The value of the Humanities programs

Recently in the Senior School, we recognised the value of the Humanities programs offered at St Catherine’s and despite not being able to host the numerous events onsite, our Assembly on Wednesday afternoon was an exceptional compilation of the curriculum aspects of our Humanities.

The VCE Humanities at St Catherine’s has always offered a strong and rigorous academic program and with the increasing interest of our graduates to study Economics, International Relations, Politics and Philosophy at universities such as Australian National University (ANU) it is often enthusiastically pursued by our students.

Seven of our current Year 12 students have received ‘Early Offers’ of study at the ANU in 2021, guaranteeing the girls a secured place in their preferred course and residential accommodation upon completion of their VCE this year. This is a wonderful achievement for the girls and provides a degree of confidence about their destination next year, particularly in light of the disruptions throughout 2020. It is also a reflection of the passion for Humanities instilled in students at St Catherine’s School.

Eve Rayner (’19) shares her experience.

“After having a VCE program that was entirely Humanities and Arts based, it only made sense to continue my passion at university level. At the moment I am studying a double degree of Law and Art History at ANU, with my courses built around the ability to analyse, write, and of course read a lot of information. All of these skills were established throughout my undertaking of Humanities subjects throughout school and especially VCE. ANU really encourages their Humanities students to extend themselves and thrive and I love studying here.”

At the recent VCE Parent Webinars for 2021 Subject Selection, I reflected with some apprehension and a level of curiosity of the changes occurring in the tertiary sector; most notably the financial implications brought about by COVID-19 and, more interestingly, the Australian government’s recent announcement pertaining to prospective university students planning to take subjects in the Humanities, Social Sciences and Law. As such, to enrol in courses like History and Philosophy, students would have to pay more than their peers studying the sciences, maths or healthcare. In the case of History, for example, the government proposed that course fees would rise by 113%. The cost of many Science-related courses would fall by 20%, with the biggest drop visible in Mathematics and Agriculture – where fees would drop by 62%.

Announced under the guise of ensuring ‘Job Ready Graduates’, the proposal stirred debate about what courses were seen as more or less vital to the Australian economy and highlighted the tensions around the role of universities; should they be a place of learning or of vocational training?

It remains to be seen if price will drive course selection across the Australian market. A survey conducted by The University of Melbourne investigated the experiences of first-year students between 1994 and 2014. When students were asked their main reason for enrolling, intrinsic interest in their subject consistently ranked highest, ahead of improving job prospects. In 1994, 94% considered interest in their field as an important reason to study, a figure that went up to 96% in 2014.

Understandably, the government wants to fund ‘practical outcomes’ such as helping people secure future employment. However, as suggested by Dr Simon Longstaff AO FCPA, Executive Director at the Ethics Centre, “there is something deeply irrational about turning one’s back on forms of education and endeavour that emphatically shape the world – but at a pace and by means we cannot easily measure.” As a well-regarded guest of St Catherine’s in recent years, Dr Longstaff maintains the view that we “underestimate the value of things like philosophy when assessed over the long term”.

“Nearly every branch of knowledge that we draw on today including science, mathematics, economics, medicine and psychology were thought into existence by philosophers. People motivated by nothing more than a love of wisdom (philo-sophia) have changed the world. The original concept of the atom came from DemocritusPythagoras brought us the role of constants in mathematics. The classification of species began from Aristotle. Thomas Hobbes ideated the modern nation state. Adam Smith brought us the free market and Peter Singer animal rights.”

Dr Longstaff argues that with the benefit of hindsight, the impact of such philosophers would have been difficult to demonstrate the ‘practical outcomes’ currently sought by the government. Undoubtedly, the benefit of studying both the Humanities and in STEM fields is sound. To achieve a thriving economy and well-functioning society, we need both STEM literate citizens and those well versed in the Humanities. It could be argued that a graduating-student should not have to choose between vocational training, a liberal education, or a STEM education at the expense of the Humanities.

A selection of strong and rigorous academic programs available as equally as possible provides opportunities for students to pursue their interests as much as possible, and create a path forward to what they love and enjoy. How or if these government decisions will impact our students in the future, and society in general, is unclear.

Mrs Michelle Carroll


Up next