AHA Conference 7 July 2015

Keynote Address: The ‘Crisis in the Humanities’ in Comparative Perspective- Peter Mandler

A beautiful crisp winter morning to start the conference.  The Keynote Address was given by Peter Mandler, Professor of Modern Cultural History and Bailey College Lecturer in History at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.  Titled ‘’The ‘Crisis in the Humanities’ in Comparative Perspective”, and replete with graphs and statistics,  it was an unusual opening address.  Confining himself to examining  recruitment to undergraduate degrees in US, UK and Australia , he argued that the “crisis in the humanities” has been a familiar trope since the 1950s, and that in fact, the sciences have fared even worse, without being characterized as being ‘in crisis’.  Instead, by broadening the definition of ‘the humanities’, the proportion of students in the humanities has remained remarkably stable despite the democratising shift to mass education and the corresponding dramatic expansion of subjects on offer.  Former polytechnics and technical colleges have been integrated into higher education, and they are not (despite their names) necessarily about technology but the humanities.  He noted that during the 1970s higher education was no longer seen as an “investment good” in terms of human capital theory, but instead as a “consumption good”: that people wanted to go to university.  This is still the case, despite lobbyists calling in the media for increased STEM uptake (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) as an economic growth measure.  The humanities are not ‘in crisis’, he argues, any more than the sciences are: the story is neither declinist nor triumphalist.

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History and Fiction

The first concurrent session for the day was History and Fiction. Bronwyn Lowe discussed Enid Blyton, who was wildly successful with young readers (particularly girls) in 1940s and 1950s Australia, but also widely disparaged by teachers, librarians and some parents for her repetitive  and formulaic plots, two-dimensional characters and more recently, on class and gender lines.  The BBC banned Enid Blyton’s books  as early as the 1930s, and even though not actually banned in some Australian children’s libraries until the 1960s, they were viewed as being ‘not the right sort of book’.  Some of this concern revolved around the quantity of Blyton and that some children would read nothing else- a similar complaint perhaps to the Harry Potter phenomenon (although by now the heat has gone out of the argument as there is more relief that children are reading something in these screen-based times.) By looking at reading surveys and interviews conducted by academics over the years, children’s pages in the newspapers at the time, autobiographies and nostalgic memoirs, she noted that Blyton books often became a currency in their own right among children swapping and collecting them, and that the concerns by parents about their deleterious effects were largely misplaced.

Christopher Bond then examined Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, which has been criticized by some military historians for historical inaccuracy and inauthenticity by its melding of fictional characters with the historical figures of  the poets Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon and Dr Rivers.  He referenced Hayden White, who speaks of the way that historians deploy ‘emplotment of the past’ in the writing of their histories- a phrase I hadn’t heard before, but find interesting.   Although Tolstoy also combined historical and fictional characters in War and Peace, he has not been subjected to the same criticisms as Barker has, possibly because of his iconic status and detailed descriptions of military strategy- but also, he ventured, because Barker is a woman.  He noted that Paul Fussell, the venerated military historian, excluded all war literature written by women and citizens, and yet Stephen Crane, whose Red Bad of Courage has been highly acclaimed, was never a soldier.

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Colonial Elections

After lunch I attended the Colonial Elections session. Chris Holdridge examined elections in Van Diemens Land, where the anti-transportation league was trying to flood the Legislative Council with their representatives.  Elections as public performances were an expression of political will, even though the majority of men were not enfranchised to vote.  He examined poems, posters and squibs in the 1851 and 1856 elections where the question of ‘character’ and convictism were deployed against emancipists. In particular, he spoke of the 1856 mayoral election and showed a hand-drawn election pamphlet which attacked mayoral candidate ex-convict William Thompson for his former ‘career’ as a flogger of his fellow convicts. Somehow this pamphlet nestled amongst the ephemera at the Mitchell Library- the stuff of historian goosebumps!

Naomi Parkinson compared the siting of  Jamaican and New South Wales colonial elections. In Jamaica, elections were held in the policeable space of the courthouse, with non-voters excluded, whereas  New South Wales held strongly to the English practice of out-door hustings where anyone could attend and question the nominees. Although women could not vote in either colony, electoral proceedings conducted outside made it possible for them to be spectators from windows or carriages.

Finally, Howard Le Couteur  used newspaper sources to explore the case of the Chinese candidate James Chiam who contested and won, in a landslide, a by-election for the Maryborough Municipal Council in 1861.  In his election speech (delivered in Chinese and translated for listeners)  Chiam identified himself as a naturalized settler who spent his money here (as distinct from remitting it to China) and identified with the working men of Maryborough, who were wary of Chiam’s business-men opponents.  Although Chiam only acted as alderman for a few months (possibly because he recognized the limitations of his poor English), his election demonstrates an overlooked example of  Chinese agency in local politics.

Foundational Religious Histories: Local and Global, Past and Present

The final concurrent session of the day was part of the Religious History Association strand and I found it quite different to the other sessions. Mark Jennings spoke on Pentecostal Charismatic Christianity (PCC) as a manifestation and possible influence on late modernity. PCC is an ecstatic religion which sees the act speaking in tongues as proof of God. It makes up 23% of the population of the United States and is the fastest growing religion in France, with Hillsong and similar manifestations in Australia. I was surprised that the movement dates its origin only back to the turn of the twentieth century, with the American narrative placing its origins in 1901 in Kansas and 1906 in the Apostolic Faith Church in Los Angeles.  However, he argues that it can be seen as a broad set of movements, emerging in other places in the world at much the same time e.g. the Welsh revival of 1904, India.  He suggests that PCC and late modernity exist in symbiosis with each other, particularly through the influence of rock-and-roll.

The second speaker was Bernard Doherty who spoke on ‘Spooks and Scientologists: Secrecy, Surveillance and Subversion in Cold War Australia 1954-1983’ which traversed almost fifty years of interaction between Scientology and ASIO.  Since 2000 the National Archives of Australia have been releasing the ASIO files relating to Scientology going back to the mid-1950s.  It was a broad-ranging paper, encompassing Whitlam, Lionel Murphy, and the Ananda Marga and the Hilton bombing.  He suggested that ASIO gave low priority to Scientology (and likewise to its critics, most particularly ALP publicity officer Phillip Bennett Wearne) but Scientology’s belief that it was under surveillance became a self-fulfilling prophesy. It has, however, kept the question of ‘who watches the watchers?’ alive ( an even more salient question today given recent events).

Keynote Address:  In the Beginning: The Origins and Impact of the Alliance between Church and State in the Delivery of Welfare Services in Australia

This rather unusual and confronting session was followed by the Keynote Address for the Religious History Association given by Shurlee Swain. This was far more familiar territory for me, as she traced the nature of church/state relations in the delivery of welfare services.  Right from the start, Australia eschewed the Poor Law approach of England: either people had suffered under it themselves as bounty immigrants shovelled out of England, or because they did not want to pay taxes.  Hence Australia opted from the start for a subscriber charity model which was ostensibly non-sectarian but was, in reality, implicitly Protestant. During the second half of the 19th century there was increased Catholic provision and the proliferation of mission-based evangelical services.  By the 1960s the church/state partnership was beginning to fracture with declining church attendance and the increasing diversity of voices that had the ear of government.  However, in the 21st century, as the post-welfare state wound back government action, competitive tendering changed the relationship between church and state again into one of mutual dependence.  She then moved on to the current child-abuse commissions, noting that in the UK (think Jimmy Saville, politicians etc)  there is not the same narrow focus on the churches that we have in Australia. However, she suggests, there is an undercurrent that is beginning to question the charitable tax treatment of church organizations, while faith-based organizations are finding themselves providing a mission to their own professional staff. Strange times indeed, explored well in a terrific presentation.

Note to presenters: These are my impressions, gleaned from my rather inadequate notes at the end of a long day. If I have misrepresented what you said or included inaccuracies, please contact me at the email address in the ‘About’ section.

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4 responses to “AHA Conference 7 July 2015

  1. Enjoying your reports. Glad you are there attending for us.

  2. You do such a good job of these posts Janine. Thanks for the overview of the colonial elections papers which I was disappointed to miss.

  3. Pingback: Big Questions in History: History’s Relevance in Contemporary Society | Stumbling Through the Past

  4. Pingback: Twitter Themes During 2015 Australian Historical Association Conference | Stumbling Through the Past

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