Hacking humanities is a disaster

Jun 25, 2020

The decision last week to more than double the cost of humanities degrees, as announced by Dan Tehan, the Minister for Education, is a sign of the times and, as such, is appalling.

It is also dangerous, perhaps sinister and contrary to any notion of an informed democracy. This decision is a confession that, not just the minister but also his presumed advisers, have no idea what holds societies together or drives them apart. And they see no point in finding out.

At first glance it could appear this decision is based merely on ignorance, which is always dangerous and easily leads to unexpected consequences, but perhaps it is not. Perhaps the decision-makers were aware of Nietzsche’s dictum that “any nation that educates its working class deserves everything it gets“.

And where was this decision made? One place it certainly was not made was on the floor of Parliament. It was surely made somewhere behind a closed door. This is how all decisions are made in a democratic system that is dominated by parties or, even less democratically, within a faction of the party behind another closed door. All a believer in a true democracy can hope for is that the decision might be examined more closely on the parliamentary floor – but, even then, too many debates are mere shouting charades and the debate is decided on the numbers not its merits.

Life is easier for a government if the voters are not given to asking awkward questions and the best way to prevent this is to keep the voters as ignorant and incurious as possible. In a word — uneducated. This is the basis of the policy the Minister for Education is promoting.

The art of government is much simpler if voters are taught what to think, rather than how to think. As Nietzsche made clear elsewhere this works well in the short term but short-term solutions have a nasty tendency to go belly-up in the longer term. This leads almost inevitably to authoritarian government and eventually to dictatorship, unless checked by informed and educated questioning.

An uninformed democracy can be a dangerous beast, easily manipulated and led into folly, such as war or unnecessary conflict.

But Minister Tehan seems unconcerned by these dangers. Consider the concept of trust. This is one of the strongest glues holding a society together. It is elusive and once destroyed requires a lot of rebuilding. It is necessary but most of us don’t know what it is, and the only way to find out is through philosophical and historical inquiry. But Minister Tehan aims to discourage this. He apparently believes we can progress without being aware of the hurdles behind us, those we cleared or fell at, and those ahead of us –- which can be difficult to clear if we cannot see them.

Or consider international conflict. Australia is embroiled in a worsening conflict as what we consider an authoritarian China increases its wealth and power while a democratic United States is subsiding. Does this mean authoritarianism is triumphing over the democratic principles we hold so dear? How can this be?

Should we not be taking a much closer historical, philosophical and cultural look at China to see how a system we reject (in theory but perhaps not in hidden practice) is working?

China is not a disorderly rabble. It has built up a cohesive society. Something is holding it together and we would do well to find out what that something is. It probably has a little to do with culture or philosophy, embedded in history. Perhaps we could learn from it or, if we need to fight it, we need to know what we are fighting. But our government says none of this is necessary. Perhaps we should take a lesson from Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Our world is running into a whole new set of challenges. They are growing bigger, coming faster, are more complex and more dangerous and the minister sees no need to try to analyse and understand them.

Studying the humanities, of which philosophy is the most useful, rarely brings direct financial benefits but it can deliver enormous savings in avoided costs.

Is prevention better than cure? As well as asking the medicos and climatologists, ask the philosophers, the historians and teachers of the other humanities. These issues need further informed debate, but they won’t get it without help from the humanities.

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