Andrew West: Leave Humanities to the pseuds … count the cost

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Historian Kenneth Jackson. Will such voices become silent in the study of who we are and where we come from?
Historian Kenneth Jackson. Will such voices become silent in the study of who we are and where we come from?

I present a modest little program on ABC Radio National about faith in public life.

We do something rather unique, covering the places where politics and current affairs intersect with religious and ethical questions.

We enjoy neither fame nor accolades but I am proud of the ideological diversity of the voices we bring to air.

In just the past year, we’ve been joined by conservatives such as Rod Dreher, Peter Hitchens, Bernadette Tobin, Greg Melleuish, even US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Or classical liberals like Jordan Peterson, Tim Wilson, and Peter Kurti of the Centre for Independent Studies.

Then there are the heterodox leftists, including Helen Pluckrose, Thomas Frank, Lord Maurice Glasman, Kajsa Ekis Eckman, Caroline Norma, Samuel Moyn, and James Mumford.

And, finally, traditional lefties, like Joseph Stiglitz, Anthea Butler, and Jessica Whyte.

What binds all of these people, in their profound intellectual diversity, is that they are all practitioners of the humanities and social science. They all deal with the worlds of politics, history, philosophy, and religion.

But in Australia the next generation of these thinkers was threatened by a plan which came before the senate on 25 September to price these subjects and disciplines out of reach for working-class and even middle-class students.

To more than double the price of an arts degree would effectively condemn those who hope to contribute to public policy and governance — on all sides of politics — to decades of debt.

It will also deny genuine conservatives and traditionalists the very thing they value: civil debate and democratic competition for ideas.

Let me be very clear. I concede that much of what passes for the humanities and social sciences has gone off the rails in the past 30 years.

Some scholarship and areas of research have fallen too deeply into the rabbit hole of theory and would benefit from review.

I concede that some courses, including media and communications, have been hijacked by ideology and even partisanship.

But these are wrinkles that deans and vice chancellors can, and must, iron out with academics.

And I agree that, for some students and academics with conservative or traditional social values, the university campus can at times be unwelcoming.

To price subjects such as history, political science, philosophy, anthropology and religion out of reach is, to borrow a phrase, destroying the village to save it.
To price subjects such as history, political science, philosophy, anthropology and religion out of reach is, to borrow a phrase, destroying the village to save it.

But to price subjects such as history, political science, philosophy, anthropology, and religion out of reach — and, in some universities, out of existence — is, to borrow a phrase, destroying the village to save it.

I served a term on the governing body of one of our great universities and let me assure my conservative friends that every course they suspect or even despise – which is pretty much anything ending in the words “theory” or “studies” – will continue to prosper.

These subjects will live on through the courses that you have exempted — education, psychology, social work, and even nursing. Mark my words.

But what possible conservative goal do you achieve by punishing the historians, political scientists, moral philosophers, anthropologists, archaeologists, and theologians?

John Howard, revered by modern Australian conservatives, loves history and once lamented that he did not study it at university.

He is legendary for the way he devours history and political biography — both the fruits of the humanities and social sciences.

If my conservative friends want to fight what they believe are fashionable ideologies in the Arts, surely the best way is to encourage students with mainstream interests and aspirations to take up those disciplines.

It is impossible to know for sure, but a combination of instinct and recent political history — the 2017 same-sex marriage plebiscite and the 2019 federal election results — suggest that students from working-class and lower middle-class backgrounds are more likely to hold traditional values.

If you price poor, or even middle-class, kids out of the study of history, politics, philosophy, and religion, for example, you will make these subjects the last redoubt of the wealthy small-l liberals and confused cultural Marxists.

Even more to the point, why would any conservative want the next generation of policy-makers, business executives, and entrepreneurs to know less about, for example: China’s new imperialism; the struggle for influence between the Saudis and the Iranians; the explosion of religious observance in the Global South; the work of Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Michael Oakeshott, and George Orwell?

I agree that these thinkers are not studied enough now, but what makes my conservative friends think they will be studied at all if the humanities and social sciences become the exclusive preserve of an elite and affluent cultural left?

Twenty-four years ago this month, I arrived in New York as 27-year-old post-graduate student at Columbia University.

Our introductory lecture was by Kenneth Jackson, the great historian of New York, who explained why his city was the story of human development, frustration, and triumph.

A week later, I sat as the legendary intellectual Fritz Stern spoke, without notes, for almost three hours about the history of the world from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England to the end of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day, 1991.

We were enraptured as he took us through 400 years of war, plague, depression, revolution, and reconstruction. He told us why history, politics, and philosophy mattered — today, in our lives.

If my conservative friends allow the humanities and social sciences to become a luxury, indulged only by wealthy liberals, do not think your children will return from university quoting the lucid prose of a Ronald Reagan — “A time for choosing” — or Isaiah Berlin (popularising Kant) — “the crooked timber of humanity.”

Get used to the impenetrable vernacular of the identity politics of Herbert Marcuse, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler. Who? Google them.