Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Mark Tredinnick The Inhumanities

The Sheldonian Theatre. Source: Oxford University.

Mark Tredinnick, The Inhumanities; Or, the war on the humanities & why our humanity is at stake, September 2020

“It is difficult to get the news from poetry/ but men [and women] die miserably each day for want of what is found there.” William Carlos Williams


IS IT A COINCIDENCE that at a time of protest around the world—a cry for systemic reform, an outcry against the failures of imagination and the decimation of the spirit, against the smallness of mind and meanness of heart, against the exploitation of the earth and of each other, upon which the colonial project and global commerce have depended—is it a coincidence that at just this time the Australian government, a more reactionary and ideologically driven regime than any we have known, has decided to dismantle the humanities?

Or is this animosity to the humanities and their work—the getting of wisdom, the elevation of the mind, the ennobling of intellect, the refinement of moral judgment—deeper-seated?

The project of economic rationalism, the elevation of the market over the common good—Chinese style, US Style, Australian style—depends on dumbing down the populace. It depends on frightening them into jobs and into degrees that “guarantee” them jobs. Tame the populace and let the managers get on with maximising the profits and commodifying everything else: this seems to be the unwritten lore of the ideology that has taken over conservative thought across the globe. Let them be consumers. Not citizens. Or, if you can help it, voters. Let them not, above all, think for themselves or rock the economic boat.

The project that enriches bankers and miners and management consultants turns on keeping too many people from thinking too much: get them spending instead, keep them fearful for their job; teach them that ownership of real estate is the embodiment of all virtue, Whatever you do, keep them from opening books and aspiring to something more for themselves and all selves than the servitude of the salary.

The humanities teach us how to think. How to Be. And how to do it for oneself. They teach one how to write and speak. For oneself, on behalf of interests greater than one’s own. They school us in ethics, in care, in imagination. They ask us to ask ourselves to do better with our living. And how to ask for better. For instance, from those in power. The humanities help us to know what, beside profit and security, counts. For any and every human life.

We need universities, specifically we need the humanities, because from time to time one will get a government like this. When the lesser angels of our nature, as Abe Lincoln put it, win out. We need the humanities because of the risk in all societies that the discourse of democracy and the syntax of civility will fail, and from time to time craven interests may prevail.

Is this perhaps why this government wants to price humanities out of the reach of anyone who might still understand why they need to study them?


I’VE BEEN grading papers; forgive me these dark thoughts.

The students I teach got the highest ATARs you can get. They’re smart, and they have consciences and hopes. And most of them think they should do big data or finance or accounting because that’s where the jobs are. And few of them can write a sentence that carries you safely from one end to the other. Not many demonstrate what it is we need the arts to teach us: empathy of outlook, grace of speech, sophistication of thought, historical understanding, largeness of vision.

What I see in my work as a university teacher is that the humanities are already having too little bearing on the minds of our young. They and the future they build will suffer in consequence. Funding for the arts keeps falling. Writers cannot afford to live. Tellingly, late last year, the Arts and Education both disappeared into mega portfolios that give priority to economics, the only idiom, along with marketing, this government seems to speak. These were already times, then, in which the humanities were under threat. Now the government has decided to price humanities out of reach.

 Universities do not exist to serve markets. They are not chiefly a lever of economic policy. Or the servant of any ideology. It is not, in a civilised society, their mission to manufacture for employers the skilled units of production industry thinks they need. Universities exist in part because the kind of life one has in an economic conception of the world is at best half a life. Because it has long been known, as it is said in the Bible and other such wise books, that men and women do not live by bread alone.

The crisis of our times is not the risk of joblessness. (That is always a risk, of course, and one that artists and humanities teachers know more about than most, since creativity and sophistication of thought have become less and less bankable since economic rationalism got about.)

The crisis of our times is that, though one may have a job in a thrumming economy, one will not have a life—or the skills to fashion one—that is worth what it cost to live; and one will not have an Earth on which any kind of safe and wealthy human life is very possible at all.

We don’t need job-focused degrees (heavy on data and light on wisdom). What we need more than ever is students who learn how to live and who know how to help others live meaningful and meaning-making lives. We need minds capable of apprehending merit and beauty and of fashioning justice and joy; we need hearts that know how to care for the wreck of the world and the wreck of other lives that the prevailing economic and political models have made; we need minds skilled at the craft of conserving what’s left, and keeping it habitable for human—and all sorts of other beings.

All this the humanities may teach.

And if they are under attack, what does that say of the government—and the ideology it enacts—that attacks them?

No one needs more bankers without a moral intelligence; no one needs more tone-deaf property developers or engineers without an ecological imagination. We need teachers, sure: but will they know how to write or speak and inspire? Will they know what education is for? We need psychologists, sure; but will they have the language to help their clients imagine richer, more adequate lives? We need mathematicians, but will they know the arithmetic of compassion, the measure of each human life? We need more scientists, but who will credit and gather the data of lived experience, the inner life of reefs that fail?

The truth is no one can perform a job or lead a life well, no matter how qualified in a discipline, if they have not learned humility and ethical sense, the weight of a human life, reverence, critical thought, and the capacity to hold, as F Scott Fitzgerald once put it, two competing ideas in mind at the same time and see their merit and still stay sane.

All this—the qualifications for a good life and not only for oneself, the capacity for higher order thinking, for moral imagination—all this the Humanities teach.


WE NEED THE HUMANITIES to remind us how to be human; we need them (history, politics, philosophy, music, design and so on) to show us the best and worst that humans are capable of. The moral universe is the realm of the humanities. One way and another—through learning history, languages, ethics, design, logic, aesthetics, grammar, composition, graceful speech—the humanities ask us, and try to show us how, to do better as humans—to think harder and more astutely, to look farther and deeper, to decide for ourselves, informed by the wisdom of ages and many ways of seeing; they show us how to make more liveable societies and more beautiful moments and places; they teach us how and why to ask more of ourselves and of language. And of governments. Which may be why a government like this wants to price the humanities out of reach.

We need music because we have factories; we need poetry because we have politics; we need the humanities because we have economies, and because there is always the risk that one might enter dangerous times like this, and governments like this.

For this, one fears, is a government that has no account to make of what the arts are for. Which is this: every life is improved by what the skills (of mind and hand and heart) the humanities teach and the arts practise. And more: no one will survive their life without poetry and story and singing and painting and dance, without the larger, richer world the arts remind us of and hearth us in when our lives sometimes reduce themselves, in despair, to something as inadequate as having (or not having) a job, to the instrumental sense of self colonialism and mercantile ideologies reduce us to.


A PERSIAN MAN once said to me: the poets carry civilisation on their backs. The humanities assert the human in the face of the mechanistic, and they teach us a little of how one might seek a life of depth and calibre and how to seek it for everyone else, too.

Is it because the minister responsible for education, Dan Tehan, (not to mention the prime minister) has no conception of what his arts degree failed to teach him that he and this government want to demonise the humanities and put them out of the reach of most students? Or is it because they know too well what one only learns from the arts—from love of and pursuit of wisdom, from the disciplines of becoming more fully human?


UNIVERSITIES are founded on the idea of teaching the universe: all things, and a capacity to understand and embrace them. When was it we decided to convince the young that a university was where you qualified yourself for paid employment—and earned the right, if you were lucky, to afford some real estate?

A few years ago, I found myself at Oxford University, one of the world’s oldest. In the forecourt of the Sheldonian, as snow fell, I looked up at the names of the schools of study engraved on the lintels, and I found there an essay, admittedly from another era, before the age of science and economics, of what a good foundational education might entail: History, Grammar, Rhetoric, Astronomy, Natural Philosophy, Metaphysics, Mathematics, Music, Geometry. It’s an incomplete list, of course, but it sounds like the start of what every student should still have a right and certainly has a need to know.

I would have thought a civilised society felt it had an obligation to teach humanity—to teach the arts of thought and speech and conception and sight and judgment and knowledge of the natural order—to its young. As well, thereafter, as some skills to help them find paid work. A government that does not understand what education is for is a government that needs to go back to school.


HUMANITIES TEACH independence (of mind and speech)). They teach courage and self-reliance and critical imagination. They teach justice and what it means, and how it must always be fought for, since capital and commerce will always work against it. They teach freedom. Of thought, of choice: that life matters, that black lives matter, and women’s lives matter, that all lives matter, and that each of us has a duty to allow each other to live the best life they can make—while seeking that also for oneself and one’s children.

The Arts teach one how the real world goes, and that it does not go the way the ideologues (in religion and banking) say it does. The real world has nature in it and music and fine language and forests and love. And god help us, beauty. The Humanities teach one how to be a citizen, a being, and not just a consumer or an employee; they teach you how a job is not a life, how a good life might go, how self-interest will not keep civilisation liveable, how technical knowledge, though great, is not the same thing as wisdom.

Teaching the impossible craft of imagining and thinking analytically at once, the humanities improve us and free us from fear and help us refashion worlds, not just occupy the role the market designates.

The humanities teach you how to unpack a dodgy argument, to smell a rat. To smell a crock.


FORGET THE TRIBAL wars, the culture feuds, some would engage in. It’s too late for all that. It always was.

There is only humanity and the more than merely human world. There is all the work we have yet to do to begin to understand each other.

There is no west and east; there is only civilisation and the wild, the world and the human heart and time, and time is running out.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2020
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