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The humanities in Australian universities

By Chris Lewis - posted Thursday, 27 February 2014


On February 24, Tristan Ewins wrote a response to Andrew Bolt's article titled 'We're paying for the teaching of Marxist politics'.

Tristan stated that Bolt 'made a written assault against the reservation of any place for the teaching of Marxism in our universities: blaming Marxism for millions of deaths'. In fact, having later read the Herald Sun piece, Bolt actually states 'universities should teach all perspectives', but his opinion piece questions the number of Marxists employed by universities.

My own perspective, having completed an Arts (Honours) degree and PhD at Monash University (by 2006), is also critical of Australia's humanities due to a bias to the left, an aspect which still exists today. In this article, I refer to the left as those who strive for a fairer society without adequate regard for the complexities that may complicate or explain policy possibilities or limitations.

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There were important benefits from my university education. My student experience exposed me to an abundance of information about many issues during an Arts degree that majored in politics and history. I also developed skills in terms of writing and research, along with a reasonable ability to critically analyse. These skills are often downplayed by those who bag Arts degrees.

In terms of individual lecturers and tutors, I found virtually all very helpful. As an older student, with a burning desire to succeed and a considerable degree of enthusiasm, most were willing to help me. After all, I was amongst the minority of students who actually turned up to tutorials having read the required readings.

But in intellectual terms, I increasingly disagreed with most lecturers as I read more and applied such analysis to my own experience and observation of other empirical evidence. Many possessed a bias to the left, although some did their best to promote better scholarship in terms of encouraging students to provide an individual interpretation of evidence.

In fact, my own views, which started off more sympathetic to the left in line with my limited knowledge and work experience as a labourer, actually shifted more to the centre as I acknowledged the merit of ideas across the political spectrum.

As my learning increased, I recognised various strengths and weaknesses in most arguments. This reinforced a view I hold to this day: it is very difficult to prescribe perfect policy solutions in this competitive world where various players struggle for resources and the influence of certain ideas.

But at university, I played the game to get the best marks I could. There was no way I was going to risk poorer marks just to debate lecturers over supposed knowledge certainties.

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Dissent was left to occasional comments to lecturers when it was absolutely clear he or she was talking rubbish. I will never forget the day one lecturer, a critic of capitalism, told students that it was the working class alone that enabled multiculturalism to be accepted. As I said to him, the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, would have been disgusted given his own efforts to promote cultural diversity.

Even during my PhD (completed 2006), I was occasionally advised not to mention individuals supposedly associated with the right to support my points, notably Gerard Henderson and Ron Brunton.

So by the time I was awarded a PhD, I had some disdain for those on the left whose commitment to ideals were often expressed in writing with little evidence of wider research to reflect the strengths and weaknesses of various points of views and realities.

Retaining a concern for ordinary workers and support for Labor achievements in terms of health and education, I even got published in Quadrant on four occasions from late 2006 to early 2008.

And during my research work for universities since October 2008, I managed to produce a few academic articles that were critical of Labor government programs in regard to the Home Insulation Program, the Building the Education Revolution and Community Cabinet meetings. Quite simply, my interpretation of the evidence made it impossible not to justify considerable criticism.

I also produced two academic articles that sought to explain why the Howard government (1996-2007) was successful in electoral terms. While I never voted for Howard, the evidence suggested a pragmatic approach by the Howard government in line with community attitudes, and in contrast to the criticism that came from many humanities academics. Their bias made it quite easy to get published.

So what do I think of the contribution of the humanities in Australian universities? In a few words, I believe that a better contribution could be offered by scholars more willing to examine a greater range of evidence in line with the reality that many Australians vote coalition for a number of reasons. They are not all fools brainwashed by a supposed biased media.

So, returning back to Tristan's response, which also supports Bolt's liberal rights as long as they do not apply overwhelmingly to the rights of 'the establishment', yes use all evidence to point out negative consequences of recent policy trends or even capitalism.

My interpretation of evidence may indeed prove flawed at times, but I see little evidence to suggest that the Coalition is not sympathetic to a variety of social causes. In fact, as someone who has studied various policy issues in recent times, I voted for the Coalition in 2010 and 2013 to provide a more effective economic and social policy mx.

The problem for the left, as I suggested earlier, is that their efforts to strive for a fairer society remains futile without adequate regard or understanding of the complexities that may complicate policy possibilities. Perhaps that is why the so-called right is having greater influence these days.

While the teaching of Marx in universities is important to highlight considerable past intellectual efforts representative of their day, along with helping to teach students to critically assess strengths and weaknesses of various arguments, the extensive use of all available evidence is crucial to any effective argument between the so-called left and right.

A comprehensive examination and search for all relevant evidence remains true for any scholar, whether it be for the humanities or mainstream journals or books. An effort to master all available evidence (as best as one can) is always necessary in public policy debate, whether it be to protect the vulnerable or explain the need for harsh reform, or even highlight the various strengths or weaknesses of recent policy trends.

Blaming the pin up boys of the left or right is merely a copout.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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