Gregory Melleuish denounces the “stranglehold of the disaffected and the dyspeptic in many key areas of the humanities and social sciences”. Australian universities, he argues, “have ceased to be national institutions and have become strongholds of minority sectarian views”. He contrasts this with the role universities were regarded as playing in the 19th century.
Of course, up to the early 19th century, the role of Oxford and Cambridge universities was largely to educate clergymen for the Church of England, so maybe the rot started with Catholic Emancipation (1791-1829).
How much merit is there in Melleuish’s argument that universities (at least humanities and social science faculties) are “in perpetual opposition to the mainstream of national life”?
Melleuish cites Michael Warby as an authority for the estrangement of universities from the mainstream. Is this the same Michael Warby who was apparently sacked by a right-wing think tank in 2001 for repeatedly making factual errors? If “hostility towards academics” emanates from the like of Michael Warby, a largely discredited hired gun of the right, I would be happy to live with it.
Still, in the “mainstream” media, it isn’t hard to find negative stereotypes of university academics. An editorial in the national daily newspaper recently referred in a snide aside to the “28 week working year” of universities. These are lazy, and at best outdated, stereotypes. With student-staff ratios going up 50 per cent over the past ten years, and expectations rising by the year on academics to publish more and more, many academics I know don’t even have time to take their annual leave entitlement.
But how much truth is there in Melleuish’s contention that humanites departments have been captured by Stalinism, Trotskyism, feminism and postmodernism? First, I hardly think feminism is an extremist ideology in the 21st century. Even the most conservative governments in Western democracies at least pay lip service to women’s rights to representation in politics.
The truth is that I simply don’t recognise Australian universities in Melleuish’s caricature, which strikes me as more than a little “dyspeptic”, and I have worked in three universities over nearly two decades. In one humanities faculty I once worked in, colleagues included a conservative advocate of socio-biology who once ran for high office in the National Party, a Thatcherite English economist, a passionately anti-communist Central European, and a couple of admirers of statist German conservative political thought up to and including Carl Schmitt. As well as one postmodernist and a couple of Marxists. And many, many ideological shades in between.
In the recent so-called “history wars”, one often heard the claim that history departments were overrun with postmodernists. I can’t think of a single member of my department whom I would describe as a card-carrying postmodernist, although a couple of us try to keep up with the literature, at least in so far as it affects our own fields.
Nor do I see my corridor filled with Trotskyites or Stalinists. Many of my colleagues in Arts Faculties are probably either soft-centred social democrats or mild-mannered small-l liberals. Many small-l liberals are alienated from the Howard Government for a number of reasons: it has detained innocent people in desert prison camps indefinitely, it is abridging civil liberties and curtailing the centuries-old principle of habeas corpus, it has thwarted the aspirations of Indigenous Australians for restitution for historic wrongs, it has misused hundreds of millions of dollars on party-political propaganda, it has curtailed workplace rights for workers, it has participated in an illegal war of aggression on a sovereign country and misled the public about the reasons for war. The list could be continued.
Melleuish’s polemic begs the question of what is “mainstream”. In some ways it is a strange term for a liberal to be brandishing. In recent memory, the word “mainstream” has been invoked by politicians of the populist right to justify the advocacy of policies from restricting Asian immigration to the restriction of civil liberties. These policies have been advocated as being in line with “mainstream” opinion. This is not liberalism, but the crudest majoritarianism.
The argument that academics should conform more to mainstream opinion is not a liberal argument. There is a coercive tone to this polemic: academics should be more positive, contribute more positively to the nation, think more like the “mainstream”, and if they don’t, “pro-active university administrations” should do something about it. If this is liberalism, it is coercive liberalism, a little like John Howard claiming sweeping centralised state powers to deregulate the labour market and enforce economic neo-liberal policies with the big stick. Melleuish ends up sounding more like Spiro Agnew (who famously railed against the “nattering nabobs of negativity” in America’s intellectual and media circles) than, say, a liberal like John Stuart Mill. No-one ever called Spiro a liberal.
The subtext of Melleuish’s polemic is that left-leaning academics only have themselves to blame for government cuts to university funding. Is he really suggesting that the government has cut some $5 billion from higher education funding, increasing costs for tens of thousands of students, as payback for the disrespect they get from a few humanities academics? Could even the Howard Government be that spiteful and myopic? (I am too afraid to even try to answer that question.)
The other side of the coin is that any university staff member who supports a government that has slashed public spending on higher education while all our OECD competitors have maintained or increased theirs, and a government that has openly attacked university staff’s working conditions by its draconian interventions in campus industrial relations, has rocks in his or her head.
The greatest threat to the humanities in Australian universities these days is the underfunding and marketisation of higher education as a result of narrowly utilitarian government policies. If classics departments run at a loss, the economic rationalists in charge will close down that particular part of the Western tradition along with anything else that doesn’t make a buck. Scholars concerned with the values of the traditional humanities need to learn who their real enemies are.