I closed my last post on the current state of the Humanities with this observation:
Left undebated, or perhaps just lightly sketched, is the question of whether humanistic scholarship has been its own worst enemy.
In adding some of my own observations, I want to make it very clear at the outset that I have no intention of participating in a set of futile arguments about “postmodernism”. I think, in many cases, the debate over so-called postmodernism is a proxy for controversies over the perceived dominance of various forms of identity politics in some corners of the American academy, and I think U.S. scholarship has in fact only lightly appropriated what are very often misreadings of “French theory” for philosophical and cultural impulses in fact quite indigenous to the structure of American culture and thought. If anyone actually stops to review the influence of postmodernism and post-structuralism (a quite different thing) on Australian thinking, a fair assessment would see it placed in a much more precise and limited perspective.
But that takes me to one question which I think is and can be rightly posed – the degree to which ‘humanistic’ processes of reasoning, research and pedagogy are somehow either universal or transcultural. The “heritage of Western civ” argument so prominent in US debates – still – is inflected in a different register in the Antipodes.
I’d draw attention to the motto of the University of Sydney here – Sidere mens eadem mutato. Sydney has, helpfully, a rather learned disquisition on its meaning on its website. I’d translate it something like “always the same knowledge under different skies”.
At the time the first universities were founded in Australia, the British academy (or perhaps rather the two “ancient” English universities) was itself in the throes of a transition from an Anglican institution which was the preceptor of a Classical tradition.
The original Parliamentary debates on the establishment of The University of Queensland, which I’ve had occasion to read, were interesting in that they represented a tension between a classical heritage and the production of useful knowledge; the tradeoff, if you like, for UQ’s foundation was a Classics Department being accompanied by utilitarian degrees of use to the state and corporate groups – Medicine, and the techniques of mining engineering and agricultural science being some of the things that legislators thought should be taught.
Without wishing to trace the complete history of Australian universities, it’s nevertheless significant to observe that both research degrees and the tutorial system were largely post-War developments. 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.
Seen through that lens, the return of a highly utilitarian orientation to knowledge is just that – not a revolution de novo, but a revolution closer to the sense in which that term was once applied – a transformation back to origins.
I’d like to set alongside that proposition the observation that the decades in which Humanism flourished also saw massive contestation over the degree to which the template for scholarship should be British or Australian – huge tensions in disciplines such as Philosophy and English have been quite well documented, as well as related methodological and epistemological controversies. For instance, the argument over whether the basis for study in English was philological was only resolved by default in the 1980s and 1990s as compulsory units in the history of the language and its cognates (Old Norse and all that) ceased to be taught.
The battlefronts within Arts Faculties in the 1960s and 1970s, then, were fought on two related fronts – for a more humanistic mode of disciplinarity leaving its origins in the prestige of German exemplars of the Nineteenth Century research university, and for a more nationalist orientation to the object of study. These culture wars avant la lettre also intersected with the political passions of the time, and the push for the democratisation of the university which was contemperaneous with its first wave of postWar expansion.
The state, too, in its cultural activity, and in its demands for particular knowledges, fostered the Australianisation of humanistic scholarship.
What perhaps was not fully entered into was the fundamental question of the standpoint of the production of knowledge. Here, 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.
The application of such a perspective to humanistic scholarship may be a step in rethinking what’s particular distinctive and particularly valuable about the Australian humanities. Her distinctive thought on the place of knowledge in a globalising and unequal world, though, clashes with the understanding prevalent in the State of the place of “skills”, “knowledge” and “innovation” in equipping Australians with the wherewithal to “compete globally”. And, as I’ve been suggesting, Australian universities have always been much more subsidiary to the influence of the State and to utilitarian perspectives on the value of learning than some of their counterparts internationally.