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Chill factor hits humanities

By Elspeth Probyn - posted Thursday, 23 December 2004

As the summer heat hits, it seems that a cold wind is blowing through our sector.

There was, of course, the usual fuss about the announcement of the Australian Research Counil (ARC) grant results. Paid to be Pointless was Andrew Bolt’s annual column in the Herald Sun on how useless academics are. I’m sure he didn’t come up with that alliterative gem. Would he care that it hurts to be told that your 50 or 60-hour workweek is pointless? I doubt it, and in any case he was busy sharpening his knife to slice into the ARC, which he described as an expensive club.

We should be used to it. It happens every year. What was new this year was that Bolt confirmed a rumour doing the rounds. The scuttlebutt had circulated for weeks that the Minister of Education, Brendan Nelson, had personally stepped in and queried the ARC Expert College’s decisions. I’d thought it was just another conspiracy theory but Bolt reported that “this year, for the first time, he [Nelson] knocked back several of the sillier grants the ARC wanted to fund”.


You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers. But the current climate does seem to be chilly for the humanities and social sciences. It’s compounded by Bush’s re-election. Some American scholars are deeply concerned about how their studies will survive in the rise of a more pronounced religious political context. Disciplines as different as gender studies and palaeontology wonder how the return of creationism will affect their investigations. Studying the origins of life is precarious when the prevailing government view is clear about who created the universe. And according to a report in the New York Daily News, Bush has just appointed Dr W. David Hager to the Food and Drug Agency’s Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee, which approves or rejects new drugs. The good doctor firmly believes that women do not need anything other than a good read of the Bible to cure them of everything from post-partum depression to bulimia. Try Romans 5: 1-11 if you have PMT.

It’s scary stuff for women and for the science community in the US, and by extension here. Thankfully in Australia we have nothing to compare with the homogenous nature of American fundamentalism. Howard may be a believer but his pragmatism is a lot easier to deal with, as we saw in his repeated quelling of Tony Abbott’s desire to put abortion on the national agenda. Our right-wing parties tend to be fragmented and at times fractious. While Family First has some fundamentalist elements, it’s also run by an Aboriginal woman, which makes the articulation of “family” quite different than American versions of family-moral-majority.

Nonetheless the question remains of how best to engage with the fact that Australia re-elected a man who loves to emulate Bush?

It’s going to be tough. There have already been examples of how not to respond. Immediately after the election web lists bled with vitriol against a mythic middle Australia. In my own field, presumably smart and well-intentioned academics posted comments on a cultural studies web list railing against “the Ikea set”. “The Ikea set” serves as a left counterpoint to the right’s fiction of academics as chardonnay-drinking whingers. Both are equally silly. The left’s version depicts those who voted for Howard as petty bourgeois types more interested in home improvement than in the real issues. It’s a disdainful and lazy way to talk about ordinary people - the very people that cultural studies is supposed to be interested in. A few sensible voices pointed out that wanting a nice home is not a crime against humanity.

Denigrating people is not the way to go, but what other options do we have? The question of engagement was on my mind as I flew down to Hobart for the annual symposium and general meeting of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. I’ve only been a FAHA for two years but already the example of senior people in my field has taught me something about how to engage with people outside of my normal circles. And while many may think that the Academy is a graveyard for elderly profs, it is one of the few academic bodies that Howard’s government will listen to.

Under the presidency of Iain McCalman, the noted historian at the ANU, the Academy has become very savvy about how to deal with government. Through persistent and calm politicking, several elements have been added to the government’s higher education policy. Additions to the national research priorities are incredibly important to us at the chalkface. Behind the scenes, negotiations will continue under the able hand of the new president, Graeme Turner, which will make our lives as researchers and teachers a little easier.


The interventions of the Academy and Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences are crucial, but they are at a policy level. We also need to think about we can use our disciplinary expertise to engage with societal and political directions without alienating the public or pointlessly enraging government.

One of the opening talks at the symposium was exemplary of intellectual and political acumen. Marilyn Lake’s paper was on The Memories of Mankind. Lake is a highly respected feminist historian, and she sketched a convincing picture of how the founding fathers of Federation, especially Deakin, were entranced by America, its ideals and especially its freedom from empire.

It was an intricate and erudite talk that unearthed another history behind the current embrace of Bush and Howard, Australia and America. She indicated new ways of challenging our dependence on the US, especially in terms of political inspiration. Following her talk one colleague came up with a brilliant idea. What we need is for Dubbya to say “hey John, how come you guys still got that dame on your coins?”

Lord knows what a shamed Howard would do. Failing Bush’s intervention, we’ll all just have to try our best to make sense of and make some sense in a cold climate.

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First published in The Australian on December 8, 2004.

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Elspeth Probyn is Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney.

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