A century after the torching of the Louvain library, what have we learned?

One hundred years ago today, the library at Louvain was destroyed, a great loss for study in the humanities. Carl Guderian, CC BY-NC-ND

The Louvain library in Belgium and its priceless collection of medieval manuscripts were destroyed by German soldiers exactly 100 years ago today – and so it is timely to ponder the links between education, conflict and political failure.

1914: The Year the World Ended, Paul Ham’s swingeing analysis of the lies and lacks of Europe’s ruling class who in their monocular desire to maintain an inequitable status quo plunged the world into war, maps eerily onto the contemporary global situation.

The Australian’s Greg Sheridan recently observed of the present outlook:

I can see a mood among policy makers and commentators that things are badly adrift … What is disturbing is a new series of geostrategic crises, an anaemic global economy and a breakdown in governance capacity.

Trouble is happening in almost the same spots – Eastern Europe (then the Balkans), the Middle East (then the Ottoman Empire) and East Asia (then the rise of Japan, today the rise of China).

In 1914 the response of imperial governments was porcine obduracy.

“Conservative politicians feared and rejected the masses’ demands for more representative unions, universal suffrage, proper health care, welfare and education,” writes Ham. “The ‘broken poor’ were widely visible at a time when the ‘super wealthy’ luxuriated in riches … The war provided a great distraction … a force for unity from the enemy within.”

Ham’s account of an unsustainable way of life slithering to egregious destruction, releasing a flood of horrors we are still coming to terms with, makes three things clear:

  1. war was not inevitable or something most people desired;
  2. domestic unrest was fuelled by the fact that the benefits of industrialisation had not flown through to society as a whole;
  3. Europe’s political and military elites were transfixed by a crude social Darwinism that prevented them from envisioning meaningful change.

Easier to channel 2. into 1., to sacrifice a century of international integration on the altar of expediency, race hatred and greed. The first world war was above all a cultural failure, an imaginative and intellectual unravelling.

This puts Humanities education in the blockhole when it comes to mitigating the errant effects of hobbled political decision-making. It is a tool we absolutely must deploy to combat Sheridan’s “international malaise” where dogmatism and egotism trump empathy and moral insight.

Unravelling at home

Now let’s switch focus from the stratospheric to the street-level.

In June this year, La Trobe University’s Vice-Chancellor proposed a radical restructure of his institution, one that will profoundly affect its Humanities teaching. Again. (There was a restructure of the School in only 2012.)

Four out of five associate professor and professorial positions are touted to be terminated, while courses in English, Creative Arts and Media will be curtailed. Officially, the University’s position is that “the vast bulk of staff will be retained” though “some may have… performance expectations more closely aligned to the University’s strategy.”

“Future Ready”, La Trobe’s jargon-heavy, cliche-rich strategic plan gives a good sense of what these expectations are. The Humanities do not figure in any of the five Research Focus Areas listed. Rather, the Future lies in health care, the environment and sport. In recent years, similar cuts have been made at universities across Australia (the evisceration of Monash’s Bachelor of Performing Arts degree is another example).

The ease with which Humanities disciplines are tossed aside by a university system whose ethos is managerial and technological rather than ethical and citizenship-oriented is one more indication that, educationally speaking, our current crop of leaders just don’t get it.

The Australians fighting for ISIS, and the much larger number sympathetic to their cause, aren’t brain-dead zombies. They aren’t attracted to mad, bad and dangerous ideas for the sake of it. They are repelled by other ideas – or the lack of them – that today’s Australia supposedly represents.

Rupert Murdoch tried to summarise these at a 50th birthday gala dinner for The Australian newspaper:

Our “have a go” entrepreneurial attitude; the sense of fairness; the merit of mateship; and the merit of merit … At heart, we have a fundamental belief in free markets, free people and free speech.

If this is a list of what we stand for then it is out of date, incomplete and at odds in key respects with our current national behaviour.

It is not enough to rail against religious fundamentalism and wave the stick of a Data Retention Act. It is not enough to say what we are against in 2014, any more than it was in 1914. We have to say what we are for, to communicate positive values beyond a shop-soiled neo-liberalism and the recycled nostrums of Banjo Patterson.

Thus far the federal government has been good at saying only what it opposes: boat arrivals; a carbon tax; higher public expenditure. Like US President Reagan – and Murdoch in his gala dinner speech – it adopts the motto “government is not the solution to the problem – government is the problem”.

A 1914 sentiment if ever there was one, and profoundly wrong given current international circumstances.

The fall-out from the first world war was catastrophic. There is no such thing as a free lunch, the economist Milton Friedman liked to observe. In 1914, the global economy was living beyond the means of the global polity to manage it and the price paid was a heavy one.

“Nothing held when the truth came home: certainties, faiths, slogans seemed to lose their solidity, to dissolve. The war literally destroyed solid forms and expectations. The very structure of existence ceased to exist,” Ham concludes. “A more terrible world arose out of the ashes of peace.”

Human, humane, the Humanities. More liberal arts degrees in themselves won’t solve the intractable problems 30 years of obsessing over markets and money have created. Yet the issue exemplifies the current situation in miniature: what are the deeper values informing our collective way of life? Do politicians know? Does anyone?

If the western world in 2014 is to solve the terrible problems it faces, two things have to happen: the wealth we so assiduously accumulate needs to be more broadly shared, and proper cultural flesh needs to be put on economic bones.

The time of the bottom line as the only line is over. We must put our mouth where our money is and take our cultural and intellectual legacy seriously. If we don’t, the torching of Louvain’s library stands as horrifying evidence of how easily this can disappear into the political night.