education minister dan tehan university funding
Minister for Education Dan Tehan (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The classics department of Sydney University was established in 1850, that of Melbourne University in 1855. They are older than the unified nations of Germany and Italy, of the city of Budapest, of Berlin and Manchester as anything more than towns; of the knowledge of dinosaurs, the works of Charles Darwin, the writing of Tolstoy, the sculpture of Rodin, of all except six British universities.

Their organisational form has changed, departments such as philosophy  and “natural philosophy” (i.e science) have been hived off, but for seven generations teaching of the European heritage has been handed down in an unbroken chain, with the common consent of all governments. 

Now, the Morrison government and Education Minister Dan Tehan want to kill them.

Oh yes they do. Tehan’s cracked higher-ed funding plan, which passed the House yesterday and is heading towards the Senate, leaves classics out of its capricious, whacko subject-by-subject funding boondoggle.

So, while selected science subjects go below cost in fees, subjects like classics get billed at around $15,000, for a degree total of $50,000. And history subjects. And philosophy. And most of what, for half a millennium, has made up the humanities. 

The ham-fistedness of Tehan’s changes has already been laid bare. The funding model costs cash-strapped universities money to teach intensive, high-cost STEM subjects, and profitable to increase the ratio of arts students.

Since, employment-wise, the first point is to get a degree, any degree, this will increase arts enrolments. Now Tehan proposes to have some commission trawl universities’ offerings subject by subject, which essentially draws universities fully into the state and would be a chaotic bureaucratic tangle.

Tehan’s wonks kept the price of English subjects in the lowest band; you can do an English arts major for about $15,000 total for three years, if it’s almost all English. Belatedly, they realised that an English degree is not three years of Anglo-Saxon dipthongs, but is full of… horror!… theory.

Same with psychology and languages. So there is now talk that Tehan’s department will price courses, semester-unit by semester-unit, to accomplish the real aim of the moves: to kill the teaching of critical thinking in the humanities.

Should it go through, it will be a mess, but that’s the point too: this is, in part, wrecking-crew politics, designed to destroy efficient state-public functioning, if it cannot tame it. It cannot tame it, because people want to think critically and forensically about the world they live in. And that must be stopped at all costs.

Yet what is most striking about the proposed changes is that they mount the very attack on “western civilisation” that they have been campaigning against. There is a purpose to this too, which is bound up with the expansion of Ramsay Centres into multiple universities.

The Ramsay Foundation would then have the right to award scholarships that take care of that $50,000 in fees, scholarships which it would steer towards right-wing youth and create a bounded caste within the university. In that process, the actual humanities are collateral damage that the Coalition is willing to put up with.

The ironies of this are so multiple that you would need training in, well, classical rhetoric to catalogue them fully.

But consider this: the worst and most simplistic dimension of the current left had been expressed in a renewal of the ’60s assault on “Western civ” — the proposition that you can’t teach Virgil without repeated denunciations of slavery, giving equal prominence to non-Western, not white-male-author texts, etc etc.

The Tehan proposals join that assault on the canon and the humanistic tradition, but from the right. Classical studies and the like rely for their continued robust transmission on the fact that a small number of people want to do nothing but the subject they have become obsessed with.

The Tehan proposals mean that the kid who at high school has become so thrilled by reading Homer that they want to — must — know how it reads in the original Greek will, if their families are asset poor, think twice about pursuing that passion.

That only really has to happen to a couple of hundred potential arts students per year to seriously damage the transmission of traditional European culture in this country.

The social justice aspects, the effects on indigenous cultural study and much more are terrible too, but I’m not fool enough to expect the right to give a damn about that. What is grotesquely fascinating is the way in which they enact the destructive politics of those they purport to oppose.

The politics-first attack on the humanities is a right wing mirror of a Maoist-style attack on the “olds”; the determination to let money run the business of cultural transmission is more undermining of cultural value than any Foucault course (always Foucault).

Capital is the great deconstructor of our age, turning everything that our tradition valued for its own sake into an exchangeable commodity, thus annihilating its intrinsic value (yeah, comrades, I know these arguments are problematic, but shut up, he explained). The university is one bulwark against that.

The right’s politics have been so nihilised by capital that they don’t even value value anymore. Nor will there be a peep of protest from the dwindling band of self-styled “conservatives”, meek clients of capital, mostly ageing, white, male neurotics, wholly defined by their resentment of having to share the culture with blacks, browns and w-w-w-omen!

Is anyone from the right going to speak up for the idea that we shouldn’t be using fee pricing to dissuade people from studying Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew, the tragedies, Aquinas, David Hume, the War of the Roses, the Mughal empires, the Song dynasty? Quite possibly not.

So one doffs one’s Lenin-style cap to this mob, and their ruthlessness. In the matter of cultural destruction, the left are pikers.

We pull down the odd statue; you are trying to topple the edifices of European culture in this country. It would be their ultimate achievement that no one in the country would one day be able to understand the reference that they make a desert and call reform.

What is really behind the Coalition’s attack on universities? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

Peter Fray

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