[The context for this article is the action by the Australian government in 2020 to discourage the study of the humanities by reducing the cost to students of studying the sciences and increasing the cost for study of the arts and humanities.]
Universities exist for the benefit of the whole community, including those who will never have the privilege of studying at one. Everyone benefits from thriving humanities departments – but these departments can’t fund themselves.
The greatest difficulty in deciding how to fund universities is that students, academics and prospective employers are not the only stakeholders. Universities exist for the benefit of the whole community, including those who will never have the privilege of studying at one.
It is easy to see how medical and scientific research benefits the community. It is easy to see how training engineers and computer programmers and nurses benefits the community. We can justify funding universities to do these things without even thinking about the interests of students and academics.
What about the humanities? Does the community benefit from funding research and teaching in history and philosophy and the arts?
Under reforms to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme which were legislated last week, university students will be required to contribute considerably more to the cost of taking subjects in many fields in the humanities (though not all) and the government will contribute less. The reforms are intended to encourage students to pursue study that will make them ‘job-ready’ and the Minister for Education believes that many subjects in the humanities do not belong in this category.
The reforms will bring much grief to many students and also to many academics, if students are deterred from taking their courses. Still, if the humanities were of interest only to some students and a few academics and did no good for the greater community, a government which asked students to pay more for the privilege of studying them might be doing something reasonable.
But this is not the case. The humanities do benefit the community.
Not all of the humanities will be treated equally under the government’s intended contribution to the humanities, broadly understood. For the question of why the humanities should be funded never goes away.
The most important contribution the humanities make is to the advance of public morality.
Earlier this year, an eminent philosopher and former Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, D.H. Mellor, passed away. Announcing his passing, a well-known blogger in the profession drew attention to words which he had written in opposition to the view that the humanities deliver nothing comparable to the immense improvements in health and standards of living which the sciences have made possible. The words were striking, in part, because Mellor himself had trained as both a philosopher and an engineer.
Mellor acknowledged the remarkable achievements of science but added:
that these benefits, while still far from universal, are as widespread as they are, is due not to science but to social developments, like the end of slavery, the protection of children, the spread of education, democracy and the rule of law, respect for human rights, fair and honest trade, and so on. These are products of developments not in science but in the humanities: in ethics, economics, social, political and legal theory—and in the arts, as in novels, like Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, whose public impact destroyed schools like its dreadful Dotheboys Hall.
Investing in the humanities is investing in moral progress. It is a vast community indeed which profits from that.
The humanities make two other unique contributions.
First, they help us to better understand the momentous events of our communal and personal lives.
In 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American elected President of the United States. The significance of the moment was best articulated by his opponent, John McCain, by drawing on history in his magnificent concession speech.
McCain reminded us of the incident in 1901 when Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House. Washington was an educator and writer, a leader of the African American community, and an advisor and friend to Roosevelt.
It was, as McCain said, ‘taken as an outrage in many quarters’. Press and politicians from southern states, which would long remain segregated, responded with indignation to the President treating an African American man as an equal. Vile things were said and printed.
Now, an African American would go to the White House as President.
For Americans and many others, McCain’s perfect historical allusion added meaning to an event which everyone already knew was profoundly significant.
As individuals and in small groups within the community, we turn to the humanities at the most intense times of our personal lives too.
The greatest grief most of us suffer is when we lose people who are close to us. We search for comfort for ourselves and words to comfort others. We find consolation in different places, but often in verse – in such words as these, read daily at funerals, from Cymbeline:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages … .
And one need be no believer to find comfort in the thought that a loved one has had their time, however curtailed; made such contribution as they could; and will endure no more trials.
The second, unique contribution of the humanities is one we will not always welcome: they remind us of what is horrible about humankind.
I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.
We find these lines in Erich Maria Remarque’s historical novel about the First World War, All Quiet on the Western Front. The protagonist’s misery brings the reader to despair but it is the thought that the ‘abyss of sorrow’ was the needless creation of humans which makes one feel physically sick.
Even more confronting are these words from the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, her book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the chief orchestrator of the Holocaust:
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.
It is harrowing to turns one’s mind to this, but we all know we must confront it. Especially if we think of ourselves as normal.
There is much to celebrate about humanity – including its achievements in expanding knowledge by applying the scientific method. But it is salutary, sometimes, to look in the mirror and see a monster. We cannot do this without history and philosophy and literature.
Academics must always remember who we are supposed to serve: the whole community, including those with no direct connection to universities. We must remember this in deciding what research to do and what to teach. But governments must also remember that universities are meant to serve the whole community. This is why they should support the humanities: because the humanities do contribute to the whole community and – critically – they make contributions which they alone can make.
This article was first published in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations on October 16, 2020