The Demise of the Humanities

Amidst the brouhaha over the federal government’s overhaul of university fees, one thing is clear: it means the end of the humanities in Australia. Education minister Dan Tehan has proposed a whopping 113 per cent fee increase for humanities and social sciences courses, putting them on a part with law and business in a new top tuition band. The cost of those law and business degrees will also rise by the somewhat less astronomical rate of 28 per cent. By contrast, nursing, teaching, languages (strangely, including English literature), and the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) will benefit from fee reductions ranging from 21 per cent to 62 per cent.

Debates over the relevance of the humanities are always thoroughly political. Opponents of the humanities denounce their uselessness and decry their radicalism, while humanities scholars themselves respond with outlandish claims that they teach the very skills employers want most. Both positions are valid, up to a point. Neither position fully acknowledges the historical role of the humanities in providing a humane foundation for further learning and future life.

In a true liberal arts approach to education, the humanities would be embedded in all degrees: if we believe that all educated citizens should have a basic grasp of history, ethics, culture, and the like, then all students should study the humanities, at least a little. Unfortunately, few academics actually embrace this model. Scientists don’t want to ‘waste’ their students’ time on peripheral subjects, while humanities scholars don’t want to be relegated to ‘service’ teaching for degrees that are perceived as being (and probably are) more useful for future employment.

That impasse is now a moot point. Aside from a few limited experiments (like those sponsored by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation), humanities education will disappear in Australia in the coming decade. Consumers respond to price signals, and the humanities can’t survive a doubling of fees. Unlike law and business, the humanities can’t compensate for lower demand by slightly loosening admissions standards in order to keep enrolments constant. They’re already scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) ranks.

For example, the minimum ATAR for humanities (arts and social sciences) students at the University of Sydney is 69, or roughly equal to the average ATAR for all secondary school graduates. At the University of Melbourne, it was 73, while at the Australian National University it was 74. Considering that fewer than half of all Australian secondary school graduates go to university, these figures suggest almost any university-bound student in Australia can get into a Group of Eight humanities program.

It is true that these minimum scores include students entering through a range of special programs and pathways, but even the median ATAR ranks (87 for Sydney, 91 for Melbourne, and 86 for ANU) are none too high for these supposedly elite universities. At non-elite universities, the medians are even lower. There is no downside flexibility. A doubling of fees will mean a catastrophic loss of students.

With students already complaining about the lack of electives on offer in humanities majors, there are also few opportunities for consolidation within traditional arts and social sciences disciplines. Instead of cutting back offerings within existing majors, universities will be forced to amalgamate humanities disciplines into broad new majors like ‘liberal arts’, ‘global studies’, and — dare it be suggested? — ‘Western civilisation’. Universities will dramatically scale back the number of distinct units of study they offer, rearrange them into boutique majors, and hope to attract a small number of high-ATAR, high-income students to them.

Much of the universities’ existing humanities teaching staff will disappear along with the classes they teach. Have no illusions: it’s going to be a bloodbath. Pre-existing pressures from chronically declining enrollments, exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis, were already prompting universities to restructure the humanities, with concomitant job losses. The new fee structure will turn that retreat into a rout.

Some will celebrate the misfortunes of their ideological bugbears. Others will lament the passing of an era. Most of us who find ourselves in Minister Dan Tehan’s crosshairs will just shrug our shoulders and start looking for a job. The party was good while it lasted. But if the government makes good on its promises — and all indications are that, with minor tweaks, it will — then the party is over.

Anyone looking for a top sociologist with twenty years’ experience, drop me a line.

Salvatore Babones is The Philistine.

15 thoughts on “The Demise of the Humanities

  • Tony Tea says:

    If I were king – and let’s face it, I should be – I would make Latin compulsory in school.

  • Salvatore Babones says:

    I studied Latin in high school … but missed out on Greek and Hebrew!

  • DougD says:

    The predicted flood of humanities academics retrenched from the universities offers the opportunity to show this philistine government how much in demand such skills are in the private sector.

  • Stephen Due says:

    I too studied Latin in high school, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I dimly remember reading Cicero on public and private virtue, and also the Georgics Book IV, about bees. At one stage I launched into Catullus on my own, enjoying snippets of his love poetry.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    I studied Latin in high school, too. Do they still teach it anywhere?
    As for the humanities, my own preference would be, as Salvatore says, to embed humanities in all degrees.
    I recall in the late 1970s or early 1980s, about when I had risen to higher management levels in my then job, and was myself wishing I’d taken an Arts degree majoring in philosophy and history, I read that IBM in the US had changed their recruitment policies for their management positions to give more preference to Arts graduates with a demonstrated capacity to reason.

  • Warty says:

    I hope, I cannot assume, Salvatore is tongue in cheek, because with the left-infested humanities being what they currently are, how on earth can one lament their passing. Better by far to pick up a second hand copy of Dante’s Inferno, read it and then listen to an incomparable (YouTube) lecture on the text by Anthony Esolen.
    There is such a wealth of knowledge on the internet that doesn’t involve postmodernist deconstructionism one wonders why on earth one would wish to subject oneself to the diktats of a humanities department.
    Lovely Jacaranda tree though.

  • Tony Tea says:

    It may be apochryphal, but it’s said Jean Paul Getty employed only classicists to run his businesses because they were able to reason better than eggheads like MBA grads, and ultimately classicists sold more oil.

  • citizen says:

    Hi Salvatore,

    I really appreciate your articles (and your interviews for the CIS – the most recent one was great). Thank you.

    I’m not sure how I feel about this move by the Minister. Can’t say I’ll be sorry when all the gender studies and critical theory nonsense goes out the window.

    I’d be interested if you see this perhaps encouraging the growth of specialist liberal arts college like Campion in Sydney.

  • lhackett01 says:

    Salvatore, I agree with Warty’s comment. For far too many years the humanities have distorted Western culture, emphasised deconstructionism, and promoted ideological viewpoints that have little basis in fact. Certainly, we should have a basic grasp of history, ethics, culture, and the like, but not slanted heavily towards Marxist and the like.
    The science degree I obtained from Melbourne University, many years ago, included rigorous teaching of critical thinking and analysis. I never suffered from not doing a humanities degree.
    I do think discriminatory fees undesirable. The Government should rather fund Universities that provide courses that that provide a balanced education, those without any emphasis on extreme philosophies. Especially, Universities should support Western civilisation and values. They must emphasis teaching Australian students before others. Government must structure policies and funding to allow this emphasis.

  • Salvatore Babones says:

    Warty — it’s MY passing that I lament!

    Citizen — I’d love to know how Campion is handling this … I’ve reached out to them several times, with no luck. I’d love to give some lectures there, even for free.

    Hackett — I myself have an MS in applied mathematics, and it’s certainly the hardest thinking I’ve ever done. No dispute there. And you probably know that I’m a big fan of teaching Western Civ!

  • pgang says:

    I think this is clever. It will leverage the covid financial disaster to weaken the left in a key establishment.

  • Davidovich says:

    I do not like the discriminatory fee approach and would point out that ridding the universities of extreme left ideologues is all very well but teaching courses are to have a fee reduction and it is schools where the indoctrination begins.

  • Karnjirrwala says:

    Hey Stephen Due

    I too love Georgics Book IV, about bees.

  • Karnjirrwala says:

    Hey Stephen Due

    I too love Georgics Book IV, about bees.

  • Trevor Bailey says:

    Warty’s commendation of the autodidact bears weight. I attended more pubs than lectures during my arts/law days at Adelaide Uni, but my carousing mates of old are with me still, and form the backbone of all that’s civilising about conversation with worldly, cultivated men. Our role models were Dr Johnson: ” A chair in a tavern is the throne of human felicity”, and Barry Humphries: “Attended Melbourne University: self-educated.” Both were drop-outs.

Leave a Reply