Features Australia

Abolish the arts degree (and start again)

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

In addition to my full-time job as a commercial journalist, I sometimes teach English to high school students, usually in grade twelve. This year, I have one such charge, who is contemplating studying politics next year at university. I recently found myself warning him against studying politics at the University of Melbourne – my own alma mater.

My counsel was due not to any misgivings regarding the ideological colouration of the campus – the usual stuff of right-wing complaint – but simply because it wasn’t very rigorous, and so not very interesting. Politics when I studied it, as one of two majors I took as part of my B.A., simply lacked any structure, any essential knowledge. I entered it knowing little of politics, and left much the same way, at least in terms of how politics actually works.

There were no mandatory classes at all, save for two perfunctory efforts in inculcating research methods. One provided the most elementary understanding of quantitative methods. (Talking to my American tutor, he indicated shock at how innumerate the average student was in this apparently sophisticated degree. Among my friends, I’d be considered the mathematical dunce. But my ranking in this subject as against my classmates painted me as a number cruncher of Bertrand Russell-like facility.) The other subject was simply fluffy academic piffle in soft-research skills – how to run focus groups and take into account ‘different perspectives’ – which, to the degree that the skills were worthwhile at all, ought to be able to be figured out by anyone with sufficient grey matter stuffed between their ears. Certainly, such things did not merit formal instruction.

What was missing were mandatory courses in Australian politics (knowledge of which might be useful in our country); courses in English, European, Asian (or indeed any) type of history; courses in policymaking and government; tough courses in the history of political philosophy and theory; and so on. Of course there were various electives to choose from – some good, many bad – but there was no sense of structure or guiding purpose to the degree. Without such, there was no sense of student community or debate, and no sense of vitality or achievement. There is also nothing concrete to point to when taking measure of the degree’s final product – the output student. You can’t very well point to a young chap who’s studied politics at Melbourne and say for certain he’ll have a good knowledge of X, Y, or Z.

I ended my degree having undertaken a hodgepodge of subjects, from ‘Contemporary Political Theory’ to ‘American Politics’, ‘Chinese Politics’ and ‘Media Politics’. But these, particularly those tending more towards ‘theory’, were largely an education in the selective reading whims of our lecturers.

Aha!, you might say. Surely this was my fault, not the university’s, for I could have created a sense of focus for myself if I’d chosen my subjects more carefully. Isn’t it bad manners to be criticising the university when they provided me with ‘choice’ to pursue that which I was ‘passionate’ about?

The fact is our society has become rather too enamoured of the notion of ‘choice’ in education. Students leaving high school at age eighteen or so are by and large as ignorant as fish, and cannot be expected to guide their own education in a specialist field. They need to be subjected to a rigorous curriculum, with tough tests, rather than absentmindedly selecting a subject here, a subject there, with two essays only for the semester to complete (the norm during my stay at Melbourne’s most illustrious educational institution).

I spoke with an academic sociologist recently, whose politics are a blend of left and right, and asked him his thoughts on the oft-invoked right-wing motif that universities are hotbeds of radical indoctrination and so on. He said that it was a complete fantasy, if only for the reason that students were not often enough engaged (when they were even present at all) to be indoctrinated in anything. Indeed, there seems something quaintly appealing about university students being rigorously schooled in the finer minutiae of Marxist theory and praxis, because it would at least evidence rigorous schooling in something.

What I’ve spoken about has related only to my own experience of a politics major in an Arts degree. But I had a similar experience in my English major, too, and I expect much the same would hold – mutatis mutandis – for many other humanities courses these days. I also imagine that many other universities are just as dire as Melbourne in this respect. (One conservative sociologist who has taught at both informed me that La Trobe was far better in terms of faculty and students than Melbourne. Is there perhaps a glimmer of hope? My friend the social theorist Peter Murphy – a great sceptic of universities generally – doesn’t think so. He observes of the whole enterprise: ‘The flaccid nature of social science education is just dismal.’) I ought also to add, that I later attended Melbourne Law School, and the course there so far as I could tell, for I was not a very diligent student, was exemplary – well structured, well taught, and inculcating real skills in the students. (The problem with the postgraduate system is that universities will shake you down for everything you’ve got – $100k+ in the case of a law degree – so as to fund their own inflated and otiose bureaucracies. But that’s a tale for another time.)

So I say abolish the Arts degree! And only start again once academics and teachers are sufficiently serious in their pedagogical duties to devise rigorous and worthwhile courses for their students. Cut down subject choice by 50 per cent, and make what is taught essential and compulsory. If our traditional universities fail in this task, then it will fall to private liberal arts colleges to spring forth and take up the burden of instilling rigour, precision, culture and depth of knowledge in our young. Either course would be fine with me, I guess. But then – wielding the scalpel against the educational, ideological, and fashionable fat that largely comprises the public university’s tissue is perhaps a decency we cannot expect from parasitic and bloated semi-public administrators. So I await with resigned hope the time when some benevolent billionaire capitalises upon the thirst for genuine liberal arts education (notwithstanding the late Mr Ramsay’s noble effort) and, by establishing more private institutions, catalyses the renewal of our educational and societal condition.

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