It’s been a good week to bucket humanities students. First cab off the rank was Half term Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Given that she “trashed the National Endowment for the Arts” – nicely put by an LA times blogger – on the Fox News Talk Show, her views that the arts were “frivolous things” perhaps shouldn’t be taken seriously by anyone studying the humanities at university.
But then Australia’s own Amanda Vanstone waded in to the debate. The former Ambassador to Italy, and minister for employment, education, training and youth affairs in the Howard government wrote a rather large opinion piece declaring that we pander to the snobbish middle class at the expense of other school leavers. (The Age, Mar 21)
Vanstone is fuming that university students do not have to repay their HECS debt until they are earning just under $45,000. “This generous treatment only panders to and enhances the snobbish, middle-class, inflated sense of being better that so many tertiary-educated people seem to display” she wrote.
Worse was to come. Vanstone spoke highly of “a Filipina woman” who only had Catholic nuns to thank for what little education she received. She however, is “decent, hardworking, honest and principled”. Vanstone compares her to many people she has worked with, who had a tertiary education “some of whom had picked up few, if any, of the abovementioned qualities”.
Typically, it just takes a handful of dishonest, university educated slackers to give the rest of us a bad name.
Leaving aside when one should repay the HECS debt, I find it interesting that Vanstone believes tertiary educated people seem to display an inflated sense of self. I brought this up with a humanities graduate working in a call centre. They replied “well of course I think I am better than people without a degree. I need to for my self esteem as generally they out earn me.”
Vanstone might think tertiary education is to blame for shaking Australia’s long held belief that we are an egalitarian society. But I think it has more to do with money. Go to any private school – surely a litmus test for a divide between the haves and have nots – and inquire as to what the parents do for a living.
In Baby Boomer times and before that – back to the Menzies era if you like – one only needed a father with a profession in order to educate a tribe at a private school. While the 21st century will find high flying lawyers and specialist doctors at parent teacher nights at Arcadia Grammar, the tertiary educated class has largely been edged out by the new money class, such as business people with a strong work ethic and a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
Wealthy Generation X parents from trade, retail and info tech clash with tail end boomers who thought a university education would buy status (lucky they have equity in properties in expensive suburbs). It’s the formula for a status showdown and it’s happening all over Australia.
Alas, a university education isn’t what it used to be in terms of earning potential. Especially if one attains that degree in the humanities. Well, then, what about status? Sadly, hard working HECS saddled graduates probably don’t get much of that – especially if they are simply the clever country’s low paid white collar office fodder. Welcome to the world of the educated but downwardly mobile class. That is if you count money as a class factor (which Vanstone seems to do)
US author Christian Lander (author of Stuff White People Like) sends up this downwardly mobile aspiration in his new book Whiter Shades of Pale. “Young white people…prefer internships that put them on the path for careers that will generally result in a decrease of material wealth (at least when compared to the wealth accumulated by their parents)….White people view the unpaid internship as their foot in the door to such high-profile, low-paying career fields as journalism, film, politics, art, nonprofits and anything associated with a museum.”
Author Christos Tsiolkas, whose successful Melbourne suburban novel The Slap is being adapted for television, said that some of the tensions in his book are to do with this debate about class.
In an interview by Belinda Monypenny and Jo Case, Tsiolkas says “One of the most fascinating aspects of Australian cultural life over the last 20 years has been the changes in the working-class, both the so-called ‘battlers’ and the ‘wogs’. Are we all middle-class now?…There’s also a patrician class that has got wealthier. Then there’s the great swathe of the middle-class, and finally the under-class which no-one wants to fall into. I think that in part explains the level of uncertainty, frustration and aggression in contemporary Australian culture.” (Thurs 30 October 2008)
Where does this leave me, half way through my doctorate in creative writing? In a window seat on the last train to snobsville, that’s where. I just want to know one thing – can I get a student discount?
Evelyn Tsitas is a PhD student in Creative Writing at RMIT University. The co-author (with RMIT Public Relations lecturer Caroline van de Pol) of the parenting book Handle With Care, Evelyn has an extensive background in journalism and communications. Evelyn writes crime fiction (she is the winner of a Scarlet Stiletto Crime Writing Award) and Gothic horror; excerpts of many of these short stories can be found on the Clan Destine website.
She also writes about media, popular culture and society in general at On Line Opinion a forum for public social and political debate about current Australian issues and Scoop, the independent New Zealand news site.