Reducing demand for Arts degrees is a step back for Critical Thinking

As you’re likely aware, the Australian Government recently doubled the cost of arts/humanities degrees. Its reasoning? Universities should focus on vocational degrees so students are job ready.

I did a humanities degree, majoring in English and history. And I’ve had a solid career. First as an editor, then as a communications consultant working in a variety of fields, from transport, environment and infrastructure, to education, finance and law.

Now the current ‘Liberal’ Conservative government has sent a clear message: My career and skills are worth less.

I have several friends who initially completed Arts degrees before moving on to Graduate Law. This is an avenue into law (or medicine) for students who weren’t as conscientious at school and didn’t receive the required university entrance rank.

Believe it or, some humans take a little longer to ‘mature’. Making sense of the world is no easy feat and many teenagers may feel it is the end of the road if they don’t have a super final year at school.

Now that other option, doing an Arts degree first then transitioning into law, medicine, economics or engineering – this option has been massively curtailed. Many bright students are going to miss out.

A couple of examples. My late friend Patrick specialised in criminal law from the angle of defence, where a particular emotional sensibility is required. He initially did an Bachelor of Arts majoring in Chinese. Another friend Kristin works as a lawyer for the Commonwealth Public Sector Union. His grounding in philosophy brings to his practice as a lawyer an understanding of broader societal and historical issues. Patrick and Kristin understand things don’t always exist in black and white. I have other lawyer friends who did not take humanities subjects. I do have stimulating discussions with them, but they are often opinionated and unwilling to see shades of grey.

It strikes me that the Conservative government is not only trying to make a quick buck (to protect its surplus which it sees as a vote winner); it is also engaged in an ideological struggle, a struggle against enlightenment and freedom of thought.

The art of critical thinking

My Arts degree taught me critical thinking. This involves not just reading a text and absorbing information, but actively engaging with the text, being aware of its origins, aware of author intent, the influence of editorial oversight and the pressure of pleasing an audience.

Critical reading is an important skill to foster in today’s social jungle where we are surrounded by constant messaging. Like ultraviolet radiation from the sun we are bombarded with advertising signals presenting certain fashion and lifestyle choices. When enough people adopt these choices they become directives, and anyone outside of the mainstream is a target for exclusion. Social media, where group-think reigns supreme, amplifies this herd mentality. We receive much of our news from social media in addition to more traditional channels such as television, radio and newspapers (which have now also migrated online).

We have learned to trust our newspapers and look up to them as authoritative sources. “I read this in the Guardian” or “I saw this on SBS” is enough to satisfy the casual merchant of knowledge that her opinions are facts!

Never mind the fact that our mass media led us into a blind, unwinnable and illegal war in the Middle East. We then murdered its leader and our media condoned it because capital punishment is fine when it is a foreign entity that is the target of our liberating democracy. Next, we place private security contractors around seized oil fields and proceed to siphon Iraq’s oil back to the more deserving West. Wash, rinse and repeat with Libya and Gaddafi.

Oh, Gaddafi was bad too? And Hillary Clinton was right to gloat over his dead body, “We came, we saw, he died [insert evil laugh]”.

It’s difficult now to ascertain for certain whether or not Bashar al Assad has used chemical weapons to quell uprisings in Syria. This is because our media has constantly played fast and loose with the truth in order to project the foreign policy agendas of the government it serves.

In 2012 Barack Obama stated that use of chemical weapons was a “red-line”, the crossing of which would entail “enormous consequences”. Two weeks later there was an alleged chemical attack in Syria. The Western coalition (US, UK, France, Australia) and their compliant media immediately pinned the blame on Assad. No one in the mainstream media explored the line that the rebels had a clear motivation to simulate a chemical weapons attack to encourage foreign intervention. Assad had exactly the same motivation not to use chemical weapons.

Joining the dots, or at least suspending belief, is what any rational being would do. Is it group-think that stops people questioning? Are most of us brainwashed? Are we afraid of taking a contrary opinion? Will our friends ridicule us and stop inviting us for drinks?

We are led to believe that our media is free and China’s and Russia’s is government controlled. Any non-Western media outlet is deemed factually questionable and ideologically tainted. Our public are effectively clueless that our Western governments might also have an agenda. Our public would never look down and suppose that maybe, just maybe, our media might be a little biased: for us and against them!

To me it seems obvious. But I did a humanities degree and was encouraged to look for layers of meaning and hidden agendas in texts. It doesn’t mean I deconstruct everything I read. I just don’t take everything at face-value.

In our culture of ‘win at all costs’, ‘fear of missing out’, and ‘know everything before everyone else does’, people absorb news and information without questioning. They pass it on to friends, family, and colleagues. In becoming the transmitter of the message, they become the new authority. If the receiver has previously heard the message, both transmitter and recipient mutually reinforce each other’s beliefs. This reinforcement occurs even where the original news article (or reported fact) is later proven wrong, or at the very least was placed out of context.

Misconceptions are then perpetuated, lies built upon lies, countries are invaded, history is repeated.

By devaluing the importance of the humanities, the Conservatives are fighting an ideological battle with the goal of maintaining a compliant population. These are the culture wars and it is on this battleground that Captain Cook is framed as “discovering Australia”. In the culture wars, narratives are held like fortified garrisons and the truth is a prisoner of war.

Captain James Cook, who according to the plaque here, discovered Australia in 1770

A healthy governing class is ready to offer multiple perspectives to its body-politic. It encourages its citizens to realise their potential, to become the best version of themselves they can possibly be.

For some (heaven forbid!) this is a career in the arts, whether as a graphic designer, historian, journalist, or civil servant. Humanities courses prepare people for careers that require lateral thinking and a touch of empathy. Arts degrees create well-rounded citizens more ready to be consultative and to take difficult decisions with more than short-term gain in mind.

And what would our world be without music, sculpture, movies, interior design, museums? Do we all want to be automatons?

Yes the world needs accountants to look after our finances, we need engineers to maintain our cities and IT graduates to do practically everything else!

But we also need to look inward to the Self. We are each on a journey and we all develop in different ways. A sign of greatness in a civilisation is its encouragement of the arts to chronicle its achievements and celebrate the depth and breadth of its soul. Our doubling of the cost of humanities courses show Australia really doesn’t think much of itself.

I’ll end with Shakespeare, who has a quote for everything. This is spoken by Edmund in King Lear, Act 1, Scene 2. Us artists are the bastards and we are being delegitimised!

Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th’ legitimate. Fine word, ‘legitimate.’
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow, I prosper.
Now, gods, stand up for bastards! (1.2.15-22)


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