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The humanities in Australian universities

By Chris Lewis - posted Thursday, 27 February 2014


On February 24, Tristan Ewins wrote a response to Andrew Bolt's article titled 'We're paying for the teaching of Marxist politics'.

Tristan stated that Bolt 'made a written assault against the reservation of any place for the teaching of Marxism in our universities: blaming Marxism for millions of deaths'. In fact, having later read the Herald Sun piece, Bolt actually states 'universities should teach all perspectives', but his opinion piece questions the number of Marxists employed by universities.

My own perspective, having completed an Arts (Honours) degree and PhD at Monash University (by 2006), is also critical of Australia's humanities due to a bias to the left, an aspect which still exists today. In this article, I refer to the left as those who strive for a fairer society without adequate regard for the complexities that may complicate or explain policy possibilities or limitations.

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There were important benefits from my university education. My student experience exposed me to an abundance of information about many issues during an Arts degree that majored in politics and history. I also developed skills in terms of writing and research, along with a reasonable ability to critically analyse. These skills are often downplayed by those who bag Arts degrees.

In terms of individual lecturers and tutors, I found virtually all very helpful. As an older student, with a burning desire to succeed and a considerable degree of enthusiasm, most were willing to help me. After all, I was amongst the minority of students who actually turned up to tutorials having read the required readings.

But in intellectual terms, I increasingly disagreed with most lecturers as I read more and applied such analysis to my own experience and observation of other empirical evidence. Many possessed a bias to the left, although some did their best to promote better scholarship in terms of encouraging students to provide an individual interpretation of evidence.

In fact, my own views, which started off more sympathetic to the left in line with my limited knowledge and work experience as a labourer, actually shifted more to the centre as I acknowledged the merit of ideas across the political spectrum.

As my learning increased, I recognised various strengths and weaknesses in most arguments. This reinforced a view I hold to this day: it is very difficult to prescribe perfect policy solutions in this competitive world where various players struggle for resources and the influence of certain ideas.

But at university, I played the game to get the best marks I could. There was no way I was going to risk poorer marks just to debate lecturers over supposed knowledge certainties.

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Dissent was left to occasional comments to lecturers when it was absolutely clear he or she was talking rubbish. I will never forget the day one lecturer, a critic of capitalism, told students that it was the working class alone that enabled multiculturalism to be accepted. As I said to him, the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, would have been disgusted given his own efforts to promote cultural diversity.

Even during my PhD (completed 2006), I was occasionally advised not to mention individuals supposedly associated with the right to support my points, notably Gerard Henderson and Ron Brunton.

So by the time I was awarded a PhD, I had some disdain for those on the left whose commitment to ideals were often expressed in writing with little evidence of wider research to reflect the strengths and weaknesses of various points of views and realities.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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