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Devaluing our humanity: university 'reforms' and government myopia

By Scott Buchanan - posted Friday, 3 July 2020


It's telling that the government's proposal to radically overhaul university fee structures has been disparaged by figures from across the political map. The Greens have denounced it as elitist policy-making, aimed at making higher education inaccessible to ordinary people. Some columnists observe that the government's cocktail of aggressive market principles and command-style social engineering is incongruous, to say the least. Others have argued that the proposed measures are counter-productive, and will likely produce short-term effects that are diametrically opposed to the Coalition's ambitions. Even the right-leaning Institute for Public Affairs has weighed in, lamenting the inadequacy of the government's efforts to reform the sector. When a policy is subject to such widespread criticism, one is tempted to conclude that it's irredeemably flawed.

A large share of the controversy has been focused on the announcement that the government plans to dramatically increase the cost of a humanities degree, sending a negative price signal to prospective students. In so doing, the Coalition has exposed its approach to education as leadenly - unimaginatively - technocratic. In attitude, it reflects what Pope John Paul II once labelled 'economism': the reduction of (in this case) higher learning to a merely instrumental good, subject to the blunt, transitory logic of contemporary market forces. On this view, knowledge is confined to that which is immediately practical, while universities are transformed into institutional conveyor belts - churning out graduates who've been technically equipped for a narrow range of favoured professions.

Of course, trying to predict which industries will enjoy success in future economic environments is a fool's errand. But there are other reasons for scepticism. Weakening the place of the humanities within the university system is an attempt, however unwitting, to undermine some of the basic principles underlying the idea of tertiary education. Writing in The Guardian a few days ago, writer Ben Eltham aptly quoted the nineteenth-century cardinal, John Henry Newman, who argued that university should stimulate the entire spectrum of one's mental faculties - aspiring towards 'universal knowledge' and a broad 'cultivation of the mind'. Even allowing for the pernicious influence of identity politics upon university campuses, the humanities remain one of the purest exemplars of that intellectual mission.

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At their best, the humanities inculcate a love of knowledge and thought for their own sakes. They nurture the ennobling conviction that an educated mind is of intrinsic - and not simply instrumental or economic - value. In so doing, the humanities tap into the unique capabilities and gifts with which human beings have been imbued. One key strand of the Western philosophical tradition (starting with Aristotle) posits that humans are, by nature, 'rational animals', distinguished from other organisms by their capacity for reason. That definition enjoys a venerable place within Catholic philosophy, having been propounded by luminaries such as Boethius and Thomas Aquinas.

The humanities bear witness to that tradition. Philosophy, history, literary criticism - such fields of enquiry are prized, not so much because they can be applied in simple, technocratic fashion, but because they foster and refine what has long been deemed the sine qua non of human beings.

Dan Tehan, education minister and one of the chief architects of the planned reforms, added a biographical codicil to his announcement: that studying an arts degree almost cost him a job earlier in life. The implication here is that the humanities aren't sufficiently 'practical' to aid a person.

It's difficult to know what to do with Tehan's personal anecdote, or the wider point he tried to make. Like his colleagues, he evinced a narrow, thoroughly desiccated view of wealth and value. But if it's practicality one wants, immersion in the humanities has been associated with a stronger propensity for critical and analytical thought, habits of mind that enable someone to engage empathetically with others, and intellectual suppleness - skills likely to be highly sought after in today's globally connected economy.

Consider the discipline of history. Students of the past are trained to enter into worlds that are sometimes vastly different from their own; the mental apparatus one must develop in order to do that produces, in historian Samuel Berner's words, 'a heightened sense of complexity', allowing a person to hold in reserve a bevy of competing truth claims and narratives. Moreover, philosophers have shown how the conceptual precision and logical rigour of philosophical enquiry can aid in the development of scientific research, leading to remarkable breakthroughs that might otherwise have remained elusive. It's this kind of intellectual cross-pollination - something the science writer, Matt Ridley, has described as 'ideas having sex' - that has created unheralded levels of prosperity in the West. And since the Coalition is seeking to burnish Australia's scientific credentials, investment in such qualities seems wise. It's much harder to achieve, however, if the very departments incubating those skills have been drained of both funds and willing pupils.

Coalition ministers are rightly concerned by Australia's economic future and capacity for wealth-creation. But their planned university reforms will risk impoverishing the country in other ways. The humanities preserve some of the deepest principles of Western culture and learning; for a government that supposedly cherishes that inheritance, it's making some baffling policy choices.

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About the Author

A social worker by trade, Scott Buchanan holds degrees in both social work and political science. Scott is also in the midst of completing a Masters of Divinity at Ridley Theological College, Melbourne. When he's not acting the wordsmith, Scott enjoys reading about politics, theology, and philosophy.

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