The wisdom of youth in education

Jun 12, 2022
Illustration of a graduate in cap and gown with scroll

At a time when good news is hard to come by, to hear of the substantial increase in the numbers of young people choosing to study the humanities in New South Wales in defiance of the Morrison government’s “Job Ready Graduates” price changes, is cheering on several fronts.

It is good news for the students themselves whose life and career prospects will be enhanced by their choice, good news for the Australian economy as it enlarges the pool from which future business leaders and entrepreneurs are likely to be drawn, and good news for anyone who needed to be persuaded that policy formed to support a culture war is never likely to succeed.

The students who resisted the financial incentive to choose a “job ready” course will actually be ready for a far wider range of jobs than those who didn’t. They will have developed the skills most sought after by employers, including creativity, communication, collaboration, flexibility and critical thinking, and, importantly, they will have developed the capability to learn new disciplines and techniques quickly. They will also have avoided all the risks associated with confining one’s education to a narrow technical specialisation including the risk of finding they don’t enjoy it very much, that they might not turn out to be very good at it, that they come across something else they’d much rather be doing or that they will be replaced by a computer. They need have no concern that their career choices will be restricted as a result of their choice. They can look at the success of other humanities students in a huge number of fields, including the founders of Paperless Post, Slack and LinkedIn and CEO roles at Disney, YouTube, Hewlett Packard and Westpac.

This is not to suggest that no one should choose the STEM disciplines. Young people with a passion for, say, medical research or astrophysics should certainly be encouraged to pursue their dreams and we may all benefit from their discoveries. The natural sciences also provide many of the thinking skills that the humanities offer, including rigorous logic and a determination to get to the bottom of complex questions. There is evidence, though, that the best practitioners of science are those whose education includes some study of humanities disciplines. Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Sir David Attenborough are by no means the only examples.

None of the above is particularly controversial among education experts or, perhaps more importantly, among employers and venture capitalists. As was widely noted at the time ex-Minister Tehan introduced the pricing changes, he had clearly ignored the evidence and failed to consult with people whose expertise meant they understood the issues much better than he did. There is always a temptation for funding bodies to favour courses with job titles in them as that sounds obvious and avoids the need for more complex discussion. In this case though, the policy was clearly in harmony with the Morrison government’s contempt for any segment of society that encouraged critical thinking, as reflected in their treatment of the university sector in general, the ABC and the arts industries. Congratulations to the students who saw through the nonsense and shame on those elements in the media who encouraged it.

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