How the humanities may again inspire
Professor Tim Murray
Society changes. The world is a more crowded and in parts a more dangerous place. Post cold-war realities, new technology and globalisation have altered the way we do almost everything. Young people have different aspirations. They don’t expect things to be done as they were a generation ago.
So why is it that every time an arts faculty in this country decides to take a good look at itself and tries to respond to these imperatives, the first reaction from many people is that managerial barbarians are at the gate and the whole enterprise is about to collapse?
Surely we can make our offerings more relevant, accessible, interesting and broadly based – without sacrificing quality and depth?
The reality, of course, is that La Trobe, with its long, radical and considerable reputation in the humanities and social sciences, is not about to fall to any corporate managerial razor gang. Members of the faculty executive committee remain active researchers and teachers, well and truly engaged with their disciplines and students.
I certainly don’t want the teaching of subjects that are vital to the health of our society and our capacity to find our way in the world offered only by a small number of elite universities. It is important for Australia to provide that type of expertise as broadly as possible, and that can’t be done without a sustainable financial base.
Despite assertions to the contrary, the reality is students have been telling us for years that traditional arts degrees are no longer sufficiently enticing and relevant. They’ve been voting with their feet – their HECS fees – enrolling in law, commerce, business or journalism courses.
The resultant budget problems on campuses that don’t have the vast resources of Melbourne University are not fixed as easily as Ken Gelder blithely asserts (Why the humanities are barely managing, 3 July). Our faculty, like many others throughout the country, has been struggling with piecemeal solutions for many years.
La Trobe’s arts renewal proposal – and please let me stress it is still very much open to discussion because those of us who drew it up certainly don’t profess to have all the answers – is designed to bring the arts degree into greater alignment with the needs of the 21st century.
By consolidating our curriculum, we plan to increase the amount of money we can invest in a whole range of things, including new degrees and majors as well as more innovative, flexible teaching arrangements.
There are real positives for the community in allowing us to reach students we have not been able to reach before. Our undergraduates come from all over the state and many work for a living.
The claim that quality and depth will be affected also does not follow.
The proposal suggests developing new inter-disciplinary subjects taught by teams drawing on the collective wisdom of the faculty and dealing with the pressing challenges that face Australia and the world.
Our aim is to have a well-rounded, multi-disciplinary approach to teaching without losing focus on the traditional skills, knowledge and issues. Academics will still be able to teach in their specialist disciplines.
Archaeology will still be archaeology, while contributing perspectives and expertise to broader discussion of human history, for example, why are some societies more resilient than others in the face of massive change?
Or if you are going to address problems of human security, you have to be able to deal with everything from environmental history, water and resources, and global climate change to international relations and anthropology.
Our students will be able to gain a clearer understanding of such issues through the integration of approaches from disciplines as diverse as sociology, history and cultural studies.
A reduction in subject numbers – we plan to retain more than most arts faculties - will not necessarily limit diversity and choice. And like many universities, we repeat undergraduate lectures in areas of large enrolment. Is that a very efficient use of time for lecturers given modern technology? Maybe that time can be better spent doing other enrichment with students, or on research?
Not bringing arts budgets under control, or asserting that the arts are somehow immune to the need for innovation, represents a far greater threat to the diversity of these important disciplines than a considered process of renewal.
Finally, Ken Gelder for his own purposes quotes me totally out of context. I have never said, nor would I, that subjects like Indonesian and art history are ‘shallow’. And given some of the scare-mongering by opponents of change, I can re-assure readers that La Trobe has provided a cast-iron undertaking that, irrespective of any eventual change, all current students will be able to finish their degree in the normal time.
* Professor Murray is Charles La Trobe Professor of Archaeology and Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University. He is currently overseeing the Faculty’s change process.
This opinion piece first appeared in The Age on 17 July, 2012