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In defence of an arts and humanities education – and critical thinking

By William Olson  

Recently an old friend of mine from California sent me a nice little relic that took me down memory lane: a copy of the old student newspaper from my university days that contained my first real byline, and thereby my initial entry into journalism.

That newspaper, a weekly summer edition of the Cal State Pioneer based at the California State University at Hayward (now the CSU of the East Bay), has survived very well, for a 30-year-old piece of eight-page newsprint. The aging of time has turned the newsprint’s parchment into an orange-to-brown hue, but the memories inside are still quite sharp. I served as a community sport reporter for the paper – quite challenging in the university community during the summer months – in addition to being the lead copy editor in the run-up to publication on Wednesday nights ahead of a Thursday lunchtime release on campus.

Mind you, these were the days before the world wide web, and long before any viral activity on social media. We even did layout by hand, with the aid of an archaic version of PageMaker, and sticky tape. But those of us who worked on that newspaper, we thought we had hit the big time. Since I received this lovely relic, I’m wondering if any of those who I worked with on that project in that summer are still around the traps in the journalism profession. Such was our tight-knit group, amid pizza runs to get us through each publication night – and a final weekly 1:30am beer run to celebrate, once the paper was “put to bed”.

The Cal State Pioneer represented a quality staple of not just on-campus life in the summer of 1990, but it was a cornerstone of the mass communication department at CSUH. And as such, that which constituted a highly enriching liberal arts and humanities-based education in the CSU system at that time.

Fast-forward 30 years, and such a broad-based education path has come under attack in Australia, by the federal government, and specifically Dan Tehan, the Minister for Education.

Last week, Tehan proposed, in an effort to stimulate the “jobs and growth” agenda by the federal government, a blueprint reform of the tertiary education system – to basically halve the course fees for degree programs leading to vocational jobs in areas such as nursing, teaching, agriculture, information technology, and other sectors anticipating high employment growth, while virtually doubling fees for any study pathways relating to the arts and humanities.

A shocking development, considering it was the LNP which significantly slashed funding to TAFE schools and the VET sector since 2013 to the point where their budgets are now severely compromised. It would figure that if the Morrison government wants to inspire the economy through that “jobs and growth” agenda, why not simply re-invest in the TAFEs and the VETs?

Moreover, this revelation by the federal government in tertiary education fees policy, intended to drive young people of university age towards vocational-based degrees, is also seen as an attack not just on the arts and humanities, but also on critical thinking. And the lively university experience of a well-rounded education as well.

Especially without a Bill of Rights in Australia which would broadly define what residents’ rights and liberties are, a gradual attack by the LNP governments over the years upon those who oppose its policies and attacking the right to protest and dissent has been underway for quite some time – and the abilities around intellectualism and critical thinking are deemed essential to defend these actions.

Hypocrisy abounds in the halls of the federal parliament in this proposed policy, given the number of LNP ministers and senators who are in possession of Bachelor of Arts degrees from their university days. Not only does Tehan hold one, but so do 12 others in the LNP alone, with a majority of all MPs from all parties holding a double degree in law and some form of the arts.

The reason why arts degrees among our movers and shakers in Canberra exist is quite simple: a liberal arts education with a grounding in critical thinking skills better prepares one for the real world and how it operates, than that of a vocational background alone does. While work and employment can define who a person is, one’s experiences should be greater.

It’s done me no harm over the last 30 years living in two countries, and the same goes for countless hordes of others like myself globally since then. An education in critical thinking, the arts and humanities, it has been said, may not prepare one for a career, but can prepare one for several of them. And for the diversity of life itself.

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10 comments

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  1. Keitha Granville

    Makes you wonder how on earth those LNP members and ministers actually managed to achieve a BA, since they clearly have zero critical thinking ability.

    Perhaps we need make it a rule from now on that MPs must have a qualification of any other sort, NOT a BA. If they consider humanities in such a poor light, then their degrees can’t be worth the paper they is written on.

    What a sorry world they are creating.

  2. leefe

    If you look at the statistics (yes, I know the old cliche), Arts graduates find it easier to get jobs than those from any other university stream. That is partly because they learn greater flexibility and how to apply critical thinking. And there are so many fields in which a Humanities degree can be useful.

  3. totaram

    Keitha: “..they clearly have zero critical thinking ability…”
    I point this out again and again like a broken vinyl record: they DO HAVE those skills. It’s just that they use them for their own ends and those of their benefactors. And THAT explains why they don’t want other people to have those skills. That would ensure the others are easier to manipulate. Is it so hard to understand? Please try to push your critical thinking to the NEXT level.

  4. Kathryn

    Absolutely OUTRAGEOUS that the same corrupt, profiteering politicians who are now DOUBLING the University Degrees for Arts and Humanities are the SAME grubby parasites who got THEIR university degrees FREE via Whitlam’s generous policies that supplied fully subsidised primary, secondary and tertiary education to our children when the foresightful Labor government really DID believe in making this the “SMART COUNTRY”.

    What we need in this country is a HELLUVA lot more people studying humanities, science and arts. The problem we have with this country is that we have far too many stone cold economists and corrupt, self-serving lawyers – especially in politics!

  5. Matters Not

    This fiasco has some distance to run and a failure to provide a definition of an Arts Degree as well as the subjects within might lead to some intended outcomes.

    Three core streams — English, modern languages and creative arts — have fees at the lower level, … to do an arts degree composed entirely of history, philosophy and social science majors would cost you $45,000 for three years. … a one-semester English subject will cost you $460; a one-semester philosophy subject will cost you $1800.

    Guess they don’t want students to come out of Plato’s metaphorical Cave. Philosophers lecturing particular courses will trade in their bicycles for Land Rovers. How times will change.

    Even if it passes the Senate, it would achieve little of what it sets out to do in the courses market. And it has the curious effect that studies in statue toppling are Commonwealth-subsidised — through, say, a course in the psychology of racism — while the study of Greek and Roman sculpture attracts no subsidy at all.

    Tehan strikes again. Watch for his next appearance on Insiders as Minister for Disasters.

    https://www.crikey.com.au/2020/06/24/university-fee-reform-dan-tehan/?utm_campaign=CrikeyWorm&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter

  6. Kerri

    Tehan, with his own Bachelor degree, follows the age old right wing agenda of reaching the top and kicking the ladder out beneath him. How dare anyone who is poorer and smarter achieve? Achievement is only for the children of the wealthy,

  7. New England Cocky

    Now William you know the old adage,”Teach a child to think and they will question what is happening around them, and want to change it for their benefit, thus disturbing the natural authority of the elders and establishment profiting from the present conditions, so finding little sympathy from their elders who ‘did OK under the present conditions’ they may rebel, demand and work to change the system so that their generation obtains the same benefits for themselves, even across all strata of society.”

    So the obvious neo-libertarian solution is to follow the example in the USA (United States of Apartheid) where education is based on colouring in, parroting historical dates and games rather than developing critical thinking skills and problem solving strategies that may cause students to demand change and work for it.

    Yep, the students are revolting ….. thank goodness … because that is progress.

  8. Andrew Smith

    Not only do the libertarian right and/or white nationalist Christians despise critical thinking and analysis vs. minimal and/or vocational education, they are quite comfortable implementing policies of which they accuse the ‘left’ of (i.e. defined as anyone centre right through to left or typical ABC viewer….), i.e. social engineering.

    This phenomenon has reemerged in parts of Central Eastern Europe encouraging, rewarding and bonding them to STEM programs, over humanities or liberal arts, supported by streaming students in high school, in addition to very narrow vocational fields before or by mid teens and restricting their future employment options, social mobility and ability to challenge the ‘top people’

  9. Kronomex

    Ah, the old Bill of Rights raises it’s decomposing head again. Mention it and almost all the politicians go into panic mode and scurry off like mice on speed and hide in their bunkers until it blows over.

    Other than that the LNP continues with it’s long term plans to, “Keep dumbing ’em down and feeding them with Rupert and the rest of the main sleaze media.” Very simplified statement I know but no coffee does that to you.

  10. Bruce White

    The right wing dogma of the coalition is revealed by its anti intellectualism. It goes like this. Universities are hotbeds of left wing thought. Especially in the Arts and Humanities. Therefore we want to stop this don’t we. Yes, it’s as simple minded as that. You don’t believe me?
    Remember the bill that stopped compulsory student union membership? They apparently thought that all the student unions did was actively support student political activism (left wing,of course, you know,like trade unions).
    It was pointed out that most of the student union fees were actually used for student services (such as canteens,student advice and counselling,sports facilities,etc), but it didn’t stop the idiot Abbott.

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