Australian Way of Life

Because History Matters

Written by
21 January 2022

Taking the Humanities more seriously in Western nations including Australia would help preserve our identity, values, and way of life, argues IPA Senior Fellow Sherry Sufi.

Nations of the English-speaking Western world face a crisis so unique that even thinking about it—let alone explaining it—can be a challenge. The United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia ostensibly belong to an impressive cultural tradition that traces its origins back to the British Isles. As argued in my recent essay ‘Jewel in the Crown’ for the Centre for the Australian Way of Life’s journal Essays for Australia, this group of nations (otherwise known as the Anglosphere) is exceptional. It has made disproportionate contributions to the advancement of humanity. Yet there is an ever-growing loss of confidence in the default identity and associated way of life across virtually all nations of this group.

There are social and political movements prevalent in these countries that are actively attempting to, and even succeeding in, reshaping social values and redefining national identities. In the UK, where there is no other indigenous population, activists are demanding greater representation for minorities in order to appear more inclusive. Yet it seems they are not aware of current UK government ministers such as Rishi Sunak (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Sajid Javid (Secretary of State for Health), and Priti Patel (Home Secretary)—or perhaps they simply ignore this fact, given all of those ministers happen to be Conservative Party members.

In the US, Canada, NZ and Australia where there are indigenous populations and other minorities, social activists are demanding compensation for perceived and actual wrongdoings of a colonial heritage. In the best case, the ‘progressive’ side of politics leading the charge on these outcomes seeks superficial symbolic change. For instance, the dates of national holidays or statues of historical figures (which, they argue, celebrate colonisation) or the lyrics of the national anthem or the flag or the coat of arms and other patriotic branding that represents the nation’s past. In the worst case, they could end up demanding systematic change of school and university curricula, deleting or revising history books in order to socially re-engineer society.

As concerned Australians, the question before us is: how has it all come to this? If we cannot answer that, then we won’t know how to fix it. This assumes such cultural revisionism is something to be fixed in the first place. It goes without saying, there is no shortage of theories and explanations that attempt to account for Australia’s (and the Anglosphere’s, generally) extensive cultural decline and loss of identity. There is no single factor, either. The root causes are too many to list. My essay ‘Jewel in the Crown’ addresses some of the ones which, in my view, are crucial. (See australia.ipa.org.au/essays)

We need to get more people excited about our past.

One cause that is rarely discussed is the way we, as a society, have come to regard what are generally called the ‘Humanities’ subjects. This is the field that carries all the nation-building content within it. It tells us who and what we are as a people, what happened in the past, how to deal with the challenges of the present, and to determine where we, as a society, wish to be in the future. It is the Humanities, also called ‘the Arts’ or Social Sciences, that has the potential to train us to be citizens capable of making informed decisions. It can equip us to make meaningful contributions to our democratic process. The Humanities include many subjects such as history, philosophy and literature. It can also include specialised fields such as sociology, anthropology or linguistics.

To understate the matter, a large part of the reason behind the cultural decline prevalent across the Anglosphere today is in no small part due to our widespread disdain for these subjects. History teaches us how to think about the past. It gives us our collective memory as a community, or what is often referred to as national consciousness. Yet it is portrayed and perceived as a dull, boring and irrelevant subject. ‘Why dwell on the past?’ ‘Live in the now.’ ‘Look to the future.’ These are the types of oft-repeated clichés that the cultural left often throws at you if you bring up history as a topic of dinner-time conversation.

History is like the ultimate Netflix series of the world we live in.

History is either dismissed as irrelevant, or reduced to a bunch of so-called ‘woke’ soundbites where certain propositions are deemed true without careful scrutiny or intelligent debate. These generally concern matters to do with European history or Western Christendom. Other cultures may, at times, be seen as interesting or exotic in their own right but even then, outside of academic niches, there is little appetite for delving deeper into exploring their proper histories and evolution beyond surface level curiosity.

To understand what history is and why it matters, let us use a contemporary analogy. Think of life—yours and mine—as a Netflix series that goes across multiple seasons. It involves characters and different stories within stories that happen throughout the episodes. Somebody who has not followed the whole show from the pilot until the latest episode may not be able to make sense of a crucial scene that takes place along the show’s trajectory in, let’s say, Season 3, Episode 5. That scene, without contextual awareness, would seem very random. So how could we make sense of that? One option is to binge watch the whole lot and hope that helps get our heads around who is who and what is what. The other is to read a decent review that sums up the highlights of who is who and what is what.

History, self-evidently related to our word ‘story’, is important because it is like the ultimate Netflix series of the world we live in. It tells a story of events, in a certain sequence, and it introduces to us the characters who drive those events. It connects the dots and shows us how past events moulded the world we live in. It evaluates the social, political, cultural, and military forces that shape the present. It attempts to put into perspective how and why things happen the way they do. It carries the shared experiences of earlier generations, the good and the bad. It tells us about deplorable actions humans inflicted on each other, such as slavery, wars of religion, and gender inequality. At the same time, it tells us about the abolition movement and women’s suffrage, to be reminded that we are a civilisation constantly attempting to improve itself. Yet history is, nonetheless, a discipline. It requires research and the collection of data, of sources, of testimonies. It requires analysis and interpretation. These data can be curated to tell whichever story one likes: that the West was inherently evil or that the West was inherently beneficial to the world. Yet a good historian would avoid either generalisation, and instead present an account that tells the whole picture as well as can be told within the limits of surviving evidence. This takes patience, time and a commitment to telling the truth.

The same can be said of philosophy, which teaches us how to ask the big questions. These may, for instance, include things like why we even exist, what is the nature of reality and being, how does one find meaning, how do we know what we think we know, how we distinguish between right and wrong, or why we find certain things beautiful or good. Philosophy does not necessarily carry its own purported domain of facts. There is no equivalent of a periodic table, so to speak. Rather, it trains us how to think for ourselves. If done right, it moulds the mind to become more analytical and think critically about big issues, then form the conclusions we feel we could confidently defend if challenged.

A better informed public is better equipped to make wiser decisions. A sound education in the Humanities would prevent us from being unduly influenced by the political and media elites, or social activists who too often only present an exaggerated account of one side of a story. Curiosity for the Arts only adds to our personalities and is indispensable. Yet when we think of a university education, we tend to think of the professional value it might add to our CV. In other words, what material wealth will this degree create for us?

Naturally, what are known as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects are perceived to carry higher professional value and utility. The general perception—whether in government policy papers or big bank hiring committees—is that those who enrol in Humanities subjects are not as serious about a useful, value-adding career as might be an engineer or scientist.

That we have become a culture that takes little interest in the Humanities explains to a large degree why it has become so easy for large sections of public opinion to be manipulated by a handful of activists. It further explains why issues such as the transition to renewable energy or the pandemic can be so totally dominated by STEM arguments: ‘trust the science’, ‘the science is clear’, and ‘do not deny the science’.

Scope for political policy debate or even the impacts on culture and society in the main is drastically narrowed. If you are not a climate scientist or an epidemiologist, you do not have permission to enter the debates on global warming or pandemic restrictions. Yet if a Labor or Greens politician proclaims Australia’s history to be one of murder and oppression, we cannot respond with JavaScript, differential calculus, or quantum theory. We require rational and persuasive arguments that understand our history and culture in a lucid and insightful manner. These skills can only be honed through a sound education in the Humanities.

To put it plainly, we need to get more people excited about our past. We need to get people asking the big questions—and this can be undertaken most meaningfully through a liberal Arts or Humanities education. Up until the industrial revolution, only a few centuries ago, the dominant force that defined people’s life, sense of family, community, and values was religion.

Celebrity worship has become a global cult.

Religion quite literally impacted every aspect of an individual’s sense of being, from the way they celebrated births, to the way they mourned deaths, to the way they conducted their marriages. Religion was that all-encompassing and defining force behind one’s existence. Having an interest in it was not optional, either. Everyone had to be religious to some degree. That’s just how things worked back then. Religion was how you remained part of the social structures in your community.

Clio (Κλειώ) the Graeco-Roman Muse of History.

When religion played a major role, some knowledge of history and philosophy naturally came to people as part of their upbringing. They did not have a choice. Indeed, our word ‘education’ comes from the Latin verb educare ‘to rear, to bring up’. In the present world, where religion no longer has the same degree of influence over individuals as it once did, there is no alternative binding force that can quite impact one’s sense of life, family, community and values.

Some scholars suggest nationalism—taking pride in one’s country—has been a substitute to religious sentiment. They argue school assemblies have replaced church choirs, and national anthems have become a substitute for hymns. To the extent this may be true, even that has come under attack, subject to deconstruction and revision by the influence of a cultural left that can no longer countenance old-fashioned flag-waving patriotism. By the mid-to-late 1900s, celebrities such as sports stars and rock stars became the new idols that people looked up to. With the rise of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in the current century, celebrity worship has become a global cult, whether you are a Kardashian or a Bollywood star. Blue checkmarks on social media platforms next to a celebrity name (albeit defined extremely widely) define whose opinion is the ‘credible’ or ‘approved’ one (the priestly class) and whose are simply the ‘followers’ (the laity).

Entire industries of ‘fact-checkers’—often funded by special interests which lack transparency, to put it mildly—have made it easier for people to accept an established opinion rather than research and think critically for themselves. To be sure, research takes time. Evaluating sources takes effort. Clicking Wikipedia links takes persistence, and picking up a non-fiction book takes discipline and attention. Discipline to read evidence and first-hand information, and discipline to synthesise this evidence and evaluate it against existing evidence. Far simpler to click on Snopes.com or consult the relevant 140-character sermon from an approved opinion on Twitter.

There is no longer a need for people to take an interest in history or philosophy when a talk-show host can tell you why America has always been a ‘racist’ nation, or why Australians ought to feel guilty about our colonial past. In a materialistic world, it is not surprising that people will view history as a dull, boring, depressing and time-consuming subject to research and understand, or as a compendium of fun facts about who invented what. History is a subject with next to no pecuniary benefit or practical advantage but with many points of view and often confronting, non-narrative fitting facts that are becoming increasingly redacted from school textbooks in recent times. Yet it is remarkable that, in my observation, the default mode of conversation in virtually all non-English speaking Western societies is through the Humanities subjects.

We need to take the Humanities more seriously.

Take a close look at Jewish, Islamic, Confucian, Hindu, Orthodox, and to a lesser-extent Buddhist civilisations, and we find that on a general level individuals actively enjoy discussing history and philosophy as a casual social conversation, not just in a university’s seminar room. They see the innate value of understanding the past and interpreting present realities through its prism.

The Jewish case is perhaps the best example. Having been expelled from their ancient homeland in 135 CE, the Jewish people came to be dispersed all over the Mediterranean world, and over time, far beyond that. Until the rise of the Zionist movement in the late 1800s, the Jewish community survived on other people’s lands, under foreign rule, often speaking foreign vernaculars, too often having to keep their Jewish identity concealed to avoid persecution. And yet members of this particular community never gave up their connection to the land. At the foundation of this strong sense of pride in one’s identity and way of life lies a strong education which forms the backbone of a standard Jewish upbringing. My dear friend the Emeritus Chief Rabbi of Western Australia David Freilich OAM once told me the reason for the success of the Jewish nation was that it never forgets its past. Nations that experience cultural amnesia cease to be nations. I agree.

In non-English speaking cultures, the Arts subjects are not necessarily demonised or seen as ‘non-value-adding’. If anything, they form the bedrock of collective identities and inform their approach to geopolitical and cultural debates on contentious issues. Yet in the English-speaking West, and many parts of Western Europe, we can be actively discouraged from discussing things perceived too sensitive or controversial over a dinner table. If the topic of Black Lives Matter or colonialism comes up by some ill luck, your best course of action is to just agree with the Blue-checkmark Class and change the subject promptly. The social cost of dissent is now too great. Unless this is corrected, it will be that small number of vociferous activists who will continue to lead our society down a path from which recovery may no longer be possible.

The crisis we face may be so unique even thinking about it—let alone explaining it —can be a challenge. Yet for all their flaws, I do believe the UK, US, Canada, NZ and Australia still embody the most democratic and free of all nations. The government, the media and our cultural leaders taking the Humanities more seriously would go a long way in helping preserve their society’s identity, the values, and the way of life that has brought these nations wealth and prosperity.

But all this, of course, assumes these institutions regard cultural preservation as ultimately good for a liberal, democratic society in the first place. As we head into 2022, it remains far from clear whether we can make this assumption with much confidence. Yet that is precisely why we now have the Centre for the Australian Way of Life. Here’s hoping for a brighter future.

For more information about the Centre for the Australian Way of Life, visit australia.ipa.org.au

This article from the Summer 2021 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Senior Fellow Sherry Sufi.

Main photo, Marc McCormack: Cooktown Re-enactment Association’s Justin Barr, as Cpt Cook, Fred Deeral, Waymburr Warra traditional owner, and Doug Jene, as a marine, in Cooktown prepare for the 2020 Festival to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the landing of Cpt Cook. 

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Sherry Sufi

Sherry Sufi is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

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