Oh the humanities, critically wounded in the culture wars

This obsession with the culture wars and identity politics is distracting the Coalition and its right-wing supporters from the main story. It is not identity politics but the shrinking of humanities and social science faculties and curriculum across the country that is the biggest threat to our young people’s education, preventing them from studying the cultural riches of the past and knowing much about world history.

Oh the humanities, critically wounded in the culture wars

The humanities have been wounded in the culture wars.Credit:AP

It has always puzzled me why the perennial discussions about problems in secondary education and declining standards do not also consider what is happening in university arts faculties that provide many teachers with their disciplinary knowledge in history, literature, media, drama, politics, geography.

If the teachers are less well-trained than previously, is it surprising that there is less rigour in our secondary schools?

In January it was reported that only 38 per cent of Year 10 students who took the most recent national civics and citizenship assessment demonstrated proficient knowledge of Australia’s system of government and the workings and values of democracy. Might this not have something to do with fewer Australian politics subjects being available for prospective teachers to study than a decade ago?

If Minister for Education and Youth Alan Tudge is really interested in improving the performance of Australia’s teachers, he should revisit the bizarre fee schedule his predecessor, Dan Tehan, introduced late last year, with its massive increase in fees for most humanities and social science subjects.

Defending his fee-schedule, then minister Tehan said that the government wanted to encourage students to enrol in degrees that would make them “job ready”. The implication was that non-vocational disciplines in the humanities and social sciences were of little relevance to a young person’s future working life.

Degrees were made cheaper for science and engineering courses.

Degrees were made cheaper for science and engineering courses.Credit:Karl Hilzinger

So let’s look at the last six weeks of rolling revelations about the misogynistic, sexist and bullying culture of the national Parliament, most of it implicating Coalition parliamentarians and their staff. The problem we are told is “the culture”. Disgraced Queensland Coalition MP Andrew Laming is to undergo empathy training, as are National Party parliamentarians. Empathy training aims to help people see things from another’s perspective, in this case, a woman’s.

The study of culture is the central business of an arts degree and one of the skills it develops is empathy.


Reading novels and poetry, studying history, discussing films, performing theatre pieces, all these require one to think hard about how other people experience the world and why. It’s not easy. One needs to take into account their historical and social context, their personal experiences, attributes and beliefs, their fears and aspirations.

One needs to put oneself in another person’s shoes. This is just the skill set in which too many Coalition members have been exposed as spectacularly deficient. So who said arts degrees are not relevant to the workplace?

Judith Brett is a political historian. A version of this article was first published in the March issue of The Monthly.

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