Former Master shares “digressions” on an eventful career

Wednesday 8 October, 2014

When the former Warrane Master and Honorary Fellow, Emeritus Professor A. G. (Tony) Shannon AM, spoke at the College on Wednesday, 8 October, 2014, he gave residents a glimpse into some of the less well-known aspects of his rich and eventful life.

Professor Shannon, who was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to education, was Foundation Dean of the University Graduate School, Professor of Applied Mathematics, and Chair of the Key University Research Centre for Health Technologies at the University of Technology, Sydney, and is co-author of many books and articles in medicine, mathematics and education.

During the get-together after formal dinner at Warrane, he demonstrated his well-known talent for “making lots of digressions” while answering questions. One of the first questions he was asked referred to the time he has spent in Eastern Europe, having visited Bulgaria alone 25 times since 1963.

He described Bulgaria as a “beautiful country with a good road system and golden-sanded beaches on the Black Sea”. He said it had developed a “superb system for educating the elite” that was particularly advanced in theoretical mathematics.

After the Berlin Wall fell, inflation had soared and a huge grey economy developed.

“The economy stabilised when their former King, Simeon II (as Simeon Saxe-Coburg), returned and became Prime Minister after he set up a political party,” he said, “but Bulgaria is still very poor by our standards.”

“People, by-and-large are friendly. It is a big country with three or four big cities with many old buildings that are incredibly beautiful. People have had incredible difficulties and hardships over the years and they are keen to collaborate and link with the West. They are used to working hard, so they have a good work ethic.

“The universities are relatively strong and don’t suffer fools gladly.

“Communism didn’t really penetrate the rural areas. The central government had these 5-year agricultural plans that started in 1947, but the rural areas basically gave the central government a one-finger salute and just kept on going with life.

“The villages are self sufficient. If someone is born with Down’s Syndrome, the whole village looks after the person. It’s a lovely atmosphere.

“You see the Bulgarian orthodox priest in these villages in his black in mid-summer and it gets very, very hot, and very, very cold in winter.

“Bulgaria has a lot to admire and there is a lot they can teach us.”

When Professor Shannon was asked, as someone with three doctorates, to advise those  contemplating further study, he pointed out that the most basic thing was that if anyone wants to be an academic it is necessary to have a doctorate.

“That is the brief answer,” he said. “There are other benefits in doing a doctorate. If the topic is good and you have good supervisors, it can develop your higher cognitive skills. It can be a lot of fun because it can become like a hobby  If it’s not like a hobby, it becomes a burden.

“It’s never going to be a loss in any sense, but it can help you to develop. If you are given a chance to do a doctorate, do it. It will open up all sorts of avenues. Increasingly in Australia people are looking for people with higher degrees in industry that can turn their minds to a variety of things other than the particular topic that they have tackled.”

Asked if he could speak to any person in history, who would he choose, Professor Shannon named the Greek philosopher, Aristotle.

“Although he is classed as a pagan, his writing about the good is profound,” he said. “He touched on pretty well everything. He wouldn’t get a job in a modern Australian Uni, but he sort of knew everything about life as it was then.

“I just got a master of research dissertation from Macquarie Uni today to examine and it is a young Turkish woman and she is quoting Aristotle’s ethics, so he is as relevant today as ever. He appeals to a whole lot of people once they get stuck into him.”

Many people who have known Professor Shannon over the years may be surprised to know he owns two thoroughbred racehorses.

“I got them very cheaply - they were rejects at the Auckland sales because they were considered too small,” he explained. “They’re a lot of fun - I love horses. I bet occasionally. I might bet $5. If I lose, that’s it, if I win I use the winnings.

“Chasing your bets is gambling and Damon Runyon said all gamblers die broke, which is pretty true. There’s a saying in Las Vegas that plenty of people drive in in a Mercedes car and go home in a Mercedes bus.”

Professor Shannon said if he had his time again and he had the time he would become an owner trainer.

“Most of the trainers don’t know a lot. A lot are ex-jockeys and like ex-footballers or ex-cricketers they don’t know how to coach really because they did it instinctively.

“The search is to try to find a trainer who is honest, competent and loves horses. There aren’t a lot around. So, in proportion, it can be a bit of fun.”

Asked to speak about his time in the Navy, Professor Shannon explained that “back in the olden days” in the 1950s, all 18-year-old male citizens in Australia had to do national service, in the 1960s there was national service by ballot based on birthdays.. He said he chose the Navy because he hated marching while at school and assumed that they could not get you to march too much on a ship.

“I thought, Navy, small ships - they can’t make you march. Boy was I wrong. We had two aircraft carriers and there were the shore bases and we had lots of marching.

Asked to comment on his experience with universities in England and in the United States, Professor Shannon began by commenting on his time at Oxford university.

“It is a wonderful place - it’s conducive to study. You meet people from all over the world and every day, from 10.30 am to lunch time, it is morning tea and the common room is full of ideas.

“A downside is that it is was not uncommon for university lecturers to try to make their lectures as unintelligible as possible so people dropped out and they don’t have to keep lecturing. The main means of instructing is the tutorial system in the colleges.

“Each student is given an academic tutor and a morals tutor. My morals tutor was the registrar of the university and we used to meet once a month in a pub and have a drink.

“Cambridge is much the same, but Harvard is different. Each of its schools is like a separate uni and the wealth is enormous. 

“Many of the best American unis have a needs-blind admission policy. They look at your application in terms of your academic ability and your all-round ability to contribute to the place. If they  accept you, they look at whether you can afford it and if you can’t they will provide a scholarship to cover your fees. So you can do a PhD at Harvard for nothing partly because of its massive endowment fund.

“At Oxford there are scholarships, but if you don’t get a scholarship it is very expensive now.

“Both those places - in England and the Ivy league in the USA - are very conducive to study. The atmosphere is such that people are bursting with ideas and you can’t help but be affected. So it is worth going.”

Professor Shannon said that in Harvard, for instance, a business or a law degree could set up a person with networking for life, “which is why a lot of people go there.”

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