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With Friends like John Armstrong …

The humanities’ vital contribution to the public sphere

John Armstrong, senior adviser to Melbourne University’s Vice Chancellor and ‘philosopher in residence’ at the Melbourne Business School, has plenty of advice for the humanities. Indeed he has a plan to save them. Armstrong has become something of a presence in the Australian public sphere; his articles appear in The Australian, magazines like The Griffith Review and Island and in significant online publications. He is a regular guest on Radio National, and he is the author of a number of books on ‘big’ subjects such as love, art, civilisation and beauty, all designed to make the humanities resonate with a wider public. He has been likened to Alain De Botton in the way that he connects the philosophical tradition with contemporary life. With this kind of exposure and influence, Armstrong might be the ambassador the humanities need. One could imagine his passionate defence of the ‘great tradition’ of culture as being the antithesis of Andrew Norton, whose higher education policy is steeped in economic rationalism. It would seem an almost Dickensian opposition of instrumentalism and cultivation. Yet a recent Age opinion piece finds Norton enthusiastically supporting Armstrong’s view of the humanities.

So what is wrong with the humanities, according to Armstrong? His major claim is that the ‘crisis’ in the humanities can be blamed largely on humanities scholars. The humanities have become too insular, a hangover from the ‘mandarin culture’ that developed last century. Academics in the humanities talk to themselves, rather than the public. Scholarly research no longer grapples with the big questions but pursues arcane trivia where success lies in outdoing or outperforming one’s peers. An oft-repeated anecdote from Armstrong’s book In Search of Civilization encapsulates his position. The author, surrounded by prestigious art scholars, enquires about their research. One explains that he is researching why in certain Renaissance paintings camels have their legs crossed and in others they don’t. Armstrong wonders what the ultimate purpose of such research might be, but remains dissatisfied with the response. To him, this example reveals the triviality of much contemporary scholarship.

In making such claims Armstrong verges dangerously close to anti-intellectualism. He never considers that knowledge ‘for its own sake’ might be good for cultures and civilisations, that curiosity is essential to the life of the mind, or even that ‘trivial’ research may lead to other things. Armstrong’s prominence and success in the public realm rests on a careful balancing act—he speaks in the name of the humanities, culture and civilisation, but is also dismissive of much in the contemporary world. The things Armstrong does like tend to be safely in the past—Victorian literature, some classical philosophy, the commonsense philosophy of Montaigne, the plots of Mozart operas or the architecture of roman villas. For Armstrong, there is ‘too much consensus amongst people in the humanities’, in fact there is a ‘political monoculture’. He dismisses the dominance of ‘theory’ and its inflated sense of significance. He links the ‘arrogance’ of theory with the withdrawal of the humanities from any wider social relevance.

Few would take issue with Armstrong’s desire that the humanities should have a contemporary relevance. Beyond this, however, his diagnosis is misplaced on a number of levels. To begin with many in the humanities do make contributions to the public sphere—in daily newspapers, small magazines, public speaking and online. Many of those contributors are trained in ‘theory’ but manage to translate this into an accessible form. This is not to deny the influence of the humanities has declined, but to question this requires more than unsubstantiated attacks on so-called mandarin academics, theory and political radicalism. Instead one could engage in the kind of specific historical analysis Armstrong dislikes.

One might note the changes in the public sphere—the lack of diversity in ownership that prevents or discourages a spectrum of opinion. If Armstrong wants to find a ‘political monoculture’ he might begin with the Murdoch press that publishes his opinions. At another level there are structural changes that transform the public sphere―the fragmentation of audiences in the digital age and the resulting pressure on traditional small magazines and print journals. Beyond this lies the massive transformation within the university itself. The heightened emphasis on research over scholarship, where contributions in the public sphere count for little compared to peer-reviewed publication and research grants. Despite inhabiting the university, Armstrong has nothing to say about any of these changes: he never acknowledges that the ‘audit culture’ driving university funding derives from the same business environment that he in turn fails to fault.

Unencumbered by any knowledge of the above, Armstrong advises that the humanities return to the more general project of ‘cultivating wisdom and taste’, that they could again become a ‘source of maturity in our society’. Cultivating ‘dispositions’ and ‘capacities’ should be the core mission of the humanities rather than ‘clever discussion’. Words like ‘wisdom’ and ‘maturity’ are thrown about frequently in Armstrong’s work, but they are vaguely defined and lack any sense of context. The same applies for his version of capitalism: simply ‘the economic expression of individual liberty’. Even ardent enthusiasts of market forces might recognise that capitalism changes as it progresses through history, from early forms of the market to modern industrialism to today’s consumer capitalism in which virtually all human activity is commodified. That this shift might impact upon the meaning of existence or influence human behaviour is lost on Armstrong. In his most recent book he sings the praises of civilisation, declaring that ‘no one ever bothered him’ in its name. Armstrong seems unwilling to accept that others might have been ‘bothered’ by the wars and colonisation that occurred under civilisation’s guise. He even takes Ghandi’s comment about Western civilisation being a good idea and interprets it to mean merely that the achievement of thinkers and artists has not influenced enough people, ignoring the anti-colonial context that informed Ghandi’s remarks.

Surely ‘maturity’ would constitute recognising that there is a politics to knowledge and culture—that they have been used to enshrine power and domination as much as they have ever liberated anyone. Walter Benjamin’s line about there being no document of culture that is not also a document of barbarism is apposite here. Whatever charges Armstrong might be able to point at ‘theory’, it has been very good at asking to what purpose is a particular idea or concept being put to use, and in whose name. The uncritical idealism that underpins Armstrong’s endorsement of Western culture means that he has no difficulty regarding the humanities as simply a civilising framework for the market. He argues that the ‘humanities could contribute powerfully to the good education of executives’, that consumers could be trained in matters of ‘taste’ and learn the habits of ‘serious thought’ from the humanities. No doubt this emphasis complements Armstrong’s time in the Melbourne Business School and no one would suggest that the world of business and the humanities should remain apart. The problem is that the critical and interpretive spirit that underpins so much of the humanities has been neutralised under Armstrong’s idealism and dislike of criticism or politics. Instead of a philosopher in the business school he reads like a businessman cast upon the shores of the philosophy department, unable to grasp what is before him.

When Armstrong speaks of the civilising role of the humanities he concedes that there has to be a ‘body of scholarly knowledge’ that informs university teaching, but that a ‘single scholarly base can serve pretty much the whole world’. It might ‘come from Harvard’ or from ‘across the campus’, it doesn’t really matter. The point is that there is enough ‘existing knowledge’ to do the job. Given that Armstrong believes there’s little point in generating new knowledge, that the critical function of the humanities is no longer needed given the state of freedom we inhabit, the result can only be a surplus of academics. Thus we find him endorsing the massive cuts made to humanities departments in the United Kingdom. No wonder Andrew Norton approves of his work, or that Armstrong is senior advisor to Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis who decimated the arts faculty at Melbourne. Like Armstrong, Davis is a big fan of teaching ‘wisdom’, as is Steven Schwarz, another VC known for downsizing the humanities. There seems to be a new discourse appearing in higher education; those who preach the cultivating merits of the humanities, but use the same logic to legitimise less than civilised practices. The very things Armstrong rejects—the critical interpretation of culture and the generation of new ideas—are precisely what the humanities might give to a world in crisis.

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.