Flat White

Ensuring a future for the humanities in Australia

17 February 2021

6:19 PM

17 February 2021

6:19 PM

Back in 1951, the great conservative institution-builder William F. Buckley Jr. wrote a book about Yale University. However, what he described occurring in New Haven would ultimately apply more broadly to Behemoth State Universities and the Ivy League. Institutions that were designed for the formation of people of high learning, genuine leadership, civic virtue, and Christian cultural sensibilities, had turned their back on that original vision. Instead, Buckley mourned, Yale “addresses itself to the task of persuading [its students] to be atheistic socialists”.  

As James Allan wrote in last week’s Spectator Australia, the arts and humanities faculties of universities in the Anglosphere have been leading this charge towards the left. Historians, literary criticsphilosophers, theologians, linguists, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, classicistsall of these disciplines have been brimming for decades with folk who are more interested in undermining their civilisation than passing on its wisdom.  

There are plenty of very fine people amongst the long list of lecturers and professors who, whether unwittingly or not, are working either for revolution or self-destruction. Many colleagues are scholars of great talent doing valuable work. However, there is more critical theory than civic virtue in humanities classrooms and academic journals. 

While humanities students at universities can take the odd unit of study which is truly enriching, any decline in enrolments is hardly surprising. Why study texts and ideas which your teachers think are of little value and possibly evil? And why do so when the space for true intellectual inquiry is almost non-existent? The answers are laid out for you. Yes, you see, Homer was a racist and misogynist. So was Cicero. And Dante. Oh, and will you look at that!–so was John Milton. Let us prop up these a-priori conclusions for the next 13 weeks. 

I say this rather begrudgingly because I am a humanities scholar with a fellowship at a large public institution of higher learning. I enjoy the trappings and prestige of an affiliation with a major sandstone university. And I like my colleagues there. I don’t have anything against them. I am a political and cultural conservative, and I am a Christian. Is there any figure more persecuted in higher education than the white, conservative, Christian male? I doubt it. Nevertheless, here I am. 

All of this makes one rather glum as it is hard to see how the ship will be turned around. Students may have continued enrolling in humanities degrees for now. But the market will ultimately see a correction. This will, in part, be based on the Federal Government’s financial disincentives. Massive student debt to get a degree in anti-Australian studies? Thanks, but no thanks. Just look at the Ramsay Centre programs to see what one has to do to get people reading the great books of our suffocating civilisation.  

Indeed, this is something of a reality check on the state of the arts and humanities in Australia. The Ramsay Foundation has managed to twist the arm of a few public universities to take multiple millions of dollars to run something that, at best, resembles a program in humanities and classics. Likewise, the students are being offered the deal of a lifetime, with $30,000 taxfree a year to do the study. Doesn’t this constitute a revival of the humanities in Australia? 

don’t believe so. It is a temporary shot in the arm at bestTrue higher learning, of the kind that produces great minds like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Henry Newman, Martha Nussbaumand Roger Scruton, is a thing of the past. We can produce intelligent graduates, and we might find the odd genius who excels at Latin and poetry. However, gone are the days of widely read, deeply learned men and women who could simultaneously call upon theological, literary, historical, and philosophical insights. This decline must be put down, in part, to the decline of the humanities that Professor Allan so aptly describes.  

This leads me to point to one skerrick of hope in all of this. There is, believe it or not, life outside of the public universities. “Behemoth State” is not the only place where true humane learning can occur. Indeed, there are a smattering of great books programs in Australia that are run by private higher education providers. It may be that these are the kinds of institutions where real learning in what used to be called the “liberal” arts can occur.  

Zena Hitz argues as much in her recent book Lost In Thought (2020). An instructor in a premier great books program in the United States, Hitz suggests that the halls and classrooms of research universities are unlikely to bear much fruit in terms of learning for its own sake. Inquiry into topics that don’t have clear vocational outcomes is becoming less and less valuable in the eyes of both the tertiary provider and student. “What sort of job does your Arts degree lead to, I wonder?” Thanks for the helpful feedback on my life choices. 

I find myself agreeing with Hitz that it is beyond the walls of the university where true humane learning needs to take root once againI have already mentioned the private providers who are quietly working to this very end. More work in this space needs to be done, and quickly. Is it any wonder that we find our culture gradually degrading when most don’t know why it exists and what might make it great once again? 

Which leaves us in something of a pickle. We know that Behemoth State has all of the resources, and the tiny private providers have very little. This means we won’t see government money flow towards real humanities education any time soon. What is the solution? Perhaps a William F. Buckley will rise, and build an institution that could salvage the true, the good, and the beautiful in Australia. Deo volente. 

Simon P. Kennedy is the Director of the Millis Institute and Senior Lecturer in Humanities at Christian Heritage CollegeHe is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland. 

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