Friday, June 26, 2020

The Classics matter

Some people might expect me to be enthused that the Australian government recently announced that the tuition costs for university degrees in the humanities and social sciences would increase and the costs of undergraduate degrees in mathematics and sciences has decreased. This is based on three unquestioned assumptions and values. First, university is a job-training program. Second, all these extra mathematics and science graduates will get employment in the area that they study. Third, there is no need to address the massive other problems that Australian universities are facing, further accentuated by covid-19.

The central purpose of a university education is to learn to think.

Why study the classics? Recently, I read the following letter to The Economist written by Robert Machado, a PhD student in classics at Cambridge.
As a teacher and researcher in classics, I care profoundly about the subject’s purpose (Johnson, May 2nd). Too many of my colleagues rely on the guff that it teaches grammatical rigour or fall back onto vague assertions about the origins of Western civilisation. Although it is good to have a knowledge of ancient societies, the study of classics or indeed any ancient peoples offers one important transferable skill. When studying any ancient civilisation, one quickly brushes up against the reality that 99.9% of the information one would like to have is already lost. This forces any student or researcher to reflect hard on what data can be used. We must carefully analyse and argue over every scrap, while avoiding the temptation to come to conclusions that the data do not justify. In an age where we are faced with a glut of data, knowing what they can or cannot be used to say is vital.
Rodney Stark was a well-established sociology professor at the University of Washington when he made the bold move to work on the history of early Christianity, making use of methods and concepts from sociology. In the Preface to his book, The Rise of Christianity, he notes
my effort to reconstruct the rise of Christianity has been a cherished hobby - a justification for reading books and articles that now fill an entire wall of my study. It would be impossible to express adequately how much pleasure I have gained from these authors. I am convinced that the students of antiquity are on average the most careful researchers and the most graceful writers in the world of scholarship. 
Parenthetically, I note that Stark's work and attitude provides a model of how to successfully break into a new field.


  1. The rise of fees that students must pay for studying Arts is unfortunate. However, I think the narration being built on arts vs STEM is also overblown and hides the real actions being done to universities.

    Most media only show the amount that students need to pay. But, the total funding universities get per student consists of government funding and student's fees. If we see the total funding per student, I'm honestly puzzled how one can say that this policy favours Engineering, Science, Medicine. Details of the funding levels is available in

    From the above data, the amount that government pays universities for Engineering and Science students is decreased by > $2.5k/student, for Medical Science, it's decreased by close to $8k/student. Due to the reduction in student fees too, universities now must teach each Engineering and Science students with > $4.5k less funding per student, and Medical science students with > $10k less funding per student. I doubt that the increase in the number of students covered by the government would cover the above reduction, esp. since many classes in these programs would require each student to use equipments, chemicals, etc. that may be difficult, if not impossible, to share. In contrast, government funding is reduced by only $47 per Creative Art student and a little over $1k per Law and Economics student.

    Given the above data, I don't think the narration of a policy that favours STEM over Arts actually holds.

  2. Like the rest of the humanities, classics are being colonized by wokeness and critical theory.

  3. I agree with this post. A society that has a balance of the Natural Sciences and the Humanities works best, economically and socially. Recent events have however emphasised how Australia has underfed its manufacturing sector the past couple of decades, relying heavily on less expensive alternatives from other markets. Is it then probably not so bad to place a higher priority on Science and Engineering for the next 20 years, before going back to a more balanced set of pursuits?