Over the past few months, universities have been the latest front in Australia’s seemingly interminable 'culture wars'. But the claims and counterclaims surrounding the place of 'Western Civilisation' in the modern university curriculum have largely obscured the deeper crisis besetting the modern university —namely, the collapse in funding and enrolments in the humanities.
The gradual conversion of 'students' into 'consumers of educational services', the seeming inability to measure 'value' except in economic terms, the use of 'impact indicators' and 'stakeholder engagement' to judge the value of research, the devaluation of teaching, the bureaucratisation of the university itself, and the increasing reticence on the part of many parents to let their children to pursue courses of study that don’t 'prepare them to participate in the global economy'— these factors have all conspired to make the modern university an inhospitable environment for the humanities.
But are we not seeing, now, the social and political consequences of decades of neglect of the kinds of virtues, sentiments and disciplines on which democratic life depends? Is it any wonder that public discourse has become so riven, and our debates so incommensurable, when we’ve failed to instil in successive generations of students the art of democratic disagreement?
Perhaps it’s time that we returned to first principles. What is the point, the goal, of higher education? What is the 'value' of studying the humanities? What form should tertiary education take if it is to cultivate virtuous citizens? How can a tradition of inquiry be made to 'live' for students, without the weaknesses, the moral blindness, the prejudice, even the monstrosity of that tradition being minimised or papered over?