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The need for a Humanist revival

By Gregory Melleuish - posted Tuesday, 9 May 2006

A number of years ago when I was interviewed for a position at an Australian university I was asked by one of the panel on what I based my philosophy of history. I was given three options: Marxism, Foucault or feminism. It was incomprehensible to this person that there was anything else in Heaven or Earth beyond the prison into which he had placed his stunted view of the world.

I recalled this episode after reading about the choice given to students at SCEGGS Darlinghurst. They are to interpret Othello from a similar range of perspectives, Marxism, feminism and race. There are real problems with an exercise designed in this fashion. The first is that the student is forced to adopt a particular approach to the play. The assumption behind the question is that human beings are to be understood primarily as members of a group. They act as they do, not because they are individuals able freely to choose their own course of action, but because they are women or men, members of a particular race or class.

All three approaches are deterministic. Human beings become the products of the environment that produced them. They lack the free will to make decisions and choices and must simply play out the hand that their class or gender or race has dealt them. Trapped within their gender, class and race they are to be de-humanised, considered not as individuals in their own right but as representatives of their particular group.


Why then has the alternative view, what might be called the liberal humanist or Christian humanist vision, been written out of the possible explanations? Why not consider the individual characters of the protagonists and examine the way in which they behave as individuals?

In effect to examine only Marxism or feminism or race is impose a single monolithic model of interpretation. This is pretend pluralism. It looks as if students are being encouraged to consider a variety of interpretations but in effect they are only being offered the equivalent of different brands of cornflakes.

Students should also be offered the opportunity of considering the play in terms of the actions and behaviour and character of the individuals as they interact with each other. Of course, they should also be encouraged to explore other options, to consider if men and women are indeed constrained by their environment and the extent to which their fate has been pre-ordained. Any educational scheme, however, that seeks to exclude the notion that individuals can be thought of and considered as individuals is, to put it mildly, radically defective.

The real issue, though, must be: how has it come to this? In his excellent book Four Cultures of the West, John O’Malley identifies the four modes or styles of culture that have together come to define the meaning of culture in Western civilisation. These four styles are prophecy and reform; the academy and the professions; poetry, rhetoric and the common good; and art and performance.

One can argue that the problem with Western culture in recent years, including in Australia, has been that prophecy and reform combined with the academy and the professions have come to dominate our culture at the expense of the humanistic mode represented by poetry, rhetoric and the common good.

What this means is that Western culture is now dominated by an academy that is driven by a reformist zeal to re-make the world in its own image. The question on Othello exemplifies the consequences of this fusion. It does so by its focus on race, gender and class, by its intention to direct the attention of students to what it considers to be the inequities of the world and finally by its desire to encourage them to adopt the reformist style.


It then encourages the students to take on an academic style in their approach to the topic. One of features of this style is its attempt to establish the superiority of the current day academic over the author from the past. Modern academics consider that they have a superior knowledge to Shakespeare because they can see a reality that was obscured for Shakespeare.

This supposed superiority is both moral and intellectual. The intellectual superiority consists in its capacity to construct abstract models that academics believe enable them to explain the world. As Alan and Marten Shipman have argued in their recent book Knowledge Monopolies: The Academisation of Society, universities, especially the bureaucratised universities of the 21st century, love these types of models. Models enable them to reduce the abstract, complex and messy nature of the real world to something simple. Unfortunately these models, such as Marxism, invariably succeed in explaining very little. They certainly fail totally in the prophecy stakes.

Moreover, as the Shipmans demonstrate, the more our culture is dominated by the academic mode, the further are its intellectual practices removed from those of the broader public sphere. Just at a time when there should be greater interaction between universities, the wider public and government, academics are creating forms of knowledge that are designed to increase the distance between universities and the rest of society. But, it should be added, always with the intention of demonstrating their superiority over mere lay people.

What is to be done? The greatest hope lies in a revival of the humanist style of culture as exemplified by rhetoric and poetry. Just as the setting for academic culture has been the formal world of the university that of humanist culture has been the informal setting of the club, the literary circle and the dinner table.

Humanism, for me always represented by Erasmus, loves irony and wit. It can come to terms with a messy world and poke fun at the foibles of humanity. It can express itself in the common vernacular language that people generally can understand and appreciate. In this way it can counter the anti-democratic tendencies that are part and parcel of the “academisation of society”.

But most importantly it appreciates the value of the individual and the capacity of individuals to make their own lives. The reform impulse and the bureaucratic dullness of the academy may always be with us but they can be countered by the joy of liberal humanism and learning. Not only our students, but all of us, deserve the opportunity to experience that joy.

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About the Author

Gregory Melleuish is associate professor of history and politics at University of Wollongong.

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