When geeks rule the world, you’ll all miss the arts students

On a cold, blustery Adelaide day about three years ago, erratic entrepreneur Elon Musk was talking about a mission to Mars.

He described spaceships ferrying people to the Red Planet, 100 at a time, until there was a million-strong city.

As we left his International Astronautical Congress keynote speech and wandered out to North Tce, a group of sceptical spacebods joked that Musk would struggle to create a civilisation because only male engineering graduates would apply.

It was a tragicomic image. A (literally) manned, one-way spaceflight ending in the Martian dust with a bunch of blokes suddenly realising there was going to be a fairly obvious problem with seeding the next generation. That, and the fact that for all the geospatial locator devices they had, none of them had a moral compass. Or a way to decipher the messages left behind by an ancient race.


The thing is, while the hard sciences are glorious and essential, they're a skeleton that needs the flesh and blood of the humanities to make a civilisation, well, human.

The Federal Government wants to shunt students away from the humanities and into the hard sciences. They've come up with a plan, after years of deriding humanities subjects as esoteric and useless. Under the plan, it'll be cheaper for students to enrol in maths, science, and engineering subjects, as well as agriculture, education, and nursing.

Which is just fine. But it comes at the expense of the social sciences. Of history, philosophy, and so on.

Education Minister Dan Tehan says the focus will be on making graduates "job ready". But the shambolic nature of the policy certainly gives the appearance of a Government that just wanted another JobSomething to follow JobKeeper and JobSeeker. Others point out why the policy seems like one of those essays you buy online that has been generated by a bot or hastily whacked together by an underpaid former economics student.

JobReady might not put people off at all, which would mean those who dream of studying history are saddled with historic levels of debt. Maybe it will work to put some people off - aspiring arts students who come from poorer backgrounds and are more sensitive to that debt.

Even back when degrees were free (when many of our parliamentarians were on campus) there were jokes about the arts student flipping burgers. But that's not true.

The latest Federal Government Graduates Outcomes Survey puts humanities graduates' workforce participation rate at 90 per cent. Science is about 84 per cent. We certainly will need more STEM-educated people in the future, but there is nothing in the stats to back up JobReady's premise.

Others point out this set-up could mean those hefty arts degrees could subsidise the other degrees, and that the majority of politicians have some sort of arts degree. And you don't need any degree to understand kids these days are likely to be more nimble, skipping through various jobs. So they need a good foundation of critical thinking, creativity, flexibility, and curiosity.

Don’t underestimate arts students. Picture: iStock
Don’t underestimate arts students. Picture: iStock


That future civilisation on Mars, just like any civilisation, needs more than the science. Science is what will fulfil our basic needs. We need more than that.

Philosophy might conjure the image of a Platonian geezer in a toga with a blank-eyed expression, but any society needs it for a critical understanding of morality, of rationalism, of logic. And we need geography and all the social sciences to understand our place in the world.

We need linguists to understand each other, and any ETs we might encounter.

We need archaeologists to unearth that Martian message - and to understand what's coming. (Just ask Adelaide's own space archaeologist, Flinders University's Alice "Dr Space Junk" Gorman.)

And without history, you might end up with policymakers who don't even know that slavery used to exist in Australia. Or who signed off on the destruction of ancient Aboriginal heritage sites.

The Federal Government doesn't want to eradicate the humanities altogether, but it does have a history of sneering at them, and a lack of understanding that without them we would end up in a world both barren, and alien.

Tory Shepherd is a columnist for the Adelaide Advertiser.



Originally published as When geeks rule the world, you'll all miss the arts students