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40 responses to “Are the Humanities dying? II”

  1. patrickg

    Good post Mark, and really nice to see some nuance in this argument that is all too often lacking. 🙂

  2. Tatyana

    A very interesting post. I’m intending to return to it again later. I’m particularly intrigued by the question you pose about the ‘universality’ and ‘transculturality’ of research in the humanities.

    I’m a bit confused by one minor item, though, your use of the term ‘humanistic scholarship’, as pertaining to research in the humanities, and as being distinct from ‘Humanism’. At one point, early on, you are referring to the ‘humanistic’ process of reasoning, and I’m assuming you are referring to the various methodologies/processes used in humanities research?

  3. p.a.travers

    I guess that last sentence meant crawling to Government,and, or, Politicians being chosen as Academics!?I remember Bob Carr disturbing many with his insistence on Shakespeare.Strange how in the days of the Shake,it wasn’t exactly a Democracy and Labor representing who knows who politics!Maybe a correlation exists between the State of N.S.W. politics dominating and the standards going down.Where Shakespeare studies could of consisted validly by travelling actors,puppeteers and orchestral perfomance.That Pom stuff has merit,as long as people don’t drone on about it as be all and end all of English.As Carr dreamt he was Chaucer.How many hours in a life have people got to be distracted by the preenings of the Carr!?Also a self claimed expert on the U.S.A. and history.No doubt he will be in Melbourne Town to dance with Queen Hilary Clinton the First.And put his hand on her back,something like that other fellow did,what is his name…Keating!Expert on all things Napoleonic and time pieces.

  4. John Harrison

    Yes, always encouraging to see some nuance in the debate. Thanks Mark. The other interesting aspect of Antipodean higher education is the marginalisation of theology (divinity) in both the foundation of the institutions (cf both UK and the US) and in the curriculum. Notre Dame and ACU are still marginal. The vacuum was, of course, filled by the state, which is why we have the instrumentalist Smart State ideology dominating higher education here in Queensland.

  5. Terry

    Contrary to the truculence of @5, I certainly get the point here, Mark, that expansion of the higher education system in the 1960s and 1970s was linked to the rise of cultural nationalism on the one hand, and the turn to the left of the humanities and social sciences in Australia. I’m not sure where the urge of people to be insulting like that comes from.

    Anyway, I’ve followed both LP posts and the comments, as well as Graeme Turner’s initial contribution, and had some observations. One is that “the humanities” is not well defined in the debate at all. This is partly because the line between humanities/social sciences becomes blurry at several points, as does that between the humanities and the creative & performing arts.

    There are also areas within these fields that are clearly booming. The whole media and communications area is one, along with related professional degrees. Whether or not one welcomes these developments, they clearly don;t fit the “humanities is dying” meme. Having attended Graeme’s talk, I was also struck by the extent to which he disavowed a series of successful funding initiatives that he has actually had a role in, in order to fit the theme of things largely getting worse over the last 20 years.

    Finally, your point on Raewyn Connell’s work is interesting. Having read a lot of R. W. Connell in the 80s, I haven’t read “Southern Theory”, but I wonder if the term “Global South” may be being used in two quite different ways. One is to play the rich North/poor South theme, but the other is of course that the emerging economies – sometimes called the BRICKS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, Korea and South Africa) are now outperforming the EU nations and the US. Australia is hooked into the second wave in a number of ways – and it is pretty apparent how in the universities – but that would not make Australia a part of the “Global South” if what Connell is referring to is a critique of the dominant Anglo-European traditions.

  6. Terry

    I see that the truculent comment was dropped. I’d never refer to John Harrison as being truculent.

  7. Russell

    “It could be contended that a particular image of the idea of the university – ensuring the transmittability of the heritage of human letters – had only partial resonance in the Australian context, and enjoyed its moment in the sun only for a few decades.”

    Yet the CAE’s were set up with just that distinction – no heritage of human letters required there. And when Murdoch Uni was set up (I think it opened about 1975) it was named after the still living Prof Walter Murdoch, who had been Professor of English at UWA for many years. Even as recently as that, the traditional humanities, and a Professor of Humanities, could be so well respected that a new university would be named after him.

  8. Huggybunny

    As every-one knows I am totally glib and insensitive and have no right to comment upon culture and stuff. I did have a couple of children’s books published but that was in a moment of extreme weakness. In my youth, when not fighting coppers at Melbourne Uni and Latrobe I sub-edited a leftish journal and wrote for a student newspaper. It was during this period that I learned of the Ern Malley affair http://jacketmagazine.com/17/ern-dl.html

    The confections that emerged are published to this day with approval in both Australia and the UK.

    To me at the time The EM affair seemed to prove that the arts and culture establishment was peopled with wankers, so I abandoned a (promising?) career as a film maker and took up technology.
    Oh well.

  9. Labor Outsider

    This is an open question. By what metric can the humanities be said to be dying rather than changing or experiencing a relative decline (with very mixed experiences across disciplines within the humanities)? I popped on to the DEEWR website and according to their data in 2009 of the 134 odd thousand full time equivalent students enrolled in public universities, 34,000 were enrolled in courses that fit into the broad theme of society and culture (I know this is broader than what some would define as the humanities), or 26% of the total. Although I don’t have the time series to back up my next assertion (am therefore happy to be corrected). I imagine that if one charted a time series of the proportion of the Australian population with an undergraduate education (or post graduate) in the humanities or arts, today’s proportion would be very close to a historic peak. The share of university students undertaking arts courses has probably declined (though it appeared to increase its share in 2009), but because access to university is so much broader today than even 25 years ago, man more Australians have some experience of an arts education than was the case even in recent history.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do know about and understand the tumult that many “arts” departments have experienced over the past decade or two, but I don’t buy the idea that the humanities are dying. There will always be significant demand for a liberal arts education, even if there are significant changes over time in which branches of the arts are favoured (by students/administrators/etc). For example, it is hard to see the relative decline of the classics reversing.

    One question I have is whether Australia’s emphasis on specialised undergraduate degree programs has hurt the humanities in an era in which students are more focused on employability. I’ve often thought that Australian students often specialise far too early (and before they really understand what education is about and what they are best suited to focusing on). I’ve always liked the model of education where at least the first year of a university course is very general and all students are forced to take subjects across a broad range of disciplines. Of course, only a small proportion of students need to, or will want to go on and specalise in the humanities (especially at the post-grad level) but all students could benefit from at least some exposure to the ideas, perspective and critical approach to thinking and learning that are the core of the humanities. That is especially the case given that high school education has such a weak emphasis on the humanities (outside of english, some history and some languages) that most students graduate with inadequate exposure to it.

    From a personal perspective I found the history minor I did as part of my economics degree very valuable and for a while I considered making it my major. But in the end, the greater demand for economists in public policy circles (and thus my risk aversion) won out.

    Mark (and others), I’d be interested in your thoughts on what the way forward might be?

  10. Pavlov's Cat

    To me at the time The EM affair seemed to prove that the arts and culture establishment was peopled with wankers

    Huggy, the point there is that both the fictional character of Ern Malley and his poems, which were the work of real poets and which therefore needed to be good enough to look real, have survived through generations of popular interest and fascination and have continued to engage successive generations of readers. That is, they have stood the much-vaunted test of time. What does that tell you?

  11. Pavlov's Cat

    Ahem — ‘which were the work of real poets and were therefore in that sense “genuine”, and which were also a hoax and therefore needed to be good enough to look real …’

  12. paul walter

    ok, preliminary take.
    Since we are not going to be a nation with its own autonomy and identity, engaged in and participating in the world and compelled to do our own thinking and make our own decisons, we’d dumd down,it upsets the offshore hedge funds and foreign powers when educated local people get up and identify flaws in say, a Gunns type antic.
    Most upsetting, so we get rid of all the people capable of original thought, embrace free trade mantras that prioritise offshore interests before local and community ones, even in the face of evidence that identifies a particular development as worthless for locals and make sure that any one who might be able to spot global warming type problems (eg) in the current global system, is shut until the media and education are dumbed down to thepoint where these instances can’t be identified, or the problems associated with them, properly articulated.
    I wonder what Copernicus and Gallileo would make of a thread like this?

  13. Lefty E

    Well, I always make a point of telling my (sole) first year class that they have made an excellent decision in studying humanities/ social science. I inform them they will find interesting careers (although what sort of career is less knowable in advance than for other degrees – and that’s what brilliant about it); they will develop precisely the set of skills in communication, research, presentation and evaluation that oodles of employers want – and many other graduates simply don’t have; and that they will above all enrich their lives through the experience.

    They way they hang off every word – I can tell few others they encounter are engaging with them at that level. The fact is arts, communications sectors employ WAY more people than mining, forestry etc in this country. As Mark says, the “classics” are in trouble – but the wider field is booming.

  14. Paulus

    Lefty E,

    Could you please give me a list of these “oodles of employers”? Really, I’d love to know. (And don’t include the Federal APS, whose graduate programs, according to an article I read in the Fin Review, take 1-2% of applicants.)

    On second thoughts, don’t. I kind of derailed the last thread, for which I feel apologetic, and I don’t want to do the same again here.

    I completely agree about “enrich[ing] their lives through the experience”. I have no reservations about the value of an education in the humanities — but still, let’s not over-sell it.

  15. Mercurius


    Insisting that we should exclude the APS from a count of employers of Arts graduates is like excluding GPs from a survey of Medicine graduates. On what basis do you consider it a justifiable request?

    But anyway, let’s play the instrumentalist game, just for s**ts and giggles.

    The 2006 Census of Population and Housing found there were approximately 296,183 people whose main job in the week prior to Census night was in a cultural industry (classified by ANZSIC 1993)

    That figure dwarfs the number employed in Mining or Agriculture by about double.

    But don’t take my word for it, here’s the statisticians report.

    It shows, as I’m sure you were already aware, that mining employs about 2% of the labour force and agriculture about 4% both (both down from the 2001 census); while the domains where Arts graduates usually end up like education (7%), government admin (6%), retail trade (15%) and, heh, accommodation, cafes and restaurants (6%), were doing rather better.

    ‘Cultural and recreational services’ even rates a mention, at around 3% of the employed labour force.

    Heck, marketing alone accounts for ~120,000 jobs, about the same as mining and ag. sectors combined.

    Now, don’t you think what Mark and the commenters were discussing was waaaaaaay more interesting than this crap?

  16. tigtog

    I don’t want to contribute overly to a derail either, Paulus, but here’s some experience of my own dating back to the 80s (so things may have changed): merchant bank executive staff was chock full of humanities graduates. They didn’t want people who only knew economic theories, they wanted people who were highly observant and good at networking over chatty lunches with other merchant bankers so that they kept up with the rumour mill, and who had the capacity/skills to evaluate multiple sources of rumour via background research skills that involved more than just number crunching.

    Of course, if the supremacy of the bean counters has hit merchant banks like it’s hit most other institutions, then such skills might no longer be so valued as they once were. Possible correlation with some of the bizarre positions taken by some merchant banks over the last decade, and the economy-encompassing consequences, is left as an exercise for the reader.

  17. Rainbow

    Mark, thanks for this thoughtful post, I agree with others that it raises the level of debate. But I have to say from my perspective it isn’t quite true to my experience as an academic. I’ve been one for the past thirty years, having worked at several universities in Australia and the US and elsewhere.
    The problem with your post is that the global and most of all the anglophone academy is a unified system: it is true that there are important differences between the American, British and Australian institutional organization but at the level of scholarship/research they are remarkably seamless. The models and trends we use for our teaching and research are developed across the system (as well as., more intermittently, in France, Germany, and increasingly these days in some disciplines Asia) but of course they are mainly developed where the academy is biggest, richest and most efficient, ie in the States. There’s no getting round that, and it’s not, in my view, a bad—or a good—thing. It’s the way it is.
    This means that a concept like ‘southern theory’, while useful, is extremely limited. It also means that it seems to me pretty much just wrong to say that the wars of the sixties and seventies were about whether knowledge could be “british or australian”. I was very much involved in these “wars” and they were not about that at all, except on the margins. Basically they were a struggle between generations over whether and how something we can call “spirit of ’68” was going to reconstitute academic disciplinarity. They happened across the anglophone academy and beyond, if with varying virulence and with different outcomes. They were about feminism, race, postcolonialism, pluralism, structuralism/post-structuralism and also yes also about nationalism (the histories of “american studies” for instance and ‘australian studies’ pretty much mirror each other and it’s interesting that neither have been especially successful in establishing themselves as disciplines (I know self-interested parties will disagree with this.)). In Australia and then in the UK, but not so much in the US, these debates were caught up in the more or less continual restructuring of the university system from the eighties on (in Australia since the Dawkins report). These have ended up giving the system different disciplinary mixes in different countries, even if the core disciplines in the humanities and social science remain pretty similar across the anglophone system at least.
    So if you are going to try to make a successful academic career, even in a field like Australian history, you are going to have absorb mindsets that are produced internationally and which speaks, directly or indirectly, to academics across the global system as a whole. And you would be doing your students a disservice if you didn’t.

  18. conrad

    “There was an article by Patrick Weller and a colleague recently in the AJPS demonstrating that almost no Australian work is published in the political science journals ranked highest. That would largely be true of Sociology, too.”

    I haven’t seen that article, but that isn’t very surprising just from a numbers point of view — both political science and sociology are disciplines that have comparatively few people in them in Australia. I’m not sure what happened to political science, but I think it’s fair to say that sociology, which I think was once one of the biggest disciplines in the social sciences in Aus, basically got destroyed in terms of student and hence faculty numbers by other social science disciplines (mainly psychology and media studies, both of which have expanded a huge amount).

  19. Terry

    Interesting commentary on sociology teaching in Australia here:


    One debate that comes up is whether sociology is in decline because fewer people enrol for specialist three-year sociology courses than before, or whether its impact has now been diffused to a range of fields. For example, criminology/justice studies courses have large components of what is essentially the sociology of crime and deviance.

    Another issue raised was whether sociology numbers declined because of a reputation for being “gloomy”. Students did the first year sociology core unit, got a fairly depressing picture of Australian society, and moved on.

    Mark, on the UK exodus, its already happening. People had 18 months to prepare for a change of government, and while the Browne Report proposes a scorched earth policy for arts, humanities and social sciences in excess of what was being predicted, the general sense of what a Tory government would do to public funding for higher education was already in many people’s minds.

    The situation in Australia at present is not nearly as dire as it is in other places, UK, US.

  20. The Groke

    Lefty [email protected], Tigtog @19, I work in a small IT department and my immediate boss majored in classics, largely Aramaic, at university!

  21. Pavlov's Cat

    The ‘British or Australian’ thing was played out largely in my discipline of English Lit (ie Lit in English) where those who wanted to specialise in Australian literary culture and history had already had some practice in fighting the old guard before the theory wars hit, largely because Australian universities kept up their habit of importing English men to teach in Australian English departments until quite late in the piece. Aust Lit wasn’t taught as a university subject till as late as the 1970s, and before that (and, from many, afterwards as well) the attitude was ‘There’s no such thing as Aw-stralian littera-choor, haw haw, so I’m going to teach D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo instead.’*

    *True story

  22. Pavlov's Cat

    Oh for crying out loud, could some kind moderator turn those blockquotes at #24 into italic code while I make more coffee? Ta ever so.

  23. Sam

    High end employers, particularly in things like management consulting, will employer graduates of any discipline, provided they are smart. Particular technical knowledge gained at university becomes redundant or is forgotten within a few years. The ability to know how to think about problems one has not encountered before lasts a lifetime.

  24. akn

    Mark, it is with a fine sense of irony indeed that I see you cite Connell’s Southern Theory on this thread given that this doyenne of the left has, along with numerous other academic leftists, remained politically inert during the course of neoliberalism’s sustained and surgically accurate attack on academic standards and on those disciplines once previously noted for critical thinking. The mechanisms of such attack, already familiar to many white collar proletarians, involved over work, quantitative management and casualisation of the workforce. Megan Kimber’s article on casualisation titled article on casualisation draws ironically on the centre/periphery divide of Marxist dependency theory to describe the processes of casualisation on Australian campuses. As you would be aware this involved those academics able to to win research funding outsourcing their teaching responsibilities to casuals whose conditions of employment could, in some instances, only be described as viciously exploitative.

    So, I’d be more inclined to take Prof Connell’s “southern theory” about the global north/south divide in sociology seriously if there ever had been a serious commitment to address the same marginalising process as it played out at the University of Sydney over the last two decades.

    A classic case of the sort of ‘do as I say not as I do’ behaviour that has brought critical thinking into disrepute if not downright contempt in Australia.

  25. conrad

    “One debate that comes up is whether sociology is in decline because fewer people enrol for specialist three-year sociology courses than before, or whether its impact has now been diffused to a range of fields. For example, criminology/justice studies courses have large components of what is essentially the sociology of crime and deviance.”

    In my books, it’s both of those things, but with the balance still meaning that sociology has lost out. Basically, sociology got stygmatized as a left-wing loony subject (it probably still is stygmatized like that — if you advertize degrees as “Social Science” in universities, for example, it will lower the entrance TER compared to “Science”, even if the subjects are identical), so the disciplines that could split off did (e.g., demographics). Other disciplines, like psychology, didn’t get so stygmatized, and also offered more obvious career paths, so not surprisingly they won out (even moreso now with all of the government rebate stuff and the far greater accetability of psychology related things).

    A problem now for sociology is that of those groups that did split off (e.g., criminology, demographics), some have split off into places that don’t care as much about the sociology (e.g., criminology into psychology, demographics into biology), which means that the sociology content of those areas is likely to be diluted compared to if they existed within sociology.

  26. Katz

    Raewyn Connell:

    Fourteen years ago, when I began this work, I aimed simply to correct a historical error – the textbook belief that sociology was invented to explain the new industrial society of Europe. I found that the creation of sociology was in fact closely bound up with the cultural problems of imperialism (sociology originally concerned “progress” and centred on a contrast between “primitive” and “advanced” societies). Without intending to, this piece of historical research opened up other questions about the relations between social science and world society.

    This is a fascinating and, if true, enormously important insight into the history of the discipline, and by extension, the history of cultural perspectives. Let me say that I have no reason to disbelieve it and that it chimes well with what I think I know about the history of imperialism.

    However Mark Banisch:

    Raewyn Connell’s magisterial Southern Theory has implications going beyond its remit in the social sciences. Connell contends that the Antipodean academy has to rethink its knowledges from its location in the Global South, rather than accepting the theoretical and epistemological postulates of the European and British metropoles.

    I don’t get the sense that Connell seeks to place the Australian academy in the “South” in the cultural and/or geopolitical sense of that term.

    Rather, she is attempting to discredit the creation myths of the discipline of sociology in order to show how deeply implicated the discipline was in the imperial project. In other words, she does not seek a “South” sociology to supplement the “North” sociology. Rather she wishes to dismantle large parts of the dominant paradigm not only in the “South” but also in the “North”.

    And more power to her elbow.

  27. akn

    Katz: it is my view that the association between anthropology and colonialism,(see Diane Lewis), in which anthopology functioned as one element of the colonial enterprise, mirrors the association between sociology and colonialism. Philippa Levine for examlpe writes here of an orientalist sociology clearly implicated in ongoing colonial subordination. So, nothing new in Connell’s appraisal especially given the publication record of someone like Vandana Shiva except that it is being written by an Aussie somewhat belatedly discovering the need for third world solidarity.

  28. Terry

    Perhaps this is relevant to whether the humanities are dead yet:


  29. Tatyana

    Re MB @ 14: ‘Ironically, of course, the ERA model of ranking journals works against the incentive to investigate problems from a distinctly Antipodean point of view, given that the dollars and kudos follow the big American and UK journals.’

    This is an interesting point: ERA ranking privileges work published in high impact factor journals, and these are almost always US and UK-based and mostly published by global journal publishers, associated with scholarly societies via compulsory subscription models. (Their impact factor is related to the frequency of citation, so exposure and volume is almost as important as the quality of published research.)

    This whole business of ‘class A’ journals is a relative novelty in many areas of the humanities, and the concept is mainly translated from science. Even Australian medical journals can’t get to the citation levels of reputable US or UK equivalents, which doesn’t make the work published in them less relevant or of inferior quality. Some local peer-review journals (I can think of several in literature) are only just going through the process of appropriate classification.

    There’s a lot of truth in the suggestion that Australian-specific work done in some areas of the humanities will never get into highly ranked international journals. It’s hard to think of an appropriate solution.

    But, ‘Bring Out Your Dead’— how depressing.

    Also, an interesting follow-up on the ‘transcultural’ aspect of scholarship in the humanities @34.

    My thinking is closer to Rainbow @20, given that research methodologies and sources are shared and consulted internationally, but something to consider further …

  30. paul walter

    “Are the Humanites dying?”.
    Another one of these freeloader tribes (Jebusites, Moabites, Edomites) that Joshua wiped out, egged on by Yahweh, back in the second millenium BC?

  31. akn

    Mark, Marg Jolly says this about Southern Theory:

    In her recent book Southern Theory Raewyn Connell has challenged the domination of social theory by those in the metropoles of Europe and North America. She argues that this has entailed a view of the world from the skewed, minority perspective of the educated and the affluent, whose views are then perpetuated globally in educational curricula.

    Ironies multiply.

    For some classes of Australian academics everything, including class, was little more than a bourgeois parlour game and will ever remain thus. I cannot tell you how many times I witnessed the vicious cut down of genuine organic intellectuals by the snobs of the University of Sydney who embodied an entrenched feudal approach to privilege and knowledge at least the equal of Oxbridge. Liberation theory too has its false prophets. Treat them seriously at your own intellectual peril. But here is a hint: some academics, in a misplaced compensatory maneuver, choose as the focus for their study precisely what they lack as a person.

  32. Helen
  33. akn

    Thanks Helen. Very funny. I’m tempted now to make my own.

  34. Bob

    None of which provides evidence as to the value of humanities for society.

    Comparisons with the 19th century are not as relevant as you think, given that the majority of the population did not even attend high school, much less bother with humanities. Only those with the luxury of time and money could study philosophy, history, art, etc.