Features Australia

The decline of Arts and Humanities

A massive ‘fail’ to our Anglosphere universities

13 February 2021

9:00 AM

13 February 2021

9:00 AM

Last week the Times newspaper of London reported a hefty decline in the numbers of British students entering university who were opting to take their degrees in English, history and modern languages. For the first of those the total number was well under a thousand across the whole country. History was better, but for a country with over 65 million people it too was shockingly low. So why might that be? And I ask as a native- born Canadian who attended a Canadian university in the early 1980s where no one was allowed to study law or medicine until they had a first degree. I did a maths degree in which over a third of the subjects taken had to be philosophy, English or history courses.

And my Lord did I take some wonderful Arts courses. One was a sweeping History of Western Civilisation course, what students used to call ‘From Plato to Nato’, and which made us read size-able chunks of the writings of dozens and dozens and dozens of the thinkers who shaped our culture. Another was a wonderful course on American literature from a quirky woman who knew so much about, and loved having us read, Melville, Cooper, Hawthorne, Bellows, Eliot, Frost (her favourite) and a lot more. We read them as great works of literature, not to try to tease out unfair power relationships, hidden oppression, flaws in Western society, to look for the dispossessed, or as vehicles to deconstruct the text.

Then there was the American history course from the US draft dodger who’d come up to Canada, whose political leanings were evident to all, and yet who was scrupulously fair in encouraging debate and wide-open opinions on the whole expanse of US history. It was a delight to learn from him about Burr and Hamilton, Nixon and the Civil War, and even argue with him about the Revolutionary War’s desirability at the time (as, in part, I come from United Empire Loyalist stock). Oh, and there were my favourites, the multiple philosophy courses I took on Hume, Aristotle and Plato, logic, the philosophy of math, the German philosophers (okay, that last course seemed to me to be chock- full of incomprehensible gobbledegook – and if you’ve ever been forced to read Hegel you’ll know what I mean – but that’s still a pretty good hit rate for courses I loved). Almost all of these subjects were superb additions to the many maths courses that made up my degree. Indeed, if those sorts of Arts courses were on offer today I would recommend anyone, anywhere, to take them. A better foundation to future life you could not find in terms of clear, analytical thinking, taking apart arguments, learning how to write well and not verbosely, coming to grasp historical complexities and a bit more about your place in the world, experiencing the back and forth of strong debate and not getting to check out from examining your own positions just because you felt unsafe, or offended, or uneasy, or anything else that so exercises Australia’s Human Rights Commission (which I say again any self-respecting Coalition government should long ago have done something about given its pathetic stances on free speech).

But, of course, many, many British, Canadian, American and Australian parents and high school graduates these days are pretty convinced those sort of courses are very seldom on offer any more. The suspicion is that many Arts courses across the Anglosphere’s universities have become politicised and woke and shun debate and open-mindedness, wallowing instead in politically correct grievance politics. (And as an aside, my two children went to university in Canada and I can attest that that is precisely the case there – parents and their kids have to comb the syllabus carefully to try to find the handful of courses that remotely resemble the ones I described above.)

Put in terms any readers who’ve read Shakespeare would understand (and isn’t the relative paucity of Shakespeare study in Australian high schools a disgrace?), many Arts faculties around the English-speaking world have been hoist with their own petard. They’re no longer offering a product very many want to consume. In Britain the collapse is nearing the precipitous. There is little reason to believe things are noticeably better here or elsewhere in the Anglosphere. And yes, it is hard to resist a bit of schadenfreude, that ultimately this is the reaping of what was sowed.

On the other hand, the prospect of so few people taking university history courses (whether it’s because – rightly or wrongly – they believe they are woke, traffic in identity politics and are closed to students with other views, or for some other reason) is worrying. Historical illiteracy is not a good thing. Nor does it make it easy to stand up to purveyors of ‘the West is so much worse than other cultures’ dogma.

It’s not at all obvious what to do to try to fix this part of our universities. That said, I have long thought and argued in print that there are certainly some steps a Coalition government could take to begin this process. And yet the last eight years of Coalition governments have seen virtually nothing done of any concrete value. Yes, they’ll genuflect in the direction of free speech concerns on campus with a French Report. But in just a few months they could easily tie federal funding to adoption of the Chicago Principles while going to bat for Peter Ridd. They won’t. And they could end all Australian Research Council and other grants to all parts of universities other than the hard sciences and medicine. Why? Well, ask yourself this. If you are a politically right-leaning academic in the Arts or social sciences what are the odds your ARC grant proposal will get accepted? (Go and look at what does get accepted and come back to me.) Leave aside the massive costs involved in setting up and running the university bureaucracies to compete for these grants and the stifling managerialism they generate in their wake. The end- product funded with your taxes is bad. It’s doubly bad because today’s universities promote academics largely on grant-getting – to be blunt, if you’re a right-leaning academic with right-leaning interests you are at a huge disadvantage, a fact I think goes a small way to explaining the dearth of conservative academics. Get rid of all public money grant-giving in the non-hard sciences and medicine and you’d at least make a start on fixing parts of our universities.

But then that would require a Coalition government that cared. So second best is probably to enjoy a bit of that schadenfreude mentioned above while despairing about what’s happened to parts of our universities.

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