Scholars of Ancient Greece, especially those concerned with literature, have long harboured vaguely formulated apprehensions about the future of their field of interest.
In the 1990s such fears, which hitherto derived in part at least from the declining interest in language-based studies, were augmented by the emergence of perceived threats, perhaps most notably that supposedly posed by multiculturalism, the egalitarian aspects of which allegedly were bringing about the demise of qualitative judgement in literature and had, in the colourful phrase of one alarmist, ‘killed Homer’.
There may have been a grain of substance in identifying such culprits, but they were in reality petty villains, and they certainly pale into insignificance in the face of a truly major menace, which is already marginalising, and may yet bring about the effective demise of, not just Classics and Hellenic Studies, but sundry other components of Humanities and Arts in our universities.
For, before our very eyes in many countries, and without a whisper of complaint from university leaders, universities are being inexorably transformed from centres of learning to factories for vocational and professional training.
This transformation represents an astonishing reversal of nature and role. About a century ago the study of Classics in (western) universities was pervasive, and in Oxford University there were more Classical staff than in most other subjects put together, and science was virtually unrepresented.
A significant impetus for change in Britain was initiated by the great scientist, Thomas Huxley, who argued passionately for greater diversity in university programs in the Humanities and for the introduction of scientific subjects.
His advocacy was long in gestation and as late as the 1960s Humanities were still a dominant force in many universities.
But thenceforth change was rapid – science and technology blossomed and from the 1970s sundry vocational and professional programs brought still greater diversity.
At first in business fields but later in many areas of allied health, including nursing. For those of us, who in the tradition of Huxley envisaged universities as centres for the advancement and dissemination of knowledge in all fields of endeavour, this increased diversity was not unwelcome, and certainly it did not seem to pose dangers.
But our naivety in failing to identify a Trojan horse was soon exposed, and we now witness these vocationally oriented fields of study, which may more accurately be termed training programs, not only diminished diversity quite dramatically but also transformed the very concept of a university, and in the process bringing about the marginalization and occasionally the open denigration of traditional fields of study such as Classics as ‘irrelevant’ or, as ‘History’ was once characterized by a former British Prime Minister, ‘luxurious’.
The reasons for this transformation are many, but a few are starkly obvious.
Firstly, the massive growth in student numbers has brought with it a greatly increased demand for vocationally useful programs, as students more and more view university study as a passport to employment.
Secondly, and matching this development, governments (and many leaders in business) for the most part now assume that the primary role of universities is to produce a suitably trained workforce.
In Australia recently, for example, the new government initially did not even mention Higher Education or Universities as being in a Ministerial portfolio – later asserting that it was surely obvious that they were encompassed within the Ministry for Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations. No sign of support for universities as centres for the advancement of knowledge here!
And in the UK the most recent report on tertiary education has effectively recommended the abolition of public funding for subjects in the Humanities and the Arts.
This woeful situation is exacerbated by the desire of governments, including the Australian, to expand the student intake considerably – this despite the facts that (in Australia) the system is grossly underfunded, has one of the highest student-staff ratios in the world, and currently is experiencing a drop-out rate approaching 20% for domestic students.
A further complexity for Australia is that universities are constrained to recruit international, fee-paying students on a grand scale to boost their otherwise inadequate (public) funding, and for obvious reasons almost all of these additional students undertake professional or vocational studies.
In such a context the marginalization of seeming ‘irrelevancies’ such as the Humanities is virtually inevitable.
The attendant impoverishment brought about by such marginalization ought to be a source of national shame in any civilized country, but it seems that we are beyond such inhibitions and headed rather in the direction sketched out by Thomas Huxley’s literary descendant, Aldous Huxley, in his dystopian Brave New World.
To arrest this relentless transformation of our universities, if it is possible, will be no easy task, especially since the leaders of universities are nowadays largely managers of enterprises rather than academic leaders and, unsurprisingly, indeed understandably, concerned primarily with such issues as funding rather than with the promotion of academic diversity.
In crude terms income depends on enrolments and areas of low enrolment, which are not self-supporting, are a burden; and they become ever more burdensome as students increasingly are constrained to pay for their studies and cannot be expected to view dispassionately the diversion of their contributions to the support of arcane fields of study.
Ideally, of course, the expectation might be that in a civilized country some public funding should be earmarked for the Humanities rather being reserved exclusively for subjects which have inextricable links to employment and the promise of secure remuneration for the takers – but this in the current environment is to enter the world of fantasy.
I should perhaps interpose at this point – in case I am otherwise mistaken for a supporter of those who long for the anachronistic ‘Idea of a University’ of Newman – that I do strongly believe that vocational and professional programs should be retained in universities, preferably at the more advanced levels rather than the basic, but that there should continue to be a significant place for traditional fields of study in the Humanities and Arts.
Universities, in short, should continue to seek, refine and disseminate knowledge across the broadest possible spectrum.
It is, I think, clear, if regrettable, that a protest about the changing role of universities is not going to come from within.
The key challenge is to arouse disquiet from without about the dangerous impoverishment that will come with an essentially functional university sector, where preservation of our cultural heritage, never mind the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, is viewed as irrelevant, and where, to borrow words from the poet Shelley, an inexplicable apathy to our debt to Greece has supervened.
Unfortunately, it is far from easy to identify a plausible resistance movement.
The baton of keeping alive our cultural tradition must necessarily be passed to the younger generation, and in an environment where (for example) computer-literacy is increasingly promoted as more important than literacy and where appreciation of the past counts for so little, there is a danger that the youth of tomorrow will be ill-equipped, even if motivated, for such a challenge.
In such a context the threat to Humanities in general and to Classics and Hellenic Studies in particular is no longer a matter for debate but real and immediate.
Professor Michael Osborne was for 16 years the President (Prytanis) of an Australian university. He is currently Emeritus Professor at the University of Melbourne and Guest Professor at Peking University and Beijing Foreign Studies University.