The Universities

The Death of the Humanities, the Death of the University

Australia’s universities are not special. Their utilitarianism, pragmatism, and unprincipled corporate-style leadership have left our institutions of higher learning bereft of rich learning and valuable research. This is hardly unusual in the modern university.

It is not that good teaching and research are never done–it’s that these are done despite the way higher education is run in this country. As I said, Australia is not a special case. Much of the West has descended into the same pit.

For a long time, the humanities have held on for dear life in this context. History, philosophy, literature, culture, art, theology, and religion, have all been bent under the weight of utilitarianism for decades. Some institutions abandoned them long ago. Others kept the flame burning.

My own institution, the University of Queensland, was one of the latter. UQ made a large investment in humanities research several years ago and attracted dozens of very fine humanities scholars to Brisbane.

I was at the launch event, where the then Danish Vice-Chancellor was quoting Soren Kierkegaard. That investment was short-lived and tied mainly to the outstanding work of a few internationally renowned scholars, like historian of science and religion Peter Harrison. More recently, the Australian Catholic University (ACU) has appeared to lead the way in keeping the humanities alive in this country. They established research centers and institutes that exist to house humanities scholars. For that, they could be lauded.

But even the Catholics are abandoning the humanities. News has just emerged that ACU is shutting down its world-leading medieval and early modern studies research streams at the  Centre for Religion and Critical Inquiry. At the same time, it is closing the Dianoia Institute of Philosophy, which it established in a blaze of glory only a few years ago.

If ACU is abandoning the humanities ship, the end is nigh for universities. The humanities are the canary in the coal mine. Readers might scoff that these research fellows and professors can take their medicine because they are all lefties anyway. But that is a shallow sentiment.

Instead, we should be mourning the passing of the true university, which was built around the humanities, which is the study of the humane. Universities originally existed to give students a window into the human soul through the study of human artefacts, culture and the Divine influence on humanity. Universities are now degree factories, preparing people for careers in tourism, nursing, journalism, and (yes, thankfully) the hard sciences.

The situation at ACU is not completely hopeless, due to the investment of the Ramsay Foundation, which is supporting the study of Western Civilisation through billions of dollars of funding. This wonderful gift has the potential to keep the flame alive.

But, given the rapid decline of universities’ financial sustainability, a crisis hastened by the pandemic, it is difficult to see institutions investing money in financially unprofitable disciplines such as history and philosophy. ACU will probably never return this money to the humanities. That is the reality. The same goes for other institutions that have gutted these disciplines of their resources and faculties.

Will the humanities die with the universities? I don’t think so. Most of the finest thinkers and humanities scholars in history were not Senior Lecturers or Associate Professors. The humanities must survive as long as humans survive. We all need them, even if the universities pretend that they don’t.

Simon P. Kennedy is an Associate Editor at Quadrant. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Danube Institute.

14 thoughts on “The Death of the Humanities, the Death of the University

  • pgang says:

    As an engineer I’m the first to admit that engineering isn’t education, it’s technical knowledge. Such places of learning should be called technical colleges, and I’m sceptical as to whether it should even be awarded a Bachelor’s degree. This has nothing to do with the difficulty in learning it, but rather that it doesn’t really broaden your knowledge, except in a specific direction.
    If I wanted to be educated I’d study Latin, theology, philosophy, literature and history. In fact, apart from Latin which is too disciplined, those are the subjects that I generally read out of interest. Peter Harrison’s work being a case in point.
    Anyone who has met a genuine, classically-educated mad Englishman will know that there is something in this education lark which churns out people of an exceptional calibre.
    The humanities will survive the universities.

    • petychka says:

      Dear pgang,
      I agree, except for Latin. I studied Latin at school for only 4 years, but it was the best invested, useful 4 years of my education, which included medicine.

    • mrsfarley2001 says:

      There used be technical & teachers’ colleges. Now they are all referred to indiscriminately as “Yooni”, although traditionally, a university is a particular type of institution. Due to the long leftist march through the education system and their early instructional capture, most institutions of “higher” education are now completely moribund. In my family for some 20 years now, we have referred to them as “U-Bums” – “universities” of bums-on-seats. This is the business model and it was never going to produce anything but bad results.

      • mrsfarley2001 says:

        For “instructional” read “institutional”. You’d think I’d learned my words @Yooni.

      • BalancedObservation says:

        You’re spot on.
        TAFEs, technical colleges and teachers colleges aspired to be Universities. They liked the status and the increased pay.
        But unfortunately, excellence, higher level courses and generally high quality and scholarship – all arguably integral elements of real universities – didn’t accompany the changes which were usually in name only.
        These new universities were generally essentially the same places they were before with more appealing names. (We arguably see the same sort of phenomenon with government secondary schools trying to give the impression they’re private colleges).
        However it was actually a bit worse than that because in their eagerness to become universities they did less of what they should have been doing in technical and trade areas – embracing courses in economics and business they were unsuited to conduct.
        In the tertiary sector it became a disease which many call “credential creep”. And downgraded the worth of a Bachelor’s Degree as a qualification.
        It’s part of the problem in the dumbing down of our vital university sector but perhaps not the most important part.
        Increasing student numbers beyond the capacity of universities to cope and beyond the capacity of enough students to reach an acceptable university entry standard are bigger problems. So is the use of our vital university institutions as degree factories for foreign students.
        But all these dumbing down trends are set to get worse with Labor’s new education report.
        Expect the opposition to do nothing about it. That’s what the Dutton opposition is very well qualified at: doing nothing constructive about anything.
        And in government the Coalition were no better than Labor.

  • Paul W says:

    More than most things, this is particularly scary. I can handle the ridiculousness of the modern world, but rebuilding civilisation will be hard without a minimal level of knowledge.

  • colin_jory says:

    I wholeheartedly support, overall, Simon Kennedy’s sentiments. Because of this, when I read his lamentation of the abolition of the Australian Catholic University’s Centre for Religion and Critical Enquiry I clicked on the hyperlink to the Centre provided, expecting to find that the Centre has been carrying on high a bright flame illuminating the core Western heritage, which flame has now been extinguished by leaden-brained philistines in the University’s administration. Instead, I found the following boast, under the signature of Professor Megan Cassidy-Welch, Director of the Centre.

    “Our focus on the global Middle Ages (especially the global south), projects on racism and conspiracy theories in the early modern world, histories of home and homelessness, histories of religious mobilities, and histories of legal medievalism and medievalism in LGBTQI cultures make us not only a uniquely variegated MEMS program, but also put us at the cutting edge of many areas of contemporary resonance.”

    This suggests to me that the Centre has been little more than an institutionalised jamboree of disparate wokeries slapped on an incredible diversity of themes, places, and eras pulled randomly out of the Mad Hatter’s top-hat. I therefore have a strong suspicion that the University has done a signal service, and not a disservice, to the cause of enlightened humaniities scholarship by closing the Centre down, while utilising funding from the Ramsay Foundation to establish, or develop, alternative centres for the study of Western Civilization on its campuses.

    • padraic says:

      I assume a relevant “area of contemporary resonance” would be watching Tik-Tok and relating it to medieval jurisprudence.

    • guilfoyle says:

      That is very interesting- excellent research there! It reveals the infiltration of the universities and the subversion of true academic discipline. Perhaps the Australian Catholic university approach might serve as a template on disinfecting these disciplines from what parades as wokery, but is really a dismantling of the foundations of our culture- which they seem to hate.

  • BalancedObservation says:

    There’s a general malaise in universities far wider than an increasing trend towards downgrading or eliminating the humanities. The downgrading of humanities is simply collateral damage in the general dumbing down of our universities.
    There are increasing problems with fundamental issues from quality and excellence in all academic endeavours to free speech on campus to increasing dropout numbers. There’s a conformity in ideas expressed on campus at times enforced with violence. We need a rethink on what our universities have become. But that’s unlikely given our major political parties’ policies are largely to blame for the mess.
    The university system is increasingly geared to money and numbers away from quality and excellence. That is generally attributable to government policy from both major parties which has set an environment that discourages quality and excellence. It encourages lower quality and lower entry standards and more numbers.
    Government policy also encourages universities to act as degree factories for foreign students. One of the proudest and frequent claims of universities seems to be about the foreign exchange they earn – as much as or more than about the quality and excellence of what they do.
    You think I’m exaggerating? One statistic should dispel any doubts. 40% of all students pre Covid at our country’s leading university were from one country : communist China. And the aim is to get back to those numbers. What do you think that does to free thinking on campuses or quality or even course content? And of course Chinese students won’t want to be studying humanities.
    And if the recent report by the government on university education is adopted – as is likely – this problematic trend is going to continue at an even faster pace well into the future.
    The recent report recommends increasing numbers entering universities when the numbers are already above what universities can cope with and already need the lowest entry standards for decades to make admission of the current numbers possible. No wonder there are increasing dropout numbers. Entry standards will have to be even lower to admit even more numbers. So expect higher and higher dropout rates.
    So the trend away from humanities, traditionally associated with excellence and higher level thinking at universities is certainly no surprise. It’s simply collateral damage in the dumbing down of universities where increasing numbers of students are dropping out unable to cope.
    Our Labor government’s response to the increasing dropout numbers is to provide learning support services at universities. If anyone needs learning support services they certainly do not belong in a university. No wonder many do though with lower and lower entry standards the order of the day to attract more numbers. And the government wants to increase numbers even more.
    Given the current trajectory of our university sector I’d imagine there’s very little hope for any resurgence in the study of humanities.

  • petychka says:

    The deterioration of standards in the humanities faculties is not as worrying as the degradation in other faculties.

    I teach medicine.

  • Paul.Harrison says:

    Terrible news. I am a humble graduate from the Banyo (Brisbane) Campus of ACU, and was a member of the graduating classes of 2020, at 72 years of age. Covid denied us our graduation ceremony and the chance to wear the colours. My studies were enabled through the Bachelor of Arts Degree, and I majored in Philosophy. After a life-long interest in that most fascinating discipline, I had finally earned the responsibility to pursue further knowledge in my chosen field, that of Military Ethics. It seems that my ambition to study a Master of Philosophy at my Alma Mater has been dashed. Well may we say, God save the King, for without Philosophy nothing is worth saving.

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