By Jeremy Ellis
The past year has not been good for the arts and humanities. We’ve been forced to watch the consistent devaluation of these fields. It started in late 2019 as the federal Department of Communications and the Arts was ‘logically’ merged into the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, with the word ‘Arts’ eliminated completely in the name. Esther Anatolitis (Executive Director at the National Association for the Visual Arts) rightfully coined this ‘invisibility of the Arts at the top level’.
This structural change was somewhat mirrored at UNSW. As the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis settled in, changes were announced to blend the Arts, Built Environment and Design faculties into one – stressed as a ‘mega-faculty’ rather than a ‘merger’ by the new Dean, Professor Claire Annesley. Yet, I would ask whether it’s indicative of the university’s own disregard for those disciplines.
As if this were not enough, students in the arts and humanities are facing significant fee increases of 113% from next year. It’s been championed by government members such as the Minister for Education Dan Tehan to funnel students into ‘job-relevant’ degrees. Yet this push for STEM education and the prioritisation of specific career pathways is contradicted by the government. Their Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) data reveals that humanities, arts and social sciences graduates have higher prospects of income than science graduates. The field independently contributed $111.7 billion to the Australian economy in a single year.
Despite this attack on the entire institution of arts and humanities, these fields are essential to social betterment. They hold unrecognised value, demonstrated again and again both historically and in our contemporary world.
Since antiquity, art, philosophy and the humanities were unquestionably vital in societal development – and even laying the foundations for many modern STEM fields. Consider names you know only too well, such as Socrates and Plato. Socratic dialogue set the groundwork for academic discourse, facilitating logical discussion and exchange of ideas in any field. Plato recognised the importance of mathematics and did not seek to make elite one field or the other.
People often ask, ‘Why study history? Or gender and women’s studies?’ and so on. I would ask instead, what exactly are students studying in these degrees? Often, it’s abominations of the past ranging from oppression to genocide. Students are enabled to recognise patterns of oppression and abuse, understand their origins and development. We do not live in a utopia where oppression is just a tragedy of the past – rather, it continues. Think of the Black Lives Matter movement. Think of consistent sexism and gender pay gaps. Think of the endless discrimination the LGBTQ+ community faces.
Mathematics and science cannot create the empathy and cultural understanding needed to facilitate change. By hiking fees for the arts and humanities we also begin to limit their students to the most-wealthy. Yet, is it not likely that the most-wealthy are coming from racially and economically privileged backgrounds? How the government can justify placing the future of these fields solely in people who cannot empathise with historical struggle, only sympathise, is beyond me.
Humanities students are equipped with an awareness and understanding in ways to combat this oppression. Whether that manifests in activism and advocacy, or assisting corporations in creating diversity and equal opportunity, is irrelevant. These degrees have applicability and essential value to countless aspects of society.
Alongside their independent value, the arts and humanities are vital in facilitating STEM. Without humanities, how could we successfully communicate STEM knowledge to other nations? In light of the COVID-19 crisis, we need linguists and translators, cross-cultural communicators, politicians and diplomats to facilitate the exchange of information at multiple levels. It’s essential to international politics and justice, foreign aid and trade.
Studies show the importance of explicitly teaching critical thinking and argumentation – skills taught by the arts and humanities – in bettering STEM studies. In her doctoral thesis, Dr Christine McDonald of Griffith University focussed on the importance of argumentation for science students. Students displayed notable academic improvement in their science studies following their explicit learning of argumentation. They were able to better use evidence and make logical conclusions. A lot of people working in STEM fields (and politicians) could benefit from this.
Titans of the last century undertook tertiary education in the arts and humanities, and their contributions intertwined deeply with their studies. Take your pick: Martin Luther King Jr., Peter Thiel (founder of PayPal), Michelle & Barack Obama, Carly Fiorina (former CEO of Hewlett Packard) and more than you could imagine. Their education ranged from law to literature to philosophy. Look at any of their studies and tell me that they couldn’t develop job-relevant skills.
The fact that we are now seeing politicians push for the limitation of arts and humanities is painfully ironic. Many attended university for free, and even more undertook BAs. Perhaps the most ironic case is Dan Tehan, the main voice pushing students to what he calls ‘job-relevant’ fields. He has a BA from the University of Melbourne, and a Masters in Foreign Affairs and Trade, and one in International Relations. His rationale for these changes in tertiary education is certainly not apparent. In tandem with the government’s own contradictory data, it appears blatantly illogical.
On a final note, our society cannot deteriorate into homogenous thinking. The arts and humanities, and STEM, are equally important. The moment we all think in the same way is the moment we stop progressing. Diversity in thought is needed for us to continuously challenge each other and improve collectively. If we lack it in our minds, lack differences in education, personality and career – what’s the point?
Jeremy Ellis is a first-year undergraduate student in Law/Arts at UNSW. He adores languages, classical piano, philosophy and a good drink with friends – to varying degrees depending on the day.
Social Research Centre, 2019, ‘2019 Graduate Outcomes Survey’, Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching, https://www.qilt.edu.au/docs/default-source/gos-reports/2019-gos/2019-gos-national-report.pdf?sfvrsn=cdceec3c_4.
 Christine McDonald, ‘Exploring the influence of a science content course incorporating explicit nature of science and argumentation instruction on preservice primary teachers’ views of nature of science’, (Ph.D., Griffith University, 2008), https://www.researchgate.net/publication/27483230_Exploring_the_influence_of_a_science_content_course_incorporating_explicit_nature_of_science_and_argumentation_instruction_on_preservice_primary_teachers’_views_of_nature_of_science.