ONE evening I was getting into the crowded lift at my local tube station in Central London, to go down to the train. As the doors closed a middle-aged gentleman squeezed in. I recognised him as a fairly distinguished professor of history from the University of London School of Advanced Study, where I directed the philosophy program. As we descended he suddenly blurted out to everyone and no one: ‘That's it; I've had it. What they're doing to our arts faculties is a complete disgrace.' We looked at our feet as he went on about the government, university administrators and the general ruin of intellectual culture.
I don't know what made him snap at that moment. But the professor in the lift has for me become a symbol of the view that the humanities are hard done-by and that they are in decline – or at least in an extended period of trouble – through no fault of their own, but because of bad decisions by others.
In less dramatic ways I have heard this analysis restated many times during my years in Australia: the academic humanities are doing a good job; they are fine, serious and important disciplines, staffed by able and sincere people. But governments and university administrators set impossible targets, demand crazy workloads, cut budgets, reducing staff numbers and imposing a stultifying managerial regime, and generally forcing the humanities onto the defensive.
There's a simple and morally necessary solution, according to this view: increase our funding, then leave us alone.
When I arrived in Australia, in 2001, this analysis seemed to cohere with a political assumption, even a political blindness. In the years during which John Howard was Prime Minister many humanities academics assumed that he was personally responsible for their situation. A Prime Minister is a terrifying adversary, but also cause for submerged optimism. Howard would (eventually) be defeated and – the thinking went – because he was the sole cause of the troubles, the good times would roll again.
There was in the humanities a generalised, and very honest, inability to imagine John Howard as anything other than an aberration, sustained by deceit and media manipulation, rather than as a man who was exceptionally adept at expressing widespread opinions.
Consequently, there was no self-examination: there was no hint that the humanities might themselves have contributed to their troubles, that they may have failed to win sufficient public respect and admiration to carry weight in national life.
I BELIEVE THE academic humanities require radical reform – not just in their institutional framework but in their intellectual self-conception, their sense of purpose, of mission even; in their habits of mind, their modes of admiration and the direction of effort. Ironically, such reform is needed to return the humanities to their grandest, most longstanding ambitions. Wisdom should be powerful in the world: that is why we teach, research, and engage the public.
And that is why this essay is called ‘Reformation and renaissance'. I want to show how reform is needed in order to accomplish something magnificent and serious. There is a tendency in the humanities to hear a call for reform as a threat. Calls for reform always seem to come from people who don't especially care about the humanities. I want to change that association and to connect the idea of reform to the pursuit of great educational endeavours.