Is it Worthwhile Beginning a History PhD in Australia?

In the immortal words of Reverend Lovejoy, “short answer yes with an if, long answer no with a but…”

            Recent political developments have attracted a great deal of discussion amongst my postgrad/teaching associate colleagues and myself. At the top of the list has been the proposed intervention of politicians into the funding for research projects.

            We have been especially concerned about the statements made regarding ‘ridiculous’ projects that Liberal politicians have targeted for attack; projects that us humanities scholars actually feel are very important and worthwhile. It seems that the new government will take a deep interest in ensuring that research funding is not ‘wasted’. Who determines what ‘waste’ means (politicians) is the key issue.

            This led me to ponder the question as to whether in this funding environment it is worthwhile starting a doctoral project in the humanities. From one perspective, it could be suggested that this is a terrible time to begin a project, with the uncertainty of financial support making an already stressful project even worse.

            But after thinking about it for a little while, I believe that now is the most important time to conduct the kind of research done by historians and other humanities scholars.

            The kind of work done in the humanities leads us scholars to question, investigate and critically evaluate not only our specific topics but also the world around us. It seems that it is just this kind of approach that conservative elements in our society find most alarming. Academia is therefore a battleground upon which the ‘culture wars’ are going to be fought over the next few years.

            As such, it is more important than ever that the work of historians and other humanities scholars be continued and strengthened by new research projects. Whether the work being done looks at gender roles in the Middle East, the work of German intellectuals from the 18th and 19th centuries or the influence of the United States on Australian politics in the 1950s and 60s, it must continue.

            By rejecting the proposition that politicians can intervene in research funding (a concept I find absolutely offensive), new scholars can maintain a sense of independence in their work. In other words, now is the time to demonstrate that it is not only in science and medicine that ‘valuable’ research can be conducted. Now obviously the practicalities of this are not as simple as I’ve presented it, but a spirit of resistance needs to be harnessed in the current climate.

            I’ve been surprised by my own reaction to the statements of the Coalition, as there is a part of me that is convinced of the importance of my work. To be confronted with the view that a large segment of society views the kind of work that I do as ‘ridiculous’ is deeply concerning.

            It is mainly for this reason that I think now is the time for scholars in all areas of the humanities and social sciences to come together to show that what we do is just as important as what other academics do. With this in mind it is not only worthwhile for new students to commence a research degree in the history or some other area of the humanities, it is absolutely necessary. 

A link on The Conversation also deals with issue in an excellent way.


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First Post!

ImageI’ve been meaning for quite some time to set up and start doing a blog that discusses things relevant to my work, and also to allow me to comment on anything else that attracts my attention. Firstly, I will quickly introduce myself. I am a PhD student in the National Centre of Australian Studies at Monash University. My work examines the influence of American power and ideas on Australian policy in Southeast Asia in the first couple of decades of the Cold War. I am particularly interested in the interaction between the work of academics and policymakers, particularly when the work overlaps and scholars enter public policy or vice versa. I will be using this blog to explore the progress (or lack thereof) that I make in my project and also to just discuss things that are on my mind at a particular time.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’ve wanted to start a blog for some time, but as with many things during a PhD, there constantly seemed to be something more important to do. This changed over the past couple of days. The Australian Federal election took place over the weekend and saw the Tony Abbott-led Coalition take government with a fairly safe majority. I can honestly say that this campaign absolutely did my head in, and I voted for neither of the major parties, both of whom I found particularly uninspiring.

This was not the thing that inspired me to write, however. Instead, it was a series of announcements by the Coalition that drew my attention. First, Tony Abbott announced a ‘relaunch’ of the Colombo Plan, which would see a ‘two-way’ exchange of students between Australia and Asia. I am interested in the ‘original’ Colombo Plan, and so was naturally interested to see what the Coalition had planned.

The new Plan is to provide $100 million over five years to assist students to either come to Australia from Asia or vice versa. This is a change from the original Colombo Plan, which only saw Asian students coming to Australia. According to the Liberal Party’s official statement, this will assist our part of the world to become the ‘beacon of prosperity that we would like it to be.’

I was intrigued by the use of the name Colombo Plan to describe this policy, as the historical and cultural baggage associated with the phrase will undoubtedly cause comparisons to be made. I was also intrigued, as the ‘original’ Colombo Plan still exists, with similar goals to those espoused in the early 1950s by Australian External Affairs Ministers, Percy Spender and Richard Casey.

The work of the early 1950s is acknowledged by the Coalition, but it is claimed that the New Colombo Plan will be ‘different and better than the original.’ It would appear that the only reason for this is the addition of an outbound component to the funding. The legacy of the original Colombo Plan would appear to be one of cultural exposure and exchange that comes from young people being exposed to a different environment.

This legacy was not really identified from the outset of the plan in 1950, and only really emerged over the first decades of the Plan. Instead, Australia’s Colombo Plan policy saw a growth in foreign aid spending, in line with broader attitudes amongst Western countries during the early Cold War.

This contrasts with the Coalition’s plans to lower foreign aid spending over the next few years, citing almost the exact same arguments as Treasurer Arthur Fadden from the early 1950s. The line ran, ‘We can’t continue to fund a massive increase in foreign aid at the expense of investment in the Australian economy.’ Joe Hockey’s words could’ve come straight from Cabinet discussions in 1951.

So we have a ‘new’ Colombo Plan being established in the context of lower foreign aid spending to contrast with the original Plan established as one of the first examples of Australian assistance in the region. It will be interesting to see whether this plan takes hold of public attention in the same way its precursor did. Something tells me it won’t.

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