David Penberthy

My three-year arts degree was the best five years of my life
David Penberthy

It is probably not what Socrates had in mind. But at the University of Adelaide in the late 1980s, one of the many benefits of embarking on a classical education was that you could go and see Sydney punk band Lubricated Goat smashing their instruments in the UniBar on a Friday night.

Or spend every Sunday night staying awake until dawn laying out that week’s edition of On Dit.

Or see the next generation of Australia’s state and federal cabinet ministers thrashing it out in unbridled argument in the Mayo Refectory about whether the creation of a Women’s Officer was a vital feminist reform or an egregious assault on the rights of men everywhere.

Perhaps HECS has killed this. Certainly it feels like the aggressive jacking of fees for those studying an arts degree was a deliberate political attack on the value of a liberal education, aimed at directing students elsewhere. But it always felt to me like the most intellectually rewarding and entertaining stuff at uni was unfolding away from the lecture theatres.

That is not to downplay the value of the education we received, nor lapse into some John Belushi-inspired trope about how the best thing about going to college was being drunk all the time and not going to lectures. On the contrary, I threw myself into my arts degree and still remember the awe and excitement so many of our lecturers and tutors inspired. Austin Gough’s stunning lecture series about the creation of modern Paris. Trevor Wilson with his devastating human accounts of the suffering of trench soldiers in World War One. Paul Nursey-Bray on the byzantine ideological battles of the Spanish Civil War. Helen Pringle giving modern relevance to the oldest political ideas.

David Penberthy

These were passionate people who instilled passion in others; in my case enough to get the required marks to get into law at the end of first year, but crucially to help me quickly decide that law was the last thing I wanted to do. In defence of the good people in the Ligertwood Building, the law degree never really stood a chance with the excitement going on elsewhere. Through a combination of zero application to the law and maximum effort towards everything else, my law degree degenerated into an abandoned catastrophe.

Central to its demise was the decision to take a year off study in 1990 to focus full-time on editing On Dit. We had a like-minded and enthusiastic bunch of students working together at an exciting time in publishing. We started the year using a wax machine, bromides and Letraset sheets of fonts to cut and paste up the paper by hand. We ended it using these brand-new things called “Macs” which had a program called Pagemaker which let you design newspapers electronically.

Looking back at some of those old editions now makes you cringe, with their cocky, youthful bombast and stories that were clearly designed to annoy and offend.

But amid the undergraduate nonsense you can see a rough-and-ready paper that reflected the community it served, running serious pieces about campus security, university funding, the fees debate and plenty of cultural stuff that paints a resonant picture of 1980s and 1990s life.

The pages are also noteworthy for their dramatis personae from the world of student politics, redolent with the names of future premiers, treasurers, foreign ministers, defence ministers, transport ministers, leaders of parties in their own right. That late-80s cohort batted well above its weight on the national stage, as is often the case with SA’s contribution to public life.

Life can come full circle. My parents would worry that I was spending too much time on extra-curricular stuff and that it was taking me away from my studies and a guaranteed path to work. The truth is that all the extra-curricular stuff was the very thing that created a path into journalism, by having a crack with friends and producing a little newspaper that tried to be relevant and meaningful to its readers.

It was thrilling doing this with no training and no supervision, where each week started with 32 blank pages. With my own daughter now at Adelaide, at the risk of dating myself as a misty-eyed, pre-HECS dinosaur, I find myself grappling with different parental concerns.

Are you sure you’re not doing too much study, honey? You seem to be coming home at normal hours, going to all your lectures and passing all your subjects with credits and distinctions. Kids these days!

So, thanks to the University of Adelaide for the opportunities. Thanks also for the good times. My three-year Arts degree was the best five years of my life.

David Penberthy studied at the University of Adelaide from 1987 to 1991. He has edited the Sydney Daily Telegraph, news.com.au, The Sunday Mail, and is a co-host of the FiveAA breakfast show and a Newscorp columnist. We asked him to provide a graduation photo for this issue – and, of course, he didn’t go.

Tagged in Alumni, Lumen Autumn 2024, Profiles