To what are the humanities relevant?

Education has two purposes: on the one hand to form the mind, on the other hand to train the citizen. The Athenians concentrated on the former, the Spartans on the latter. The Spartans won, but the Athenians were remembered.

Bertrand Russell (1931)


Corrupting the youth

The Australian Government’s proposal to double university fees for some arts courses was presented as making higher education more ‘relevant’ and students more employable at a time of crisis, but this rationale for the assault on the humanities is not new. When the perennial issue was raised fifty years ago, the educational philosopher Israel Scheffler asked ‘who, in his right mind, would wish learning to be irrelevant?’ and ‘if relevance is not relevant, what is?’ Of course, this was a way of posing his fundamental questions: ‘Relevant to what, how, and why?’

Writing in The Australian, Adam Creighton welcomed the government’s proposal, asking contemptuously: ‘Want to spent three years reading Foucault and dreaming about vandalizing Captain Cook statues? Fine, but don’t expect a cent from taxpayers.’ The reference to destroying statues is code for a fear of students’ iconoclasm that might seek social change by reverting to the activism of the 1960s. The student movement was part of developments that gave rise to such radical ideas as the peace movement, environmentalism, feminism, anti-discrimination and civil rights.

Leaving aside the absurd suggestion that the humanities incite vandalism, there is an acute irony in this taunt at philosophers today. In one of Plato’s dialogues, the sophist Callicles mocks Socrates in exactly the same way, saying that ‘if one studies philosophy they will have no knowledge of the practical things that concern men of affairs and the business life of the city’ and are, therefore, ‘ridiculous like those who play childish games.’ Of course, Socrates was condemned to death for challenging the official orthodoxies or ‘gods of the state’ and thereby ‘corrupting the youth.’ At his trial, in effect answering Creighton’s jibe, Socrates suggested that the state of Athens should indeed support him because his role as gadfly and critic is essential for a decent society.


McKinsey or von Humboldt?

The most common response to the government’s heavy-handed social engineering has been to suggest ways in which the arts and social sciences are, after all, useful in employment. For example, academic philosophers have protested the devaluing of their discipline which is, or at least may be caricatured as, the least practical or relevant of all. The signatories of ‘An Open Letter on the Importance of Protecting Philosophy’ complained that the government ‘ignores evidence that philosophy prepares students for an unpredictable and changing job market’ and that it ‘ignores evidence that employers already prize the very qualities’ developed by philosophy such as analytical skills and the ability to solve complex problems. The philosophers explain that ‘there is a strong case to be made that philosophy provides equal or better training than any other major’ for employment in the job market.

Like the kiss of Judas, this response betrays the humanities by tacitly accepting the assumption that it is their marketability, making students ‘job-ready’, which justifies the very existence of universities in general and of the humanities in particular. Tim Soutphommasane put forward a different view in the Sydney Morning Herald: Besides the practical values of a university education, he claimed, ‘there must remain a place for pursuing knowledge for its own sake … We must see education not as an extended exercise in economics, but essentially as an exercise in civilising the mind.’

This conception of a liberal education was articulated by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the wake of the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810 and became a model for the rest of Europe and the world. von Humboldt’s vision was based on key ideas of the Enlightenment and held that vocational training and skills should be taught alongside a cultivation of the mind and character. Recently, the philosopher and former German Minister of Culture Julian Nida-Rümelin remarked that the debate between traditional ideas and modern conceptions of education as preparation for the labour market is a choice between McKinsey and von Humboldt.

In the English speaking world the same ideals were articulated by Cardinal John Henry Newman in his classic The Idea of a University (1852). In Newman’s broad conception, education would not merely provide professional training but would permit students to develop moral character, creativity and intellectual virtues such as a dedication to the ideal of truth and an indifference to merely fashionable thought. He wrote that ‘knowledge is capable of being its own end’ and that the human mind is so constituted that ‘any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward’ which is desirable ‘though nothing come of it, as being itself a treasure, and a sufficient remuneration of years of labour.’

This view seems to have all but disappeared. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UNSW, Professor Claire Annesley has argued for instance that ‘the immense value of Arts and Social Science education is well established’ – by which she meant that the skills learned ‘are in strong demand from employers … Now, more than ever,
  businesses, organisations and industries across Australia need Arts and Social Science graduates to help shape global success.’

Ironically, Annesley went on to extol the virtues of ‘critical minds’ that learn ‘to challenge perceived wisdoms’ and ‘question orthodoxies’ but failed to challenge the neo-liberal orthodoxy and instrumental conception of education in the humanities.

Similarly, following recent plans to close the philosophy program at the University of West England, Professor James Ladyman protested that ‘philosophy and other arts graduates are no less employable than those from the sciences,’ and ‘the arts and humanities can be directly relevant to employment.’ He further noted the applicability of literature to the creative industries and the relevance of history to work in museums just as philosophy, too, can be relevant to the ethical problems arising for artificial intelligence and robotics. However, such specialised vocational opportunities would be available for a very few graduates in these fields, and Ladyman made no attempt to suggest how the rest of the philosophy curriculum might be applied directly to employment.

What job opportunities could be cited for students of Plato, Descartes, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Frege? Among the most popular courses I have taught for many years has been God, Life, the Universe and Everything. What conceivable relevance to becoming job-ready are the subtleties of St. Anselm’s Ontological Proof for the existence of God, or the Big Bang and Cosmological Argument for a first cause?

There is a certain mauvaise foi in the appeals to instrumental values and practical relevance. The reality is that most of the specific content of the humanities curriculum and its value are impossible to justify on instrumental grounds. In their hearts, academics know perfectly well that the importance and appeal of the great ideas of their discipline do not lie in their usefulness in any utilitarian sense. Moreover, the architects of philistine government policies, and apologists like Creighton, are unlikely to be persuaded because they know that other disciplines such as law, the sciences and even MBAs also teach critical thinking, communication skills, cogent argumentation and problem solving.

At the Open Day information desk, with their parents hovering, students invariably ask to what use they could put a philosophy qualification. They seem to be pleased by my usual reply: ‘Don’t ask that question.’ It’s not that philosophy graduates are not employable, I try to explain. On the contrary, the evidence is overwhelming that they are sought after by employers. However, students instinctively understand something that their parents and university managers have failed to appreciate: pandering to the claims of ‘relevance’ is a failure to respond to the students’ innate intellectual curiosity and a betrayal of the ideals on which universities were founded and which remain their raison d’être.


Learning outcomes

A few decades ago, in an early sign of these trends, universities embraced the corporate fashion for fatuous ‘mission statements.’ Management consultants were paid vast sums for re-branding the product with demeaning slogans like ‘Never stand still’. One academic wit pinned a cartoon of a hamster in a treadmill on his office door. In the same spirit, the course guide for every subject is required to list formulaic ‘graduate attributes and tangible ‘learning outcomes’ like soap advertisements for ‘smoother skin’ or breakfast cereal ‘to keep you regular.’

The value of a course on Plato is reduced to five keywords. The wonder is not that university managers think that such empty bureaucratic quality control is important but rather that academics conform obediently to such practices. As David Denby notes in Great Books, course guides give little indication that a subject such as literature ‘might offer extraordinary degrees of pleasure, that it might offer knowledge of an idiosyncratic, transcendent, and irreplaceable sort.’ The catalogue fails to convey the aesthetic case for literature. The ‘thrill of sublimity, of heart-stopping beauty, or excited access to a spiritually overwhelming realm, has been ruled out of existence.’

The aesthetic case for mathematics will be even more surprising. GH Hardy’s famous book A Mathematician’s Apology is described by the Cambridge scientist and novelist CP Snow as ‘the best account of what it was like to be a creative artist.’ Hardy remarks pointedly that the practical value of mathematics in its many applications ‘obtrude themselves on the dullest imagination.’ However, any genuine mathematician knows ‘that it is not on these crude achievements that the real case for mathematics rests.’

In a famous toast, Hardy declared: ‘Here’s to pure mathematics, may it never find an application.’ In fact, an apparently absurd and unimaginable non-Euclidean geometry devised by Riemann in 1854 turned out to be the best description of the universe in Einstein’s physics. Similarly, Alan Turing’s 1937 paper on an esoteric problem in the foundations of mathematics, the Entscheidungsproblem, had no conceivable purpose and would not have been funded today on the usual criteria of usefulness or contribution to national priorities. However, it conceived the foundations of the digital computer. The moral is that even the most useful discoveries can be driven by pure intellectual interest and curiosity of free individuals searching for truth.

It is striking that academics themselves have internalised the prevailing market ideology. Thus, another open letter addressed to Education Minister Dan Tehan and signed by 73 senior university professors in various disciplines shared the commercial framing of the problem.  This letter, too, quotes business leaders and repeats the refrain about the value of humanities for ‘creating a flexible, responsive workforce in an increasingly diverse economy.’

By contrast, appearing to take a more principled stance, the philosophers’ letter makes a token gesture to the contribution of their discipline to our liberal democracy. However, in his 1969 essay ‘Reflections on Educational Relevance’, Israel Scheffler warns that the idea of education as an instrument for the realisation of social goals ‘harbors the greatest conceivable danger to the ideal of a free and rational society’ no matter how worthy the social goals are thought to be. The goals must themselves be subject to criticism rather than accepted uncritically as tenets of faith. This is, after all, the lesson to be learned from the Presocratic founders of Western philosophy in Ancient Greece. As Scheffler observed, ‘if the fruit of knowledge is its use in life, it must be a life itself infused with a respect for knowledge and criticism.’


Job-ready graduates vs European supremacism

In The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, Benjamin Ginsberg points to the ‘development of an ever-expanding nonacademic curriculum’ of life skills subjects for credit. In Australia, one arts faculty, pre-empting government policies, has developed compulsory ‘Capstone’ courses designed to make students ‘job-ready graduates,’ even anticipating government terminology to marketise their product. In one egregious case, a course entirely devoid of intellectual content included a class on shaking hands at job interviews. Such Mickey Mouse courses have become part of the academic curriculum for which students pay exorbitant fees and which displace the already limited opportunity for serious scholarly engagement with ideas.

Although the same tendencies are evident in the United States – as documented by Ginsberg – the value of a humanities education is well understood where professional qualifications in law, medicine or engineering are post-graduate study following an undergraduate degree in the liberal arts. Prestigious institutions such as Columbia University in New York have compulsory undergraduate courses concerned with ‘Contemporary Civilization,’ essentially a survey of the Great Books of the Western Canon. Rather than learning to shake hands, students are required to read texts including Homer, Plato, Old and New Testament, Machiavelli, Dante, Hume and Kant, Shakespeare, Marx and Mill, and Beauvoir, among many others.

Of course, a curriculum limited mainly to dead white European males is fundamentally problematic. However, The critical tradition from Socrates through the writings of Mill and Marx has served to liberate students from the conventional pieties of modern politics precisely by inculcating a critical attitude, and even Edward Saïd – whose Orientalism is the foundational text of post-colonial studies, is enlisted by Denby as an opponent of ‘canon-bashing.’ Far from representing a ‘hegemonic discourse’ the writers of the canon ‘revised one another, quarrelled with one another, reversed one another’s assumptions.’

In Australia, the issue has been intensely debated with the initiatives to establish elite, privately funded programs for the study of Western Civilisation through the institution of Ramsay Centres. In an open letter, academics at the University of Sydney characterised the program as ‘European supremacism writ large’. Drawing on the very ideals of a liberal education, they wrote:

We are a university, not a training institute … Enquiry in the humanities must be free and conducted independent of the influence of third parties. It is in the nature of a true liberal arts education that it is undertaken for its own sake, independently of any intended instrumentalisation, whether political or social.

Paradoxically, enthusiasm for Ramsay Centres and the government’s assault on the humanities arise from the same impulse. As Soutphommasane recognises, the underlying motives are essentially ideological, motivated by suspicion of academic radicals who promote progressive ideas. Soutphommasane notes that Scott Morrison has spoken of his preference for compliant, quiet Australians who are ‘the very opposite of the kind of people who are formed through a liberal education.’ He writes: ‘By discouraging students from the arts, the government makes it clear it doesn’t see the virtues of certain kinds of citizenship.’ It is perhaps the dissident ‘Socratic citizenship’ described by Dana Villa in his book by the same name.

This idealised characterisation of a humanities education is, to some degree, a self-serving myth. However, behind the government’s policies is the fearful recognition that, in the word of Noam Chomsky, ‘in its relation to society, a free university should be expected to be, in a sense, ‘subversive’.’ Chomsky goes on to acknowledge that the demand to be ‘relevant’ is justifiable in a very general sense. However, he points out that in practice, as we have seen, this means that universities provide a service to maintaining institutions with power and privilege. Moreover, that ‘it is not difficult for members of the university community to delude themselves into believing that they are maintaining a ‘neutral, value free’ position when they are simply responding to demands set elsewhere.’ The need for a ‘subversive’ education as ‘intellectual self-defence’ is important because:

[Universities] are institutions for indoctrination and for imposing obedience. Far from creating independent thinkers, … [universities] have always, throughout history, played an institutional role in a system of control and coercion. And once you are well educated, you have already been socialized in ways that support the power structure, which, in turn, rewards you immensely.’ (Chomsky on Mis-Education)

In his 1973 essay ‘The Function of the University in a Time of Crisis’ , Chomsky wrote, invoking von Humboldt:

A free society should encourage the development of a university that escapes the not-too-subtle compulsion to be ‘relevant’ in this sense. The university will be able to make its contribution to a free society only to the extent that it overcomes the temptation to conform unthinkingly to the prevailing ideology and to the existing patterns of power and privilege.


Democratic decision-making

In Australia, the subordination to Callicles’ ‘men of affairs and the business life of the city’ has only become more evident since the publication of Coady’s book Why Universities Matter two decades ago. Coady already noted the erosion of traditional university values and practices and the rise of oppressive managerialism. Academic life, he observed, is overwhelmed with bureaucratic demands in a culture of surveillance and compliance, quantitative metrics, performance indicators and the complete disappearance of democratic, collegial decision making.

Not long ago, university departments and faculties were run through committee meetings where jobs to be advertised, selection committees, curriculum matters and other policies were decided by vote. Today, decision-making committees have been abolished and meetings are only for reporting management decrees. As Ginsberg attests, the phenomenon is not limited to Australia. Chris Lorenz notes that the relatively recent introduction of undemocratic managerial control over faculty is unprecedented in the history of universities in democracies worthy of the name and is ‘nothing other than the introduction of a culture of permanent mistrust.’

These policies have expunged academics’ professional autonomy and have necessitated a bureaucratic machinery to manage universities. As Lorenz goes on to argue, its typical consequence has been the rise of academic regulators and compliance bureaucrats, while Ginsberg has examined the rampant ‘managerial pathologies’ that have come to dominate universities with expanding bureaucracies at the same time as reductions of full-time academics. The prevailing culture of management by edict, audit and ‘quality control’ has reversed the previous tacit assumption that academics are competent and trustworthy and that they are motivated by their commitment to their calling as dedicated teachers and researchers. Unlike most other workplaces, universities derived mutual benefit from an arrangement in which academics are paid for something that they aspire to do excellently for its intrinsic motivations and rewards. Predictably, academics find the endless audit and compliance exercises, among other bureaucratic tasks, to be ludicrous and demoralising.

Lorenz points out that the paradoxical and disastrous consequence of managerial notions of accountability is that someone can be an excellent teacher and researcher and at the same time be assessed as poor by the ‘quality assurance’ system. My own inspiring teachers, such as legendary Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, would fail every modern metric of teaching excellence such as ‘constructive alignment’ and other meaningless, pseudo-scientific pedagogical precepts beloved by academic bureaucrats.


Academic freedom

Perhaps the most significant illustration of the destructiveness of corporate values at universities in Australia is the fact that tenure was abolished by our own academic staff association in exchange for a small salary increment. This was a self-inflicted, fatal blow to the most fundamental principle of university life. Pious talk today of ‘academic freedom’ is now empty since the sole protection has been destroyed. The safeguard of ‘permanence’ is meaningless since sackings and redundancies are now commonplace on the grounds of financial pressure, restructuring, redundancy or other pretexts such as ‘performance management.’ As US literary scholar Jacques Barzun noted in The American University (1993), ‘a wrongful dismissal can always be passed off as having nothing to do with academic freedom.’ Indeed, in Australia there have been cases of harassment and sacking on openly political grounds concerning the expression of views regarded as disrespectful and offensive. In the United States, tenure has been based on the model of judicial appointments (designed to protect independent and unpopular judgments) and has been regarded as a hallmark of higher education and an inviolable principle of the academy, essential to the quality of a first-rate university. Hofstadter and Metzger’s classic The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (1955) has been described as ‘the closest thing to an official scholarly response to the danger of McCarthyism from the university world’.

For the reasons just noted, the most remarkable feature of the Australian government’s 2019 French Report on academic freedom is the almost complete absence of any mention of tenure. In 300 pages, the issue is only mentioned in passing in the section on academic freedom in the United States. The Report gives a comprehensive survey of the history of debate about academic freedom in Australia and records widespread complacency among Universities about the adequacy of current protections of academic freedom and the conviction that there is no need for further government regulation.

In fact, the Report records earlier concerns by a 2001 Parliamentary committee which concluded that academic freedom was under threat since ‘universities cannot be relied on to maintain their own internal inquiries when serious issues arise which go to the core of academic freedom.’ Specific grounds for such concerns were said to emerge from ‘the rise of managerialism in universities in Australia and consequential effects upon collegiality, freedom of expression and academic freedom.’ Remarkably, the committee referred specifically to the fact that ‘the new managerial culture is now so entrenched that universities have an instinct to stifle uncomfortable opinions of a kind usually associated with academic institutions.’ Recent events at UNSW involving officials deleting a politically controversial Tweet have demonstrated the tendency warned against by the Parliamentary committee:

They have an understandable tendency to place the value of the university’s reputation before their obligation to protect the rights of its faculty members to free expression. This tendency arises from a disregard for what universities should stand for. Some university administrators may have never understood this. Others may have forgotten.

The earlier Parliamentary committee reached no view as to whether statutory protection of academic freedom was necessary. The French Report recommends a ‘Model Code’ whose objects include the following goal: ‘To ensure that freedom of speech and intellectual inquiry as aspects of academic freedom are treated as paramount values by the university.’ The Report also recommends that the relevant Parliamentary Act replace the terms ‘free intellectual inquiry in learning, teaching and research’ with the terms ‘freedom of speech and academic freedom.’ However, this is purely cosmetic to disguise the absence of real protection behind the ‘paramount values.’

The test of institutional and legal protection of academic freedom is whether academics may be dismissed for anything less than ‘gross misconduct,’ in other words, as Barzun remarked, in ways that can be passed off as having nothing to do with academic freedom. In Australia there have been sackings that were not even disguised but directly based on the controversial views of the academic in question. These realities are not mentioned in the French Report itself although they are listed among other more or less serious infringements in one of the submissions to the Committee provided as an Appendix. Those cases are sufficient to demonstrate that the only real protection of academic freedom has been lost and the rhetoric about ‘paramount values’ is empty.



Loss of tenure, bloated university administration, burgeoning of casual staff with no rights, and students trapped by increasing debt all conspire to ensure passivity and subordination to the demands of the economy. Cost-cutting according to market principles leads to the exploitation of vulnerable, precarious casual lecturers – usually graduate students – replacing full-time academics. In light of the recent government announcement, it is sobering to read Coady’s remarks two decades earlier concerning how political leaders of both major parties sought to dismantle our traditions ‘in the name of managerial and economic efficiency.’ Prophetically, Coady noted their ‘pretence that universities are merely business corporations’ and, therefore, that ‘universities should aim to become predominantly (and perhaps eventually, totally) self- funding.’ The planned sharp rise in tuition today reflects a familiar attitude characterised by Ronald G Ehrenberg, director of Cornell Higher Education Research Institute and a trustee of the State University of New York:

There has been a shift from the belief that we as a nation benefit from higher education, to a belief that it’s the people receiving the education who primarily benefit and so they should foot the bill.

Writing in the Harvard Educational Review on ‘Neoliberalism, Corporate Culture and the Promise of Higher Education,’ Henry Giroux, observed in 2002 that

The overt corporatization of university leadership … the creeping vocationalization and subordination of learning to the dictates of the market – has become an open and defining principle of education at all levels of learning.

He also noted the prescient remarks of a US business executive attacking traditional academic practices and suggesting that universities should model themselves after successful private corporations by downsizing, increasing academic workloads as well as abolishing tenure, democratic governance and forms of knowledge without instrumental relevance. In Australia, these ‘reforms’ have all been instituted or tolerated by academics themselves.

The trends which are destructive of liberal education ideals must be understood not as aberrations, but rather as tendencies that have always been inherent in educational institutions. As Bertrand Russell remarked, ‘a certain percentage of children have the habit of thinking; one of the aims of education is to cure them of this habit.’ Recognising this, we need to ensure that the primary task of university education is not to make students job-ready, but to create critical, informed, and humane citizens, and a society in which the ideals of free inquiry are themselves the main measure of relevance.


Image by Natalia Y

Peter Slezak

Dr Peter Slezak is Honorary Associate Professor of Philosophy in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales. He is currently writing a book titled Spectator in the Cartesian Theatre.

More by Peter Slezak ›

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  1. What an erudite articulation of the heart of this matter and it’s history.
    Thank you also for all the wonderful quotes.
    The prognosis can’t be good. Not least because any evaluation of government policy in the media never examines the values on which policy is based. There seems to be an assumption we are all on board, and those who are not are fringe dwellers, subversives, extremists.

  2. Our child has chosen to study Fine Arts and Philosophy. We are pleased with the choice as it fits our child’s personal interests and talents. Others constantly ask: but what job will you do at the end? We try to encourage, saying “follow your interests (or heart)” for the sake of education. In the way of the modern world our child is already working two jobs while studying, so there are no fears about capacity for vocation. Nevertheless, the pressure to think vocationally – even from peers -prompts self-doubt and unnecessary stress. The fact that younger peers will have to pay exorbitant HECS to do the same is obscene and demonstrably anti-education.

  3. What was that? You are representative of a drain on society. What tangible benefits can any humanities professors or academics point out here in Australia as their unique contribution to the well being of its citizens?

    You love to talk about lofts ideals but you have no track record of contributing to society.

    The government is right. Down with the humanities.

    1. One thing studying the humanities can help develop is that sort-of pause button between the brain and the fingers which is so important in distinguishing writing (what Dr Slezak has engaged in here) from typing …

  4. What tangible benefits? is a great question – better than what job does it lead to? I dunno about others, but on my list is: democracy, freedom of speech, legal justice, universal education, minimum working age and other regulations against child exploitation, women’s rights to equal treatment, human rights, freedom from discrimination, environmental, medical and corporate ethics, psychological knowledge as a precursor to mental health treatment, dictionaries of all types of languages, political sciences, interpretation of history and archeology, understanding of Indigenous cultures, the emergence of new ways of thinking…. everything that contributes to the wellbeing of a free, fair and enlightened society, I reckon. And I haven’t even mentioned the many enjoyable benefits of the Arts!

  5. An excellent piece.
    When I graduated BA from Sydney University some years ago now, the occasional address was given by the then SU Professor of Classics, whose name I unfortunately forget. But he told an interesting story.
    He was formerly Professor of Classics at the University of Manchester. He was visited one day by a prominent cotton miller, who asked him if he would be so good as to supply him with the names and details of his four best classics graduates. The professor said: “Certainly. But would you mind telling me why?”
    “Because I want to offer each of them a job.”
    “Well, that’s good. But please tell me: what has classics got to do with cotton milling?”
    Came the reply: “I can teach them all they need to know about the cotton business inside a week. But I need people who can think.”
    After my BA I went on to spend a working lifetime studying and then teaching natural sciences. But what I learned from the study of philosophy was an invaluable foundation for the rest of it, and I strongly recommend it for all students, academic and otherwise.

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