The real money's on humanities


Hamlet, Flickr imge by hartlandmartin Following Friday's news that Nathan Rees is the new premier of NSW, media reports highlighted his background as a garbage collector for Parramatta Council. But they neglected to mention the more significant aspect that he was doing this to fund his honours degree in English Literature at Sydney University.

The qualifications of Rees' deputy Carmel Tebbutt fit the political mould more easily. She has a bachelor's degree in economics and industrial relations. But it's likely that Rees' studies of the humanities prepared him for the creative thinking required to have a go at fixing the state's neglected infrastructure with few funds at his disposal.

His abilities in this direction impressed some who worked closely with him while he was Water Utilities Minister in the Iemma Government. University of NSW water expert Professor Richard Kingsford said he has the ability to 'listen for a long time and to come in with politically incisive and technically incisive questions'.

Meanwhile study of the humanities received another rare boost last week in the form of a National Press Club address by Federal Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Kim Carr. This was prompted by the Review of the National Innovation System, which he received last month.

Carr argued: 'The creative arts — and the humanities and the social sciences — make a terrible mistake when they claim support on the basis of their commercial value.'

He was reflecting what could be an important change in the official attitude to support for study of the humanities. This follows years of official shunning of arts and other non career specific degrees. Funding policies were inspired by economic rationalism, the view that 'commercial activity ... represents a sphere of activity in which moral considerations, beyond the rule of business probity dictated by enlightened self-interest, have no role to play'.

The minister suggested that many 'real-world' challenges facing Australia are so complex that they require us to harness insights and methods of a variety of disciplines.

'We can't improve indigenous health without understanding the social and cultural circumstances of the people involved.'

He said that the humanities, arts and social sciences 'give a voice to people who might otherwise be silent [and] defend the rights of people whose rights might otherwise be denied'.

He cited his own recent consumption of cultural materials, including Peter Temple's novel The Broken Shore, and the Bell Shakespeare Company's production of Hamlet.

'The first showed me a world similar enough to my own to feel familiar, but different enough to make me look at my own world with fresh eyes. The second reminded me where a great deal of our language comes from, and left me with a strong sense of the continuity between past and present.'

He said that while he hoped these cultural products made a profit and contributed to the nation's bottom line, 'it is their intrinsic value we should treasure them for', and that 'we should support these disciplines because they give us pleasure, knowledge, meaning, and inspiration'.

The ultimate worth of the Rudd Government will be judged on its ability to carry forth such vision and enact it in legislation in the parliament. The wealth that arises from pursuit of the humanities and social sciences will be more long lasting than the current prosperity associated with selling minerals to China.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is the Editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Federal Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Kim Carr



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Existing comments

This method of funding his university years was clearly defined on a Radio National interview ... excellent reporting and thoughtful questioning as opposed to the garbage I discerned elsewhere.

This is some indication of what the public want and that's often not good reporting.
Judy | 08 September 2008

This is the best news I've heard in ages from my homeland across the Tasman. I've been for the last five years in New Zealand, teaching critical language skills and the literary fruits of our common cultural heritage to young kiwis. As Mullins says, this is marginalised in educational and academic institutions in Australia, partly because it makes no money. (Indeed, it could be said that critical thinking is *bad* for economic "growth"!)

It's increasingly clear that the only common cultural values of most Australians is hedonism and materialism. But also, the humanities have become so ideologically contested in Australia that it's hard to convince decision-makers that they represent anything worth bothering with.

It will take Australia decades to recover from a generation or two of culturally-deprived teachers and media voices, but I live in hope that the Rudd government will be able to make a start.
Paul Tankard | 08 September 2008

Nice piece, Michael; what a hope it suggests we should cherish. I loved your characterisation of the community's need for imaginative moral dimensions beyond 'business probity inspired by enlightened self interest' - it's what so often passes for an adequate and genuine morality.
Joe Castley | 08 September 2008

Yes, thanks for this piece which will go some way to redressing the bias of the SMH, especially.

NSW faces a difficult recovery and Rees deserves a fsir go but we cannot expect that from the Fairfax bosses.
Bill Dowsley | 08 September 2008

At last, some REAL rational thinking about the value of the study of humanities. The SMH headlines concerning Rees were typical of grubby, misleading headline grabbing. Of course, the other papers were no better.
It seems we might have a forthright and straight talking premier & hope & pray he lives up to his words and gets on with governing the state rather than indulging in the egotistical bullying that has been going on in the Parliament. I am a member of the ALP -and, after 30 years membership, have been so very close to resigning this year.
Adrianne Hannan | 08 September 2008

Problem-solving generally requires thinking outside the box. While successful completion of Liberal Arts study may suggest the presence of problem-solving ability, it is by no means a diagnostic test for the attribute; the ability to play chess is actually a better indicator of problem-solving ability, and I look forward to a couple of games with Mr Rees.

Perhaps the ideal Labor Premier would be Kenny.
David Arthur | 08 September 2008

As was said at the start of the 18th century, ... the proper study for mankind is man!" Possibly a misquote by me. To study the human condition, literature and the history of the travails and triumphs of the human condition are as much of import as the economic person, a unit of production, and the psychological person, a subject of drives etc. Bring back Descartes.
John W McQualter | 08 September 2008

I was an arts student in the early noughties. The prejudice against us 'bludgers' was palpable! My favourite example was finding a toilet paper dispenser graffitied with the words 'Instant BAs: take one sheet and wipe'. I laughed despite myself.

For a couple of years after uni, I used to reflexively switch to self-deprecation whenever telling anybody what I had studied. Not good for the ego! I'm over that now, proud of the contribution that the arts make to culture and society.

Nice to see that the arts and humanities are starting to get a little more respect in the public sphere. That said, last night's episode of Hollowmen might suggest otherwise...
Charles Boy | 11 September 2008

Studying at university, whatever the course, gives one skills but what evidence is there that studying the humanities, or any other area, "prepares one for creative thinking". If someone who studied subject X later exhibits creative thinking how do we know whether that was due to the study of X. Perhaps she would have exhibited creative thinking if she studied subject Y instead of subject X or did no study at all. Can any readers give references to research on this topic?
Graham Day | 12 September 2008

I find it encouraging to know that a state premier has worked as a garbage collector. It is an essential service and those who undertake such work do an honest day's work to earn their living.

A degree may help hone additional skills useful for a politician, but the ability to work in an apparently low-status occupation might speak volumes of qualities such as a solid work ethic, an ability to mix comfortably with all of one's fellow citizens, etc., that might also be of immense value in the formation of a politician with humility and a commitment to serve others.
Carmel Ross | 17 September 2008


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