zubrzycki, like the explorer and the mountain, bears a Polish name. Foundation Professor of Sociology at the Australian National University, Canberra, he introduces himself to Australian friends with the English version of his name, George, and 'Zoo-brits-kee' as an acceptable pronunciation of his surname.
Until World War II most Australians came from a British background. Now some twothirds do. As chairman of the Ethnic Affairs Council and co-founder of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs, Zubrzycki has played a major part in this transformation.
The first Australian response to the flood of migration was `assimilation', whereby the new arrivals (and Aborigines) were asked to fit into the British mould. But since the early 1970s ethnic minorities have been encouraged in their own identity - to the extent that those who treasure Australia's British traditions began to fear these were being undermined. Zubrzycki understood this, and has tried to reconcile two competing principles - `one nation' and `rights of ethnic groups' - in `multiculturalism for all Australians' an effort to create true unity out of diversity, rather than suppressing differences.
Zubrzycki was born in Cracow in 1920 and grew up in Poland's brief `window' of independence between the two world wars. Cracow was also the home of the future Pope John Paul II, who is his exact contemporary. Zubrzycki deeply values the classical education that young Poles like himself were offered, giving them familiarity with Greek and Latin and the major classics of European literature. `We were well-prepared for the trials of the Nazi occupation and the long winter of Stalinist rule,' he wrote last year in the Melbourne Age. `Intellectually, the school system that Karol Wojtyla and I attended made us ready to question the "isms" and the totalitarian and nihilist philosophies which swept over Europe in the late 1930s.'
Another formative influence on both men was the student movement called 'Odrodzenie' ('renaissance' or `renewal'), which based its radically Christian approach to society on the moral renewal of the individual as the alternative to the growth of state totalitarianism.
Zubrzycki was twice decorated for his work with the wartime resistance, known in Poland as those who fought `in silence and darkness'- the 'Cichociemni'. After escaping from Nazi captivity by jumping out of a train, he managed to reach Britain early in the war, bringing with him important intelligence about the deployment of German troops preparing for Hitler's surprise invasion of the USSR. (It is one of the ironies of history, as Churchill records, that Stalin refused to believe the warning.) In Britain he worked in the Special Operations Executive and was sent back into occupied Poland to fight behind the lines.
Unable to go back to Poland after the war, Zubrzycki studied for six years at the London School of Economics and came to live in Australia in 1956. He joined the staff of the Australian National University and in 1970 founded its sociology department.
The field of sociology has sometimes appeared to be dominated by a rationalistic, materialistic interpretation of society. Doubts have also been cast at times on its standing as an academic discipline. At worst it has been accused of substituting jargon for a true explanation of the essence of things.
The work of Jerzy Zubrzycki contradicts such judgments. His most recent publication, a series of lectures entitled The social problems of a post-industrial civilization, radically questions the philosophical and human values that have become dominant over the last two centuries.
Because industrial society is geared primarily to economic and technological progress, says Zubrzycki, even `human relations are viewed as means to ends'. The classic cultivation of personal virtue as the highest good has been forgotten, as has the role of the individual in the community. Instead, people are judged by their material achievements.
For Zubrzycki, the answer to today's crisis must begin with a return to the traditional social values which have given continuity, shape and meaning to human existence. If the `economic megastructures' are not to impose dehumanizing lifestyles on us, then the `mediating structures' of family, school, church and small communities have a vital part to play.
There are some things, he says, that must be recognized as unchangeable. `People now talk about choosing our own individual, personal values. But morality as a basis for social consensus has traditionally been seen precisely as those values about which we have no choice. There is no old or new morality, but a set of ethical standards concerned with the crucial task of safeguarding human life.'
More fundamentally, Zubrzycki believes, we need again the perspective of Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae, which gives us `a sense of the sacred correspondence between the universe and the human spirit': human nature has `transcendental possibilities' that must be realized if we are to become `truly human'.
Zubrzycki, says Dr Paolo Totaro, a younger colleague who is now Chairman of the Ethnic Affairs Commission of the state of New South Wales, is `noted for bringing morality into race relations'. In spite of political differences, he has `the utmost respect' for Zubrzycki's contribution: `one of the foundation stones on which present policies have been constructed', and notes that he has been listened to by both sides.
`There will be two final speakers,' said the chairman at a recent conference, `a great Pole, and a great Australian. Both speakers happen to be Professor Jerzy Zubrzycki.'