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What has happened to the humanities?

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 15 July 2013


In Quadrant last month I read two serious pieces about what I call 'the decline in the humanities' in our universities. The first was by Peter Coleman, a former editor of the magazine and a former politician in both the New South Wales and the Federal parliaments. The second was by Keith Windschuttle, the present editor of the magazine. I have known both for a long time, and they write well. And their two short essays made me think.

Peter Coleman argues that because we did not go down the path of universities as Christian institutions the result was 'the gradual abandonment of the liberal arts and the closing of the Australian mind'. For him there is a 'Christian ideal that the purpose of a university is the cultivation of wisdom', and further that 'the Christian revelation [is] at the centre of university education'. I have a good deal of time for Peter Coleman, and read anything he writes with real attention. But this proposition seems a strange one to me.

Keith Windschuttle gained his undergraduate education in the mid 1960s at the University of Sydney, and remembers it with joy. But in his opinion there has been a great decline since: 'most finish their courses largely ignorant of the great canon of Western literature that once formed the bedrock of academic degrees'. Instead they are indoctrinated 'in left-wing, anti-Western theory… [examples]… or whatever else happens to be the latest intellectual fashion'.

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He asks 'How could what was, indeed, a once noble tradition sink so low?' His answer: 'In the 1970s and 1980s, the Left captured most of the liberal arts faculties of the public universities and have been running them down ever since.' He gives several accounts of what has happened in particular universities, and I think some of that is well found, though no doubt the Left would see it differently.

He doesn't quite agree with Peter Coleman about placing the Christian revelation at the centre of the liberal arts program, though he concedes that 'no one can properly appreciate Western civilisation without understanding its debts to Christianity…' I would agree with that, too, though reasonable people will disagree about exactly what those debts are.

I'm not able to say what today's liberal arts students are taught, or what they're expected to know, or how much they already know through their schooling, the web and all other forms of communication, and you'd need a comprehensive survey to be sure. But the world has changed a great deal since Keith Windschuttle was an undergraduate. I was an undergraduate rather more than ten years before him, and I would agree that my education was built on the same sort of curriculum as his. I remember from my History courses the contributions of Christianity being rather more about wars and death than about peace and love, but there's no doubt that all my courses were built on some unmentioned assumptions.

Of these the most striking (now) is the general view that all history was the story of progress from an animal past to a civilised future. Another was that Truth was Beauty. A third was that evidence (later, data) trumped speculation - this was the humanities version of the scientific method, much talked about in Science.

Looking back, my teachers at the University of New England were humanists rather than religious, left-liberals rather than socialists and, since most of them were returned servicemen, grateful to be alive and at work in a university. I learned about Marx and Engels in Economic History, and when I read English literature of the 19th century I did not learn that the industrial wastelands drawn by Dickens were the product of a capitalist system that would be replaced in time by socialism and then communism.

Maybe that is what happens today. I don't think I was 'indoctrinated' by my teachers, and there were too many of them for any one of them to have a profound effect. The most important for me, but that was as a graduate student, was my supervisor Russel Ward, whose style was that of a retired colonel rather than of a communist, which he had once been.

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We need to remember that English literature only came into the university system at the end of the 19th century. Before that it had been seen as unworthy of serious study. And there have been fashions in everything, in science as well as in the humanities. I am not much in awe of the French philosophers who have been in vogue for the past generation and more, but that is because I can't really understand them in translation and my French isn't good enough to tackle them in the original.

But given that Marxism/Leninism was a powerful force in shaping nations and cultures in the 20th century it was surely sensible to study it, and to see why it was, for a time, so successful. Today we should also be studying why it lost its force. I'm not as scornful as Keith Windschuttle about what has happened to the humanities, and remember only too well not only how I formed my own view about the world, but also how little I seemed to convey to my own students when I was teaching them!

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, published in 2015, is Turning Point, the second novel in The Hogarth Trilogy.

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