The Recent Student Election Scandal Shows Us Why the Humanities are Needed More Than Ever

By Arleen Wilcox

The exposé of a controversial UNSW Council candidate has given students lots to talk about this past fortnight. Both inside and outside the UNSW Discussion Group, where the initial revealing posts were made, the UNSW student community erupted in debate, both for and against the candidate. (In case you’re not up to speed with the whole saga, you can check out Tharunka’s article about it here.)

Whether it came in the form of rants, memes or think-pieces, students from all faculties rallied to hold heated online debates with one another. It seemed every UNSW student life publication and page was suddenly flooded with content related to the allegations. With the main contested topics relating to ‘freedom of speech’, ‘discrimination’, ‘call-out culture’, and even ‘digital etiquette’.

However, to anyone tuned in enough with current affairs, these types of discussions shouldn’t come as a surprise. These incidents and associated conversations are not unique to UNSW, academia or even Australia. As with everything else, the internet does not exist in a vacuum, and this is one of the many ever-growing hot issues emerging both on and off the digital landscape.

For better or worse, people want to be part of these conversations no matter their background or educational history. Everyone has an opinion, but often the knowledge to truly understand these issues and their intersectional connections to the wider world, I would argue, lies in the Arts & Humanities.

I know how this sounds, and I am well aware that every student tends to be biased towards thinking their faculty is the most relevant to society, but just hear me out. The point of the Arts & Humanities is precisely to make students work through part of dilemmas like these during their entire degree. And even though none of us walk out knowing the secret to achieving world peace, I can confidently say that at least we are made well-aware of the very different realities that exist past our own.

This all comes at a time when our Government has announced their intention to spike fees for Arts & Humanities degrees, as they are not perceived as ‘job-relevant’ would rather push people into the hard-sciences. Yet, our interactions with each other and a lot of the matters that press the world right now, point towards the fact that we need a more holistic trans-faculty approach to education. One that does not exclude or discourages any discipline, let alone the Humanities.

There are ethical and moral concerns in every facet of our society, and the effect on diverse human and environmental life should be taken into consideration with every decision. It would be absurd to believe that there exists a single degree that is absent from such reflections when in their own way, they all do work that impacts our lives, the space that we inhabit and how we relate to each other. Add to this, the fact that we are also at what some have called the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, and you’ll start to understand why our connections are more important than ever.

Perhaps as the pandemic suddenly reduced the population to ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ workers, it can seem like the soft sciences are not cut out for the needed workforce to keep a country running. But as we face a global economic crisis, soft skills like adaptability, critical thinking and interpersonal skills are at an all-time high demand by employers. Besides, as unemployment goes up and more jobs become redundant, it means we are all competing against a bigger, more equipped talent pool of candidates. Shouldn’t that encourage us and our government to create better-rounded employees and citizens?

I have met many students doing double degrees already in fields like Engineering and Arts, Law and Media, Science and Communication, and clearly, we still need more of them. Obviously, the government is forgetting about this intersection and showing that their idea of what an Arts & Humanities student looks like is frankly outdated. Because the beauty of Arts degrees is that they come in many shapes and forms.

Even though the field is shamed far too often for focusing on topics that are deemed ‘irrelevant’, ‘unprofitable’, or even ‘nonsensical’ by those in the hard sciences and other disciplines, (and now our Government). Now more than ever, with the rise of social movements, hyper-partisanship and discussions around identity politics, our society is overwhelmed with these types of debates. Showing that these matters are worth the time after all, and they can no longer be ignored.

Take, for example, this year’s Black Lives Matter protests as they quickly spread and adapted to many local struggles around the world, even in the middle of a pandemic. This isn’t just some ‘Social Justice Keyboard Warrior’ effort as many critics will want you to believe. The movement has seen multinationals and institutions everywhere respond to it. Even if done as part of a marketing stunt by some, it has nevertheless amplified its message and sparked much-needed discussions.

As ethical considerations expand beyond our borders these days, and our backyard is not just picked fenced at the limits of our country – interconnectedness means hearing and caring about issues outside our region. Reminding us that clashes like those seen at our university right now, are instead a symptom of a bigger global shift towards the kind of mobilization that leads to meaningful structural and cultural change.

In times of division and confrontation, we must remember that “No man is an island.” Well, working by this principle, it should be easy to understand why no academic discipline is ‘unnecessary’ either. As we connect in unimaginable and complex ways, we must do better at looking at the bigger picture and recognise the intersections not just in academia but in our global community… And finally admit that if we spend days on end arguing back and forth about certain topics, perhaps that’s a sign that they are not as trivial as we are made to think.