Hubris, nemesis

History at Melbourne University is in crisis. And the descent has apparently been rapid.

Only five years ago, in The Life of the Past, co-edited by Stuart Macintyre, the Department of History spent over 400 pages looking back at its own history of 150 years. Hubris, nemesis. Shortly after publication, a merger created the School of Historical Studies, which has since been absorbed into something larger. The initial amalgamation seems to have been viewed by History more as its taking over an ill-fitting selection of smaller but supposedly cognate disciplines, amidst the usual faux consultation exercises driven by university ‘management’, some at least lured by History’s numbers and supposed financial strength. No due diligence here, since it has been History’s financial woes that have undermined the whole school. Throughout this School’s existence most historians seemed incapable of differentiating their discipline from the School as a whole: its internal structure represented more the Union of South Africa (provinces; here disciplines with ‘Discipline Chairs’, to my mind a term more associated with ‘dungeon’ furnishings in a house of ill repute) than a federation such as the Commonwealth – understanding Australian constitutional and institutional history is something notably absent in the teaching of what passes for Australian history.

Bile is poured on the University and the Dean of Arts for their revisions to the ‘Gods of the Copybook Headings’ they have introduced which have driven the school into deficit – one has to sympathise with some of this since it is not clear to what alternative use some of History’s accommodation can be put, at least in the short term, in a space-is-money environment. There is also an odour of other Arts disciplines getting their own back after having History lord it over them and, it is objected, feather its own nest during the deanships of previous historians. But whatever the problems with the allocation of on-costs and apportionment of student fee income, the fact is that numbers of students in History are falling. 

There are two explanations: the Melbourne Model (pseudo-American in offering very broad-brush, three-year first degrees, but unrecognisable to American colleagues) and the courses. These are interlinked, though any criticism of the Model, even at the ‘discussion’ stage was heresy. It produces more and more general courses less attractive to teach and less attractive for any real historians (if such survive the history curricula of many an Australian school) to attend – mixed ability classes for the university?; since an ancient history course can be taken by a chemist devoid of any of the background (‘Why do BC, sorry BCE, dates go backwards?’) and lacking any experience in writing an essay, courses risk being dumbed down. Add to this compulsory ‘capstones’ (the second letter is an ‘r’ in the in-house demotic) – sewn together in an academic sweatshop: proper new courses require time, effort and planning, unavailable in this rushed implementation. Here, one may well say: ‘Where’s the beef?’ Meanwhile, old-style courses attracting smaller, though not small, numbers were sometimes cancelled even after enrolment, leaving academics underperforming their work-load formula (another mythical beast) – an incentive to shed more ‘surplus’ staff and thus be able to offer fewer courses in a downward spiral.

Alas, many of the old-style courses were themselves part of the problem and the discipline had, in recent decades, been living off capital. Greg Dening may have deployed the appropriately Australian term ‘the beach’ for what others term a ‘contact zone’, but under him and his successors, it became almost all periphery and no centre, fancy icing of the latest design and an element of sub-anthropological goo, disguising the under-baked and shrinking cake within, even when the number of historians substantially exceeded the current complement. How can the discipline of history in what aims to be one of the world’s top-50 universities (!) be taken seriously when, for example, there is no British history, no Early Modern-Modern European history until the 20th century (the inevitable fascism, Nazism, communism)? – and virtually no economic history, no interest in high politics or diplomatic history or imperial/commonwealth history, little in political history, etc., etc. Tastes change, but I find far more interesting stuff in the syllabus at Aberystwyth (a much smaller, lower-middle ranking institution with a history department of comparable size) than Melbourne.

A recent report by international experts shipped in from around the Anglosphere has identified some of the problems, though it was always unlikely that it would deal with the ‘intellectual capture’ of the discipline, since the panel members were just as likely to have been captured themselves; and, in its view, insufficient adherence to the Melbourne Model is one of History’s apparent vices. What is bizarre, is the urge that even more of the senior, i.e. expensive, people be encouraged to depart (‘there’s a severance package in the drawer, Caruthers…’), thus temporarily impoverishing the courses offered even further (yes, there is still some stuff of merit), to recruit bright, cheap young things not to fill any of the obvious gaps, but to attach themselves to the ample skirts of the (mixing metaphors) barely-out-of-nappies Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, in which Melbourne is a partner, funded by the Australian Research Council for $24.25 million over seven years! More, very expensive icing (the ARC deserves a lengthy treatment of its own), rather than providing the missing ingredients for the cake.

Meanwhile, the School plays host to a conference ‘Democracy vs. Communism: Remembering the 1951 Referendum on the Banning of the Communist Party’ later this month, addressed, it has to be said, by many of the ‘usual suspects’.

J.F. Hargrave is an economic historian and freelance editor who has worked at several British universities.

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