The Economic Case for Humanities Education

The humanities subjects (History, Geography, Civics, Economics) are often maligned and underappreciated in the context of modern education. The lack of a simple, quantifiable measurement of their importance often results in these subjects being given relatively little attention compared to other core subjects such as English, Maths and Science. This is despite the Humanities, particularly History, being a core subject in the Australian Curriculum. To address this issue and to help promote the importance of Humanities education, a pragmatic line of argument, highlighting economic benefits as well as civic and cultural benefits is required.

The most common argument made against humanities educations in schools is that it holds no relevance to the ‘real world’ or has a clear economic benefit compared to subjects such as maths and science. This argument, however, is beginning to change within the business community. As the economy transitions from a traditional, manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge economy based on technical expertise and overall knowledge of business processes, the skills demanded by employers are changing. Soft skills, such as verbal and written communication skills are more and more in demand. A recent Conversation article found that miscommunication because of a lack of soft skills such as written and verbal communication as well as adaptable thinking, skills which Humanities subjects emphasize, costs businesses hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Addressing these skill shortages is a top priority among all industries. Humanities subjects, particularly subjects such as History, Civics and Economics are crucial in this regard. Mark Cuban, the billionaire investor, is one business leader who subscribes to this argument. He believes that in the future, liberal arts college majors and the soft skills they develop will be in ever-increasing demand by employers.

The cross-cultural knowledge which humanities subjects provides is also important in this argument. As the world becomes more and more globalised, an awareness of world nations and cultures is increasingly important. To be able to effectively do business with and communicate with people from a variety of backgrounds, a detailed knowledge of history, society and civics is imperative. Without this knowledge, businesses cannot adapt as well to the unique circumstances and requirements of each country and society with which it trades and interacts with, costing sales, output and more.

The challenge for humanities educators to prosecute the case for the humanities is clear. As Humanities educators, we are all aware of the benefits of an in-depth Humanities education, in terms of enriching students’ understanding of the world around them and their overall civic knowledge. This argument alone, however, is not a sufficient defence of the Humanities. It is important to also clearly and explicitly explain the economic and business benefits of Humanities majors to policy makers as well as the wider community. Only by doing this will the respect and attention the Humanities requires in relation to the Australian curriculum requires occur.

Australia- United States relations and the Trump Administration

Australia’s foreign policy is currently in a precarious position. It is in a delicate position at the best of times, firstly having to balance many competing interests and nations in a complex South-East Asian region. There is also the issue of maintaining deep ties in trade between the United States and China, the two most powerful nations in the world who have in many ways opposite interests. The election of Donald Trump and his subsequent rhetoric on several issues, particularly on international trade and security arrangements as well as his positions on institutions such as the United Nations and NATO has caused many nations around the world to re-evaluate their relations with the United States. Australia is no exception to this speculation, despite being historically tied closely with the US. Since the election, there have been widespread calls for Australia’s government to closely re-evaluate the relationship with the United States.

These potential differences have become much more clear in recent days, in a temperamental phone conversation between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The call, scheduled for an hour, ended after just 25 minutes. According to the Washington Post, the main point of contention between the two leaders during the call was a refugee deal brokered at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. This deal involved 1250 refugees being taken in by America that are currently being held in Australia. Though neither Trump nor Turnbull would elaborate on the allegations, the report gives an indication that some of the norms of the Australian-US partnership may no longer be a given.

Aside from this conversation, there have been other indications that Australia is willing to part with the United States on key issues, such as international trade. Just days after inauguration, Trump signed an executive order to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal. In keeping with Trump’s promise for an ‘America First’ approach to trade, Trump appears to be reviewing all of America’s trade deals. By contrast, Turnbull is pushing hard to keep the TPP alive, willing to re-negotiate the deal even with America’s withdrawl. He has reached out to key nations such as China and Japan in order to salvage a deal, despite indications that a United States withdrawal would lead to the TPP being scrapped altogether. Reaching out to China is another move which will likely cause a clash with the Trump administration, given the administration’s trade policies toward China.

These disagreements suggest that Turnbull is heading toward a foreign policy agenda which, while still valuing the United States as a close ally, is willing to disagree and clash on issues. There is, of course, a long history of deep economic and security ties between the two nations. Despite Trump’s early actions, this is unlikely to fundamentally change. It is likely that unlike previous American administrations, the Trump administration will have to be dealt with on an issue-to-issue basis. Unlike his predecessors, Trump does not agree with every aspect of the world order as it currently stands. This is particularly true on the issue of trade and to a lesser extent to security arrangements. There will inevitably be conflicts as Australia, as with every other nation, comes to terms with the Trump administration and its approach to governance.

The State of ‘Flow’ and Combat Sports

The state of ‘flow’, often referred to as being in ‘the zone’, is an important concept in psychology, especially in sports psychology. The flow state, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a state where a person is completely absorbed in a task or activity, particularly one which involves creativity. It occurs when a task is being performed that is difficult and requires concentration, yet is performed in a manner which feels effortless, natural and without deliberate thought. Flow state, therefore, is the state of mind conducive to the greatest level of growth and achievement in relation to a skill, task or action. There are several steps necessary to achieve a flow state, per Csikszentmihaly. These are, briefly, as follows:

  • There are clear goals every step of the way.
  • There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
  • There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  • Action and awareness are merged.
  • Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  • There is no worry of failure.
  • Self-consciousness disappears.
  • The sense of time becomes distorted.
  • The activity becomes an end in itself.

A flow state can occur during any activity, even a task as mundane as eating food or cleaning dishes. However, it is usually associated with activities such as art and especially sport. Indeed, many elite athletes in professional sports have described the flow state, or ‘being in the zone’ as a critical element of their success. Scientific research backs up these claims, showing that the flow state directly correlates to improved athletic performance. According to several studies, achieving the flow state is associated with a measurable reduction in the amount of errors made in a sporting situation, as well as a heightened state of overall awareness, leading to enhanced performance.

Control over the mind and thoughts is especially important in combat sports. These sports are often characterised by the casual observer and non-practitioner as being only concerned with physical strength and ability. The mental and psychological aspects of these sports is often overlooked or dismissed outright. From personal experience as a practitioner of Muay Thai kickboxing, I argue that this could not be further from the truth. The ability to perform in any sport, especially a combat sport such as Muay Thai, requires complete control of one’s mental state, thoughts and emotions. The ability to control your mindset and thoughts in relation to executing a task in a state of flow is essential for a combat sports practitioner, particularly the latter stages relating to distraction, fear of failure and self-consciousness is critical. All the physical conditioning and preparation counts for naught if training occurs under during a state of mental anxiety, unease and self-consciousness. A routine training task, such as hitting pads or shadowboxing can one day be relatively simple and the next day exhausting if emotions are not kept in check. This disparity in exertion for the same task becomes even greater if emotions are not kept under control in a more complex situation such as live sparring. Coming to terms with this fact and mentally training to attain a state of flow has become the primary ongoing obstacle for me to overcome in my Muay Thai training. As difficult as the physical fitness aspect of training in this sport has been thus far, training the mind to be calm under duress has been far more difficult an obstacle to overcome.

Though I have used the example of Muay Thai to illustrate the concept of the flow state and the importance of controlling the thought process in mastering skills and executing them in an effective manner, flow state can occur in any instance. The process of outlining clear goals, deconstructing the goal into manageable yet challenging steps and then practicing these with a positive mindset that focuses on practice as an opportunity to learn and develop, rather than as something to feel apprehensive or self-conscious about is a process and mindset that can be applied to anything in life. An awareness of how the flow state occurs and how to work towards it can improve performance in all manner of tasks.

Mindfulness and Meditation – A Primer

 

The concept of mindfulness is one which has been talked about much in the media and popular culture in recent times. This concept is often described as an antidote for the various stresses, anxieties and problems faced by large portions of the population. In the last decade mindfulness-based cognitive therapy has gained much mainstream traction in psychological therapeutic practice. Mindfulness is, simply put, a state of open and active attention to the present moment that is free of judgement. In this context, a judgement-free state of attention to the present moment means simply acknowledging the current moment as it is, whether it be a good or bad situation, without further emotional judgment. Rather than being preoccupied with thoughts about the past or the future, mindfulness, when practiced correctly, allows for calmer, clearer and more rational decision-making and thought. Mindfulness and concentrating on the task at hand, practiced over an extensive period, leads to a variety of quantifiable benefits, including reduced stress, increased memory and reduces emotional reactions to situations.   Though it is often talked about in relation to meditation, mindfulness can occur at any moment, during or outside a period of meditation.

Mindfulness and meditation are often coupled with Eastern religions and spiritual practices such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Though the practice originated with these traditions, mediation and mindfulness is not inherently a spiritual or religious practice. It is quite possible and in fact beneficial to de-couple the practice of meditation from religion. As famed neuroscientist Sam Harris notes, many meditative practices derived from Buddhism and Hinduism are inhibited by the beliefs associated with these practices. Rather than focusing on the beneficial aspects of meditation, these practices often concern themselves with ritual and religious dogma, much of which detracts from the act of meditation itself. One of the forms of meditation that avoids this pitfall is vipassana, or ‘insight’ meditation. This form of meditation focuses on non-judgemental attention to the present moment and creates the conditions necessary for mindfulness.

Many scientific studies have shown the clear psychological and neurological benefits to a regular practice of meditation. Despite its reputation as being an impractical spiritual practice, meditation has quantifiable benefits in a variety of ways. For a start, it has been proven to create more grey matter in the brain, which has a positive benefit on cognitive performance, processing of information and reactions to situations. Meditation practice has also been associated with changes to the amygdala, which regulates ‘fight or flight’ responses, allowing for calmer and more rational decision making under duress.

Meditation, like most new skills and practices, is simple to understand, but difficult to truly master. The first step, sitting down, closing your eyes and breathing, is relatively easy for most people. Being able to concentrate on the act of meditation without either being consumed by or repressing thoughts, however, is significantly harder. Distractions quickly arise and can easily overwhelm the beginning meditator. When this inevitably occurs, it is important to focus on an anchor, such as the breath to ‘reset’ the mind back on the task of meditation. Though the breath is a common and ideal starting point, anything can be used as an anchor. Developing an ongoing mindfulness and meditation practice is not an easy task. It requires discipline and work the same way as developing a consistent practice in any other activity does, whether it be an exercise routine, a diet or learning an instrument. For those willing to put in the effort of a consistent practice, however, the benefits are clear and worth the time investment.

2016 US Election -Donald Trump as US President

Donald Trump is the new President of the United States. This statement, thought impossible by most political pundits, pollsters, journalists as well as much of the Western world, has come true. In what some commentators and political websites are describing as the biggest political upset in American history, Trump defied the odds and has become the new POTUS.

As outsiders observing the US election from afar, it can seem perplexing at first glance to see Trump elected as POTUS. Unlike traditional presidential candidates, his policy details are often lacking, sometimes even incoherent. He has been embroiled in innumerable personal controversies which seemingly would have disqualified other candidates from being in the conversation as a serious candidate for POTUS. I am among those who think that Donald Trump is not a worthy candidate for POTUS for these reasons (for what it’s worth, I think the same of Hillary Clinton). Despite this, it is important to note the context for how a candidate as deeply flawed as Donald Trump managed to become POTUS. Only by taking a serious, measured look at these circumstances can the necessary lessons be learned to ensure another candidate as inept and unqualified as Donald Trump does not get elected POTUS.

Firstly, despite a level of recovery since the financial crisis of 2008, many Americans are still in a precarious economic situation. Half of all Americans have no savings at all, and 70% of Americans have less than a thousand dollars in the bank. Whilst Americans in metropolitan centres have largely resumed living at a pre-crisis standard, this has not been the case in rural America, which Trump virtually swept in the final vote. Jobs are scarce and opportunity to advance in life is even more scarce. The rural/city divide extends to cultural issues. In rural America, people felt alienated and forgotten, lacking control over their lives. In many instances, these Trump voters had voted for Obama four and eight years ago. Despite this, having felt ignored by the current administration and the nation at large, they felt no other option but to vote for Trump, despite often having reservations about specific policy issues and his personal character.

The big question now is what exactly a Trump administration will look like. His presidential campaign was based on challenging Republican policy orthodoxy, particularly on key issues such as trade, immigration and America’s place in the world. In all these instances, Trump won the rhetorical debate first against the Republican establishment and ultimately the voters. On trade, Trump promised to put America first, including promises to rip up or renegotiate trade deals as well as taking measures to prevent jobs from leaving the country. On immigration, Trump has argued against current immigration levels and has promised to build a wall along the southern border of the United States to help deal with illegal immigration from the Mexican border. Trump has also repudiated America’s role as the world’s foremost power on international issues, particularly in relation to issues such as the Middle East and Russian involvement throughout Eastern Europe. This is in sharp contrast to the neoconservative doctrine which has been a GOP staple since the presidency of George W Bush.

Whether Trump will firstly follow through on these specific policies or policy directions and whether he can make significant reform in these areas remains to be seen. Throughout the Republican Primary and the general election, Trump has taken several different positions on a variety of issues, including cornerstone issues of his campaign such as immigration and trade. Many of his policies, including many of his proposals on tax are either unworkable or would require significant adjustment to be feasible. Other proposals which Trump has raised, particularly in relation to combating terrorism would be in violation of the United States Constitution. Examples of these include his proposals for torture and to place a blanket ban on Muslim immigration from the Middle East.  More importantly, despite the Republican Party having a majority in both the Senate and Congress, he may face significant opposition to many of his proposals. Many Republicans in both the Senate and Congress are opposed to Trump ideologically and may vote against his policies on a variety of issues.

From an Australian perspective, a Trump presidency could have significant ramifications for the Australia-United States alliance. Trade deals will likely have to be re-negotiated, quite possibly on terms less favourable for Australia. On significant geopolitical issues, such as the ongoing situation with China, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric toward China, if followed through in policy and action, would leave Australia in a particularly precarious position. Australia has major trade ties with China despite being allied closely with the United States and were America to engage in a trade war or a military conflict over the South China Sea, to name two examples, Australia would be in a severely compromised position, being obligated to side with America in these circumstances. So far, the Australian Government has been diplomatic and insisted relations with the United States will not change. It is hard to imagine, however, if Trump is serious about his positions on international relations, how a reworking of the Australian-American alliance will not occur.

Venezuela On The Brink: Economic and Humanitarian Crisis

Venezuela is in the grip of an unprecedented humanitarian and economic crisis. Much of the population lives in poverty, masses are making do without even food and the most basic of supplies and the economy is in utter ruin. It is estimated that as many as 9 in 10 citizens do not have access to adequate amounts of food, and spend almost the equivalent of a standard working week each month queuing for food. Supermarket shelves are frequently empty of any kind of food, with scavenging for food scraps now a common practice in the country. Beset by a lack of opportunity or even basic supplies, the crime rate, particularly violent crimes, has skyrocketed. Venezuela currently has the second highest homicide rate in the world after El Salvador. At this point, it is almost inevitable that the country will either default or go into complete economic collapse within the next 12 to 24 months. The cause of this humanitarian crisis has been an economic collapse years in the making, which has been compounded exponentially in the last few years.

The chief cause of Venezuela’s remarkable collapse has been the staggering mismanagement of the economy firstly by authoritarian Socialist president Hugo Chavez and then by his successor, Nicolas Maduro. The state-controlled oil industry, which accounts for half the country’s revenue, is at the centre of the story of Venezuela’s economic collapse. For many years, the oil industry has been run incompetently by both Maduro and Chavez. The state-run system, which did not allow for private competitors, became inefficient as well as corrupt. In addition, price controls set by Chavez in 2003 reduced the industry’s global competitiveness and eventually rendered Venezuelan currency virtually obsolete, creating a black market. The profits of the industry, estimated at some $250 billion between 2001 and 2015 was spent entirely on social programs including the importation of food, often in a wasteful and ineffective manner. However, as the global oil price collapsed in the last few years, so too has Venezuela’s ability to take in revenue from oil. Worse still, oil production has reduced in recent years. Despite this, there has been no change to Venezuela’s ambitious social programs, nor any change to the Venezuelan oil industry, or indeed its economy in general. With inflation tipped to reach 700 per cent by the end of 2016 and the overall economy to contract between 8 and 10 per cent, drastic changes are needed immediately. However, there is virtually no chance of this occurring, at least while current president Nicolas Maduro remains in power.

The crisis is compounded by the authoritarian nature of Maduro’s rule. Despite his immense unpopularity (a recent poll indicated only around 15 percent of Venezuelans would vote for him in an election or recall referendum), Maduro is holding on to power through a series of increasingly unconstitutional and dictatorial moves. Maduro recently amended via decree the country’s Constitution to grant him more executive power at the expense of the country’s Congress. President Maduro has also recently sacked hundreds of public servants who signed a recall petition demanding a referendum on his presidency, as well as the majority of his economic team after scarcely a month in power. The opposition has recently gathered sufficient votes to force a recall referendum on Maduro’s presidency. Maduro, however, has delayed holding the referendum. In the meantime, the opposition leader Daniel Cebbalos has been imprisoned. This move comes as part of a broader crackdown on political opposition and dissent in the country.

Despite the seriousness of the crisis enveloping Venezuela, the international community’s response to the situation has been mild. There has been limited effort into managing the ongoing crisis, and when efforts have been made, little more has been produced than generic statements of concern about the situation. Yet, there is a real possibility that Venezuela could collapse as a nation completely, destabilising the entire region as well as having significant implications for the global oil market, causing ripples in the global economy. A much more concerted effort is needed to manage the ever-escalating Venezuelan crisis, and it is needed now. The Venezuelan state could collapse at any moment, and if so, the international community is inadequately prepared for the implications of this collapse.

Racial Discrimination Act, 18c and the free speech debate

The debate around the Racial Discrimination Act, specifically section 18c, has been a hotly debated topic in Australian politics for an extensive period of time. The issue has once again come into the spotlight in recent weeks as backbench Coalition senators have again raised the issue, citing 18c specifically as having a ‘chilling’ effect on free speech. Section 18c, among other things, declares unlawful ‘offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin’. One recent case in particular has re-energised conservative members of the Coalition in repealing Section 18c. The case in question involves a former employee at the University of Queensland Technology suing the university and students at the school. The incident in question occurred in 2013, when the employee removed students from a computer lab designated for Indigenous students. The students then took to Facebook to complain about the incident. The posts made by the students were deemed racially offensive by the employee and sought damages totalling nearly $250,000. Three years later, the case is still yet to be resolved.

Supporters of the law argue that Section 18c is a necessary component of the Racial Discrimination Act, on grounds of alleviating racial abuse and discrimination and as a way of curtailing hateful speech towards minorities. On the issue of potentially curtailing free speech, advocates for 18c cite the following provision, 18d, as a counter-argument against these concerns. 18d states that ‘18c does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith’. For supporters of the current legislation, the combination of both Section 18c and 18d of the Racial Discrimination Act strike the balance between protecting minorities against racial vilification and maintaining freedom of speech.

The desire to eliminate racial discrimination and vilification is, of course, a noble and worthy goal. No sensible person would argue otherwise. However, the current manner in which Section 18c is written, as well as cases such as the aforementioned case, can at times cause unintended consequences and potentially stifles discussion on sensitive issues. In particular, the terms ‘offend and insult’ within the wording of 18c can be stifling. Acting New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Ronald Sackville AO argues that this wording requires amendment. He cites Section 2A of the Racial Discrimination Act as being a legal safeguard against racially hateful actions. Section 18c and 18d, he argues, are vague and subjective in their wording, making establishing an objective and consistent legal standard for what is permissible and what isn’t permissible impossible. As a result, he argues, free speech is compromised, as there isn’t currently an objective standard to what could be considered as insulting or offensive.   Although the issue of amending the law is primarily favoured by right-leaning politicians and commentators, support for amendment can also be found among the Left, for this reason. Prominent progressive lawyers and commentators such as Julian Burnside, David Marr and Phillip Adams all support reform of the legislation on grounds of it stifling freedom of speech.

The issue of the Racial Discrimination Act and 18c in particular will likely not be a priority for the Coalition in the near future, with Malcolm Turnbull ruling out any amendment for the time being. The Act is a source of discontent for many backbenchers within the Government, however, and the broader debate of free speech and racially sensitive issues is one which will not go away. When the time comes that the Racial Discrimination Act is put forth for amendment, a mature, nuanced and comprehensive debate is required. A complex, sensitive piece of legislation such as the Racial Discrimination Act requires careful examination of all the potential legal ramifications and precedents.