Why Lectures Shouldn’t Be History

If lectures are the heart of a university, then good lecturers are a university’s lifeblood. Luckily for me, my experience at the School of History has given me both. The proposal by the university to eliminate lectures from the School is absurd, and would only serve to run into the ground yet another valuable but neglected faculty.

Appreciation of history is a rare thing these days, but I reassure myself that within every economist, lawyer or Nobel prize winner is a historian trying to get out. When Britain was under attack from Nazi Germany, Winston Churchill was approached by his cabinet and asked to cut funding for the arts in order to funnel more money into the military. His response: ‘If we do that, what are we fighting for?’

While it is true that the ANU is not fighting Nazi Germany, it is a world-leading university. It can afford, and should prioritise, furnishing its students with a world-leading education about history. The old saying that ‘if you refuse to learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it’ was written for moments like these; if the university limits the School of History from teaching students directly, it surely dooms these students to ignorance.

Perhaps this statement seems melodramatic, but it is hard to understand how vital lectures are to the teaching of history unless you are a history student. You need to have a dialog about history to learn about it. That is something Echo360 will never be able to do and something students from other disciplines may struggle to grasp. History lecture slides are often a painting or a quote – trying to understand them without a qualified lecturer is like trying to understand a book by reading the last page.

This should not be interpreted as advocacy for a cheap ‘high school detention’-style seminar solution, where 150 students are crammed into a classroom for four and a half hours a week, trying to fill the roles of both lecture and tutorial. History is best taught when students are told a historical narrative by a qualified academic in lectures, and then presented with the opportunity to discuss this with their peers in tutorials.

Lectures have been the most superior method of teaching since universities began. They are the weapon of choice for scholars; Oxford began giving lectures in 1096 AD. It is arrogant and ignorant to dismiss almost a millennium of teaching pedigree to save a few bucks. ANU’s history department is world class. To strip it of lectures would be to strip it of its prestige. It would not revolutionise the ANU, but send it backwards – about 921 years.

The ANU has an unimpressive history of neglecting smaller faculties. The powers that be aren’t supervillains plotting the destruction of Schools from the top floor of the chancellery, but a pattern is beginning to emerge. In 2012, the 23 academic positions within the School of Music were cut to just 13, funding was withdrawn, and only one undergraduate music course was offered. At the time, enrolments were down to less than 100 students a year. If numbers are dwindling, shouldn’t the answer be to better fund the School – especially in such an established field as music – to make it more attractive to students? Either way, we are paying for it now with a half-hearted $12.5 million commitment over the next five years to restore its former glory. It would be a sad day indeed if the School of History headed down the same path.

Universities can be scary places these days. As a student, you’re surrounded by buildings you’ll never step foot in, with thousands of kids just as smart as you darting around. In the digital age, human contact has never been so important to preserve, and lectures from professors put a human face on the institution that is the ANU. Kids want to feel connected to their education, not electronically, but by forming friendships with professors and learning from them. If you want to build alumni that care about the university, start by meeting them.

Lectures are an investment worth making for any university education, but especially for the School of History. If they are removed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the School sees a drop in enrolments. And it won’t be a question of the chicken before the egg, it will be the removal of lectures before the decline in enrolments.