This semester, I was asked to deliver a university lecture on 16th-century Frenchman Michel de Montaigne, the world's first essayist, and did so from my couch. It dealt with the following questions, among others: Is lying the worst of all vices? Why do we place such value on certainty? Can self-deprecation be a subtle form of self-aggrandisement? Why do we value friends? These are worthwhile questions, and the space for this kind of inquiry is diminishing, but my government, it would appear, views such inquiries as at best indulgent and at worst dangerous.
On Friday, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced a policy for the post-COVID economy that would increase the student contribution fees for some university courses and decrease others: most in the humanities would rise by 113 per cent, while units in fields such as agriculture and maths would shrink by as much as 62 per cent. The stated aim is to create more "job-ready graduates". The reasoning, Tehan explained, is to incentivise "students to take courses that will give them the skills to take the jobs of the future".
Part of the logic of the price hike, then, is to discourage students from enrolling in humanities units, a government intervention that prioritises cultural conservatism at the expense of market conservatism, seemingly designed to weaken those the Prime Minister takes to be his ideological enemies. In fact, arts subjects usually subsidise STEM subjects, as their only substantial cost is teaching. So, if successful, this policy will do universities economic harm. It is an inelegant manoeuvre in a tired culture war, rather than a fiscal play. The jobs of the future imagined by Tehan, I suspect, are ones that are best fulfilled by unquestioning subjects.
The decision is a natural extension of the Coalition's recent treatment of the arts sector, which has been shaken, perhaps irreparably, by COVID-19, most of its 193,000 workers ineligible for JobKeeper. The Prime Minister's contempt was signalled late last year, when a departmental reorganisation was concluded without a federal department named for the arts.
A humanities education simply equips a student with the tools to question the assumptions of the systems in which they find themselves operating.
These changes suggest that conservatives envision the humanities as a threat. More specifically, they envision a humanities accessible to all to be a threat. Because Tehan's policy hinges on a price incentive, those most likely to be deterred from enrolling in a history or philosophy course are those with the least economic and cultural capital.
We've been told by the Morrison government that COVID-19 is both a health crisis and an economic crisis, and that the economic sacrifices required to avert the health crisis have been and will continue to be significant. This rhetoric has been unconvincing, because a government, in times of crisis, should allow the suffering to be borne fairly across the population; ideally the wealthiest should shield the vulnerable, as equally distributed damage causes far worse hurt to those who can't afford it. The government has failed to do this.
If implemented and effective, Tehan's policy to place the burden on students wishing to study the humanities would only influence those for whom price is a factor. It would harden a class divide wherein the vocabulary available via a humanistic education is understood to be the exclusive domain of the elite, and those not lucky enough to inherit such a vocabulary would find it further out of reach.
A model conservative university would generate, above all else, prospective employees, passive bodies taught to organise their lives around work and profit, rather than critical, engaged citizens, taught to reflect on why the conditions arranging their social, cultural and personal lives are largely economic, and largely geared towards further rewarding the already rich.
The minister's motivation, I think, was articulated in words unusable by the government by Adam Creighton in The Australian, who endorsed defunding university humanities as the discipline tends to leave graduates "angry, narrow-minded, and unemployed, and obsessed with viewing everything through the simplistic prism of race, sexuality and gender".
This characterisation is detached from reality. Australian humanities graduates in Australia are employed at a rate of 91.1 per cent, while science and maths graduates are employed at a rate of 90.1 per cent. If well taught, a humanities education simply equips a student with the tools to question the assumptions of the systems in which they find themselves operating. Lacking these skills might lead one to, for example, imagine that tertiary education is a hotbed of one's ideological enemies, without bothering to check the statistics.
I worked hard on the Montaigne lecture (spending four or five times the number of hours I was paid for; I teach on casual contracts) because the questions Montaigne poses are important to me, and the opportunity to effectively impart that importance to around 250 students seemed, if not urgent, at least not to be taken for granted. What Montaigne teaches us is that, by dedicating our lives to self-reflection, we might learn to avoid accepting what we are told without suspicion, "for once our judgment leans to one side", he writes, "we cannot stop ourselves twisting and distorting the narration to that bias".
Among those defending the humanities against the government's broadside, many are arguing (correctly) that it makes students employable. But those who have learnt to philosophise, to question too-neat historical narratives, to describe and exalt artistic imagination, should know better. This is an argument that cannot be fought on economic grounds. To cede that the university's aim is to commodify its graduates is to abandon the human in the humanities. Of course a university must provide students with tools that make them employable. Our world is one of survival and work. But if we are to imagine an alternative world, one in which our lives are defined by something other than the money we make for ourselves and our bosses, we will find it nowhere else.
- Dan Dixon is a writer who teaches at the University of Sydney. He writes about literature, culture, politics, and America.