Dr Steven Curry completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at the University of Melbourne and a PhD at Monash University. His PhD research examined Indigenous Sovereignty, blending historiography, political philosophy and philosophy of law.
What did you study and what inspired you to pursue this path?
I went to a typical suburban high school in Auckland, New Zealand. I was terrible student and hated school. The standardisation and regimentation just didn’t work for me, so I was always in trouble, and never applied myself. I left school after Year 10 and worked in a number of jobs on both sides of the ditch for the next few years. I worked in warehouses, cleaned industrial equipment, drove a delivery van, picked grapes in Robinvale, and worked in a couple of pretty rough bars in Melbourne and Sydney. I consider this brief period in the workforce my “gap years” and a crucial part of my education, because during that time I learned a great deal about the challenges people face in their lives, and how to talk to people from any background. It also gave me the self-discipline I’d been lacking.
After a while, however, I realised I wasn’t living up to my potential, and I was bored. So I enrolled in the Tertiary Orientation Program at RMIT TAFE, a program that allowed young people excluded from normal schools and adults like me to complete VCE studies in a more tertiary-style setting and in a single year. I loved it. The teachers were supportive and enthusiastic, and, like a university course, I had the freedom to study at my own pace and learn in my own way. (RMIT still runs a VCE program.)
Inspired by the teacher in my psychology unit, I applied to study psychology at several Victorian universities. Despite ordering my preferences differently, my first ranked offer came from the University of Melbourne. This was one of the many happy accidents that have shaped my so-called career. I discovered that psychology wasn’t really my thing, largely because having been a bad student in high school my maths wasn’t good enough to keep up with basic statistics. Luckily, because I was obliged to take units in other disciplines, I enrolled in first year philosophy. After spending a whole semester wrestling with the radical scepticism of René Descartes I was hooked. It turned out what I really enjoyed about my VCE psychology classes was debating the role of language and exploring the meaning of human existence, and here was a discipline where I could do that all the time!
I majored in philosophy and completed an Honours year, writing a minor thesis on the political, legal and ethical dimensions of civil disobedience. I applied for graduate study and was privileged to be accepted into the Monash University philosophy family, to study under the supervision of Prof. Chin Liew Ten (now Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore), a student himself of the great Oxford philosopher of law H.L.A. Hart. In the four years I spent at Monash I completed a thesis on the legal, political and historical dimensions of Indigenous Sovereignty. Having focused so much on ethics, law and politics (the so-called “applied” end of the philosophy discipline) I was able to land a job as soon as I finished, teaching philosophy at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga. I also became a junior research fellow of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, a Centre of Excellence newly founded by Charles Sturt University, the Australian National University and the University of Melbourne (another one of those happy accidents – if they hadn’t just been starting up I may never have got my chance). This started me on the path of applying academic research skills and theoretical insights to intractable real world problems, which I am still doing today.
What is your current occupation?
Senior Research Fellow at a consumer policy think tank, and a tech startup founder.
What aspects of your role do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy the analytic and creative aspects of my work. Applied research is like a mix of archaeology and detective work, digging up facts and finding connections between things, and then analysing what you’ve found to create new ways of doing things.
Thinking back, what was a highlight of your time at university?
Constant debate, and the challenge that comes from encountering contrary opinions. Seeing things from different perspectives opened up my view of the world, and the discipline that comes from being challenged to justify an opinion has served me very well.
Were there any co-curricular activities you found particularly valuable while at university?
Even as an undergrad I took advantage of every opportunity to go to seminars and debates. Sitting in class getting a structured learning activity is valuable, but watching scholars really working out their ideas is better.
How do you think your humanities education has shaped you personally and professionally?
I feel that humanities generally, and philosophy specifically, made me more intellectually disciplined and skeptical (in a good way), enhanced my creativity and problem-solving capacity, and made me a much better communicator. I also came away with research, analytical, and argumentative tools that have served me in every role I’ve had since.
What career advice would you give to current students or recent graduates?
I haven’t had a career per se. I have had a series of jobs in quite distinct fields (academic, law enforcement, humanitarian, entrepreneurial and public policy roles), related only by skills, curiosity and desire to have an impact. My advice is study something that deeply fascinates you, and don’t be afraid to take risks.
Tell us about a book you read recently that truly captured your attention?
John Man’s 2014 book The Mongol Empire is a fascinating study into how the Mongols shaped modern China and indirectly the Europe renaissance (a great reminder of how “the West” was never as distinct or isolated as we might imagine). Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy is a great challenge to many common assumptions about ethics. I don’t agree with all of it, but it’s a great example of a book that stimulates critical reflection.
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