The bonfire of the humanities
The words are stretched across the side of the red-brick northern extension of RMIT University in Melbourne, a huge banner that could not be more succinctly self-parodic if it tried: “Don’t study problems, solve them.” The advertisement is for the institution’s engineering courses, an obvious punk move – one whole side of a uni dissing the very idea of reflection, analysis, contemplation.
Ha, ha, we get it: you have our attention. But it’s a measure of where we’re at with the state of higher education in Australia that such a militantly anti-intellectual slogan even suggests itself as a way of selling courses. RMIT was once the Working Men’s College; people came there after 12-hour shifts, not merely for technical courses, but for literature, art and history. The distance from that place to that banner describes the long arc of Australian academic life.
But what is on display in this display? The mere commodification of higher education we have all been banging on about for decades? Or something deeper? Has the university been so transformed that what was once the base for a critical resistance to encroachment by the market – the humanities – has become part of that problem? How do we change this?
To suggest that the university has never been anything other than its ideal form – a free space for infinite, unbounded thought – would be naive. Plato’s academy of young noblemen came to the amazing conclusion that an elite should rule society, and that men were pretty hot stuff. The philosopher Hegel said that the rise of the Prussian state was the fusion of rationality and reality, gained a chair in philosophy, and announced that the moment of his election to the position represented the end of philosophy and history. Even the Whitlam government, blessed be its memory, advanced an idea of the university that drew it back somewhat into the function of technocratic reform, rather than fundamental inquiry.
Whitlam’s transformation was to the end of social equality and social justice. So, too, was John Dawkins’ creation of an internal market model in the late 1980s, though many find this hard to believe. The massive expansion of the tertiary sector during the Dawkins era, and the elision of tech institutes and universities, set us off on the wild ride we are still on (as usefully documented by Stuart Macintyre et al in No End of a Lesson, their recent history of the sector). Resistance by the humanities was greeted with exemplary punishment – the cheapest courses to teach, they were crowded with tens of thousands of new students and deprived of the funding to cater for them.
As the ’90s wound into the 2000s, the sheer numbers not only overwhelmed faculties struggling to keep up, but began to transform and deform teaching. Courses that had been pillars of the humanities faculty – classics, philosophy – came tumbling down. Within courses, a mix-and-match approach was offered to keep student numbers up, and graduates could thus emerge without an understanding of the continuous history of their subject. There would be English grads who had never read Milton, even though everyone else they studied had. The necessary questioning of the high/low culture distinction collapsed into a refusal of all judgement. The right pushed for more privatisation, more fees, and the model of the “student as customer”. When these customers decided to study movies and hip-hop instead of the canon, the right complained about the decline of Western civilisation. More recently, with the rise of the “Melbourne model” and online video lecturing in multi-campus universities, the reverse has occurred: a winnowing of all particularity, on the pretext that the faculty system had become unmanageable.
Yet all this has been sanity compared with what happened at the higher research level. Pummelled by political and other pressures, peak body research heads changed priorities every five years, lurching from awarding grants based on every published article an academic produced in whatever forum to excluding everything except multiply cited contributions to the Journal of Meta-Econometrics. Then came the current emphasis on collective projects and blockbuster productions that might move universities up the global league tables.
Academics are driven to distraction by this process. Postgraduates and junior academics accept it as the price of a career, which now, nevertheless, involves years or decades of precarious short-term contracts, and huge marking and administrative loads. Their students are increasingly people who don’t want to be there, but have to be, because grade inflation has set in. Now you “need” a bachelor’s degree for a high-school graduate job, a master’s degree for a bachelor’s job, and a graduate diploma for something that often could and should be learnt on the job. Students stagger out with five- and six-figure debts, to load on more of it when they buy a home, yoking them to invariant work for decades. Big University and Big Finance essentially cooperate in that most vital task of a flagging capitalism, the production of perpetual scarcity. Rising academics must publish relentlessly in micro-journals run by mega-publishing concerns who sell access back to universities at gross charges, and around we go. “Publish or perish” once meant that you had to put out a steady but well-spaced series of works to advance. Now it seems to mean a continuous expulsion of huge volumes of text, like an earthworm processing soil, the differentiation between mouth and anus depending largely on direction of travel.
This material form of the humanities has in turn deformed the production of ideas. In the 1980s, post-structuralism – the argument that texts do not contain stable meanings, but rather that indefinitely many interpretations are possible, and that there are no overarching simple “true” theories of the world – challenged received wisdom and quite legitimately so. But such a questioning approach rapidly crudified, because it was such a useful machine for the production of short texts: a theory that said there was no big theory, and contradictory notions did not need to be reconciled.
This has now fused with the notion of “intersectionality” – that social division and oppression can be added up as a series of categories, around gender, race, sexuality, class, et cetera. Once again, a legitimate approach; once again the source of a blizzard of categorisation, when attached to a text production machine, with junior academics working their way through the traces. Conferences have become boring catalogues of ranked oppressions, with diminishing emancipatory content. The one argument rarely made is that one process – whether it be class and production, or gender and reproduction, or whatever – may come prior to the others and be determinative of them. Theory has become anti-theory, steering us away from a testable view of the world that would orient political and social action, to an endless description of multiple oppressions, invoking a utopia as its other, and policing discourse and attitude in that spirit.
Many academics, especially those of Gen X, who joined when academia was a real and radical proposition, now find that contemporary academia is, paradoxically, the very worst place to be if what you want is time for sustained reflection. Many in a younger generation have simply accepted Hegel’s pfennig: they see a life of academic production that may have a progressive and even radical edge, but is without a horizon of wider emancipation. They seek to prosper in the belly of the leather Eames chair, marking up journals called things like Space, Gender and Discourse; to take part in the global grand procession of conferences, as nobles once followed monarchs from keep to keep; to ask questions within their sub-subdiscipline, and none elsewhere; to solve problems rather than study them. The promise is one of power and prestige, as the knowledge class rises, combined with a mystique – as much a construction of the right as the left – around the outsider intellectual, now long gone as a class, from the academy.
The problem is worse in Australia than almost anywhere else. In the United States, the billions of benefactions to the Ivy League and beyond, combined with a cultural orientation to the absolute, provides protection from ungrounding in the most marketised of societies. In Europe, a residual sense of a pre-capitalist autonomous culture preserves a mass appreciation of its value. In Australia, we have little such defence. We were a state before we were a society, and the state remakes us periodically. Had we a real respect for universities and what they do, the successive depredation of them – as much by cynical vice-chancellors and academics turned megalomaniac administrators as by anyone – would have given us a May ’68 redux by now. Instead, the machine hums on. Those who want to revive the genuine university will have to think of more radical ways in which to do so.
It may be that the state-integrated “university”, this mega-conglomerate, is now so distant from the ideal of the academy and the college that there is no longer the capacity to hollow out a space for reflection, liberation and depth of engagement within it. In that case, those who genuinely want to revive this in a neoliberal society – the deep slant of which is towards nihilism in every corner of social life – will have no choice but to create the spaces afresh, within the wider web of state assistance, but without the totalising grip of the contemporary anti-university system. That would be colleges and academies on a small scale and with modest offerings, and accredited for HELP and degree offerings. After all, you don’t need a pile of bricks to create a humanities academia. You need time and thought, and those not coincidentally are the only two commodities that are little offered beneath the contemporary university’s fluttering banners.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 19, 2018 as "The bonfire of the humanities". Subscribe here.