Why the humanities are more important than ever

28 October 2020


By Professor Simon Haines

With this year’s turbulent onset of COVID-19, we are reminded that life can change suddenly, along with assumptions about ‘jobs of the future’ or what constitutes a ‘safe’ career.

History tells us that in times of uncertainty, talented and ambitious young Australians will delay looking for employment and invest in education to prepare them for a more volatile job market.

Many students will play it safe; opting for studies relating to occupational shortages, such as teaching, allied health, engineering and aged care.

Others will search for a broader study pathway, one not simply aimed at acquiring today’s jobs, but which will offer an education for life, equipping them for all sorts of meaningful work in disrupted industries in the future.

My advice to them would be to think seriously about both undergraduate- and postgraduate-degree study in the advanced humanities.

This may seem curious, given the Australian Government’s recent proposal to increase the price of humanities degrees – effectively signalling that students should steer away from them in favour of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) subjects, and more ‘job-ready’ courses.

Yet, despite government signalling, we at the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation believe a quality humanities education constitutes an excellent foundation for some of the most interesting, important and meaningful jobs – both now and in the future.

The pandemic has proven that the greatest challenges and threats to our wellbeing cannot be solved, either on an economic or social level, with a workforce grounded solely in sciences and technical vocations.

Of course, we will look to science, medicine and allied health research for a COVID-19 vaccine and ongoing treatment for patients. But COVID-19 has also shown the importance of humanities, as part of the necessary machinery for a creative whole-of-society response.

At every level, and at every turn during this pandemic, scientists have had to work hand-in-hand with humanities-trained professionals.

Humanities graduates have been at the coalface – in policy formulation, in cabinet committees, in boardrooms – interpreting highly technical information and communicating what needs to happen, in language rather than just in numbers and statistics.

These have been the political, bureaucratic, and business professionals, whose insight into history and human behaviour we have relied on to help devise community responses and inform law-and-order interventions.

With no immediate scientific ‘silver bullet’, we have had to develop interim strategies guided by an educated awareness of the human dimension, and by an ability to explain policies and tactics. COVID-19 reminds us that the humanities are critical not just to our economies but to our very civilisation.

Well before COVID-19, of course, many sectors of society and the economy were coming to recognise the value of humanities or liberal arts graduates, even in areas where they typically did not ‘fit’. Hence the advent of STEAM, updating STEMM with the inclusion of the arts, in the tech sector.

Steve Jobs famously said, “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough – it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

And the world’s three greatest concentrations of hi-tech innovation have emerged as Silicon Valley, the Boston Hub, and the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle. All are dominated not just by major agglomerations of techies, but by world-leading humanities institutions: Stanford University; University of California, Berkeley; Harvard University; University of North Carolina; Duke University; University of Oxford and University of Cambridge.

At the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, we support the humanities because we see them as studies that can help equip Australia’s future leaders. In the increasingly globalised world of artificial intelligence, we need human intelligence.

The courses we sponsor focus on the great texts of the western canon because studying these challenging texts teaches students to absorb and analyse highly complex written information; to write, argue and communicate persuasively about the formation of ideas that have led to the societies we live in today, and wish to live in for the future.

Graduates from such courses have a unique perspective. After thinking for several years about 2500 years of western civilisation – about writers, thinkers and artists from Homer to da Vinci and George Eliot to George Orwell; about freedom, justice, truth and beauty; about difficult and complex texts and ideas – they know how to derive and articulate the long view from mass data.

Many classic texts are complex exercises in open-minded, truly critical thinking-in-language (though let us not forget art and music). But collectively, and read for themselves without prejudice, they also help undergraduates discover who they are (education in its true sense), while also learning who we all are: our history (warts and all), our philosophy, literature, science.

We hope many young Australians will consider studying the undergraduate courses we sponsor at our partner universities, including UQ. And in an exciting development, we have just extended our support of humanities study to the postgraduate level.

From next year, thanks to our benefactor and founder of Ramsay Healthcare, Paul Ramsay, we will be offering some of the most generous postgraduate scholarships in Australia to support outstanding, thoughtful, imaginative young Australians pursue graduate study at the world’s best overseas universities.

These scholarships will be offered for one, two and, in select cases, three years of coursework and/or research. There will be two types of scholarship on offer. Our World Universities Ramsay Postgraduate Scholarship, worth A$85,000 per year, will support students to study at a leading overseas university, provided they have already been accepted into a graduate program at that institution.

Our St John’s College Annapolis Master of Liberal Arts Scholarship and Internship Program, worth A$60,000 for two years, will support students to complete one of the world’s leading great books courses, as well as undertake an internship in Washington DC. 

Our postgraduate scholars will be selected based on attributes including character, leadership, commitment to serve others, and outstanding academic achievement. They will also need to demonstrate commitment to advancing a richer and deeper understanding of our civilisation through related study.

Visit the UQ Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Centre for Western Civilisation website, or the Ramsay Centre website, for more information on undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships.

Professor Simon Haines is CEO of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation

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