The Humanities and 20 Years of Australian Political Culture

Just over a year ago I launched my personal website with a brief commentary on two media pieces that struck me as especially important and succinct. They focussed on the value of the humanities and other neglected forms of labour in our increasingly automated age. With it, I solidified one friendship and made another, and I also started in earnest my engagement with social media concerning the contemporary humanities. It’s been mostly heartening. I learn everyday about how humanists—historians in particular, my bag—are explaining, intervening in, and making a difference to major international debates on climate change, refugee detention, war commemoration, women’s rights, and loads of other topics now defining our times. I hadn’t come across anything quite as intelligently summative and personally poignant, though, until last Friday’s long essay in The Conversation. Julianne Schultz’s piece, “What do we want to be when we grow up?”, does what all good humanistic public reflections do, which is express what you have been worrying at for some time but not yet found the courage or the means to know it for the truth.

“Looking back, it is clear that the late 1990s was when we stalled and have been unable to get out of first gear ever since.”

Yes!  That’s what I think!  I guess I say those words to myself several times a day, when reading acerbic tweets written by my own kind within my own social media bubble. But that’s because I probably also literally just said them to a friend or colleague, or at least thought their gist in my head. Shultz expressed something that I hadn’t been able to say, because it’s actually deeply, horribly unbearable to acknowledge that your own culture has, indeed, stalled—if not regressed. As a historian trained to sniff out whiggish belief in inevitable progress within a 10-mile radius, it’s not hard to diagnose this regression. As a woman come of age in the 1990s, however, it turns out to be devastating. I had not realized how much of a whig I was in my cellular structure, or at least how much I wanted to be; how much I wanted to believe that our society does, overall, improve on fundamental issues such as equity, opportunity, and the getting of wisdom.

Schultz goes on, musing rather generously that perhaps “at the end of the Keating years in 1996 … many Australians [wanted simply] to slow down, to stop talking about ourselves, to just get on with things for a little while.” Perhaps we just “thought it would be an opportunity to regroup and then come back to the next steps in the evolution of a national story with a larger and more diverse population and economy, to find a way of being that would be appropriate in the 21st century.”

kate jane 97 copyPerhaps. Is that what I was doing? Keating’s downfall in 1996 was a momentous year for me personally. I had just completed my Bachelor of Arts. I had jabbered my way through four exhilarating years of native title decisions, feminist awakening, Redfern speeches, postmodern revelations, and multiple turns to Asia. It had been great. An education in the humanities was everything I had wanted it to be, and, further, I had never had to defend it to anyone. I wasn’t sick of it exactly. But I was afflicted with that age-old curse of youth, the suspicion that Life is Elsewhere. Or at least that Life is probably further along elsewhere. At the time, if I’m honest, which is hard and sad to acknowledge now, I thought Keating was witty, but ultimately not radical enough. I shed a tear when he conceded defeat with talk of his two great loves in life, but I had in fact voted to the left of him.

So I took off overseas, at what turned out to be a critical juncture in modern Australian history. It’s taken me the rest of my life thus far to catch up with its consequences (though this may not just be a function of my brief absence; it looks like Schultz and many others have also struggled to make sense of it).

I bought a one-way ticket to Europe, fluked a brief job in publishing in Oxford, went straight on from there to Berkeley in California to start a higher degree, and then paused for research back in Oxford before returning to Australia finally in 2002. berkeleyMost of that time was spent thinking about Blairism, Monica Lewinsky, Bush’s first election steal, the rise of the Taliban, the horror of plane hijacking, the potential reaction to plane hijacking of the biggest military on earth, and then Blairism again (this time on steroids—the ideology, not me).  I registered bits and pieces of news from home which befuddled me, but I did not take sufficient time to understand them. The first weird news was the failure of the republican referendum. How my American friends laughed. I knew there was a more complicated reason than mere monarchical worship, but I was too out of it to know what it was. Then there was Howard’s re-election. “I thought you said there was no way he could win?!” I screeched down the phone to my friend. “Well, yes, but obviously that was before Tampa.” Before what?

Re-entry in 2002 was strange. Everything looked the same but nothing was quite as it had been. Or, more accurately, the things I had expected to continue moving forward were nowhere in sight. Where were all the new Indigenous lands?  Why were all the ministers still men? And who the hell was Keith Windschuttle? Moreover (I say now; who knew then how connected this all was), what had happened to my old History Department? It had shrunk.

I should emphasise at this point that it’s only Schultz’s essay that has put these events now in a historical row for me. I think at the time I thought that I just hadn’t understood the 1990s properly at all. My undergraduate privileges had blinded me; now I was a grown-up in the real Australia, and could see there was a load of work to be done.

In terms of the national conversation about our political culture, nothing got me up to speed more quickly than finding a space in the Australian Academy of the Humanities. I was still finishing my Berkeley dissertation at the time, though living back in Canberra. I had befriended various members of the Academy’s secretariat, who all worked in a charming, freezing, funny-shaped building in then-old Acton. regular_rephoto copyThey had an unused boxroom out the back; if I could cope with the boxes, I could have it to write in. It proved a double education: completing a thesis on eighteenth-century imperialism and learning through the thin walls about the state of the humanities in my reclaimed country. I learnt that Howard’s Cabinet now vetted new memberships on cultural institutional boards. I heard groans of exasperation when Andrew Bolt published his yearly attack on humanities ARC grants. I saw the director Dr John Byron rush out to meetings on the Hill when the Minister of Education looked like he had actually pulled seven humanities ARC grants after endorsement. I listened to revelations about the excision of all mention of the humanities when the first set of National Research Priorities emerged.

Ex AAH President Iain McCalman haranguing some minister

I also witnessed enormous energy by the Academy secretariat and the most senior humanists in the country—the Fellows—fight back against every measure. Eventually (having finished the blasted thesis), I joined the secretariat myself. More than anything, I learnt about lobbying, which is mainly: don’t be precious. Don’t take a utilitarian angle and explain the economic knock-ons to cultural investment. Don’t take the high moral ground and screech that culture has intrinsic value in a true civilization. Don’t take the role of handmaiden and accept a role simply assisting science communication. Instead: do all these things. I saw different strategies deployed at different times and as a result attain some amazing wins: the inclusion of an additional National Research Priority related to humanities scholarship; the establishment of a dedicated lobby council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS); the election of the first humanist to the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering, and Innovation Council. It was inspiring, and heartbreaking stuff. Shultz is right again: defending the humanities requires “vigilance, persistence, and creativity.”

Back then the foe seemed to be a mixture of philistinism and scientism. But I was struck one time in 2004 when the incoming President, Graeme Turner, noted publicly that, once the social sciences started suffering similar hits to the humanities, a few outside observers began asking questions. To the scientists in our brother Academy at the Shine Dome, Turner then spoke, “What’s your position going to be in a few years on stem cell research? All you need’s a shift in the politics to be in the same position.” It turned out not to be stem cells but climate change that exemplified their vulnerability. The enemy had been just plain philistinism after all. Scientists today, if yet funded in better proportion to their work than us, now also share much of the disrespect and disregard that humanists have known for two decades. I will never get out of my head the sound of ministerial laughter at a reef scientist’s tears. Nor the image of the current Prime Minister grinningly brandishing a lump of coal.

Schultz calls for a new national discussion led by the humanities but it should surely be pushed in equal part by scientists. It has to be much bigger than either major party’s current ideology. It must overturn the “insufficiently contested neo-utilitarian mediocrity” that lies at the heart of each party today, and which drives the macho, boorish, racist, occasionally cruel and environmentally torpid political culture we still endure in Australia.  This was not the culture of 1996. There is no turning back, of course, but many questions have been waiting a long time for answers. Don’t just read humanists addressing these questions (and asking new ones). Back them. Fund them. Grow them. Act.

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