Eminent Australians reflect on humanising the past, present and future

As we enter a new era marked by rapid technological change, major environmental challenges and shifting ideas about what it means to be human we called on several of our Honorary and Corresponding Fellows to offer their view on how the Humanities disciplines have helped deepen our understanding of our past and present, how they will help ensure a humanised future.
These 15 leaders in their field, who have made a significant contribution to the Humanities and the Arts, and to cultural life in Australia and internationally, also reflect on what is really at the heart of the Academy’s motto — Humani nihil alienum — “nothing that is human is alien to me.”
Robyn Archer

Art and War might appear to be at opposite ends of the human condition, but when ‘the Allies’ decided to commemorate the centenary of the 1914-18 World War, they did not turn to the dry archives of Defence Departments, but found that war was most vividly remembered through the lens of the artist – film, writing, poetry, photographs, painting, theatre, music – whether historical or contemporary. The artist puts past and present into beautiful but critical perspective, thus offering pathways for the future, evils not to be repeated, brilliant practice to be pursued. If that wisdom has not been heeded, must we in the Humanities find new tools for persuasion?

Robyn Archer is an internationally renowned singer, performer, writer, director, artistic director and public advocate of the arts.

Robyn was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow in 2014.

Rosi Braidotti

The vitality and productivity of the contemporary humanities defy all the prophets of doom that wonder about their future. The Humanities today have shown themselves capable of combining rigour with imagination, critique with creativity, tradition with transgression. They account for the tensions and the challenges of our globally linked and technologically mediated times in a manner that is empirically grounded, without being reductive; affirmative, without being over-enthusiastic and critical while avoiding negativity. The contemporary humanities respect their glorious humanist tradition, without making concessions to ethnocentrism and pursue the task of speaking truth to power and voicing the aspiration of the marginal and the dispossessed, while labouring to construct social horizons of hope.

Rosi Braidotti is a distinguished university professor at Utrecht University and founding Director of the Centre for the Humanities at Utrecht. For over 15 years she was the founding professor of Gender Studies in the Humanities at Utrecht and served as the first scientific director of the Netherlands Research School of Women’s Studies.

She was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow in 2009.

Many will grant that human futures stand threatened today by humanity’s spectacular and technological success in flourishing on this planet. Undeniable are also the insights the sciences have given us into human behaviour that humanists could not have provided on their own. But the sciences cannot answer some critical questions affecting our future: What, for instance, is the experience or meaning of being human? Nor can they help us settle questions of value. This is where the Humanities remain indispensable. Humani nihil alienum means that meaningful conversations about being human today have to involve both humanists and scientists.

Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor in History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.

He was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow in 2006.

Australia is suffering from the deep malaise of triumphant mediocrity in many areas, not least on all sides of politics. The great Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma said that “Culture helps us imagine a better future”. When the world is in such poor shape, we need our artists to define the issues and propose solutions. At home, our artists tell Australian stories in their rich and colourful diversity. Abroad, our artists make the very best Ambassadors because they speak the common language of the heart, their focus is not transactional and intent on profit, their currency is our shared humanity. They open doors to mutual understanding and thus a better future for us all.

Carrillo Gantner is an actor, director and philanthropist. He is the Chairman of the Sidney Myer Fund.

He was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow in 2008.

Photo by Darren James

We live in a culture that thinks the best – even the only – way to solve problems is by the application of conscious, reasoned thought: analysis, argument, statistics, algorithms. We need those approaches, but the Humanities offer a complementary suite of problem-solving strategies: tapping into the power of the unconscious and letting loose perhaps humanity’s greatest treasure, imagination. Our imaginations can go into hard places that no amount of reasoning can penetrate. The imagination is in the business of thinking the unthinkable, and for the problems we face now, that’s the kind of tool we need.

Kate Grenville is the author of nine books of fiction, including Lilian’s StoryThe Idea of Perfection, The Secret River, and The Lieutenant. Her fiction has been awarded many prizes, both in Australia and internationally.

She was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow in 2008.


To get to the facts I go to the archives.

To tell the truth, I must turn elsewhere.

            John Flaus, ‘The journalist, in confidence’

Australian documentary film offers enduring insights into the textures of the past and complexities of contemporary social experience. A country without documentary film is like a family without a photo album. But in Australia today government policies and ratings driven broadcasting favour ‘viable enterprise’ over cultural criteria, so documentary mutates into ‘factual TV’, or migrates to the gallery, the film festival, the pop-up cinema event, the academy and niche on-line exhibition. Audiences must search harder.

John Hughes is an independent producer, writer and director for film, television and online media. He works primarily in documentary filmmaking.

He was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow in 2016.

Homo sapiens has morphed into homo economicus. In an age of prosperity most lives are devoted to production and consumption, all values have a dollar equivalent and ‘growth’ is the noblest aim of our society. The community and its leaders recognise astounding achievements in medicine, science (climate change excepted) and engineering. But we still fail to explore the terra incognita within us, and experience the shock of recognition, the joy of creativity, the glimpse of the numinous in philosophy, literature, history, music, the visual arts. Humanities are essential to explore and understand what human beings are capable of. Humanities need support – but humans need them even more.

Australian writer, teacher, lawyer, social activist and former politician Barry Jones is the first (and so far the only) person elected as a Fellow of the four Australian Learned Academies. 

He was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow in 1993.

‘Humanities’ means peace, doesn’t it? A plea for non-violence at all costs…

humani nihil alienum
and yet I am wary of a “Nation’s”
e pluribus unum;

not of the inner sanctum
we are often out of fashion
humani nihil alienum?

and then we’ve the homo sum
humani nihil a me alienum puto variation 
e pluribus unum.

we can feel them twitch à la jus ad bellum,
and the dire straits of human vs human:
humani nihil alienum?

but love is love and thus cor unum?
reach across the chasm and be more than a many as [that] one?
e pluribus unum?

in cauda venenum?
sine qua non?
humani nihil alienum 
e pluribus unum…[?!…]

John Kinsella, pacifist

John Kinsella is a poet, novelist, critic, essayist and editor.

He was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow in 2018.

Photo by Sasha Hadden

Humani nihil alienum. I remember enough from my Latin class in 1951 to know that this means: Nothing that is human is alien to me. At about the time I came to understand these words, I realised my sexuality. It sure was “alien” to the law and to most attitudes in Australia at that time. After a long struggle, things got better. Not because of minimalism or economics. But because of deep values that we came to understand as civilised human beings. We need to liberate our minds from minimalist thinking, intolerant religious dogmatism and flat earth science. We do that by exploring disciplines that record, explain and predict the human story.

Michael Kirby is a past Justice of the High Court of Australia and Chancellor of Macquarie University.

He was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow  in 2006.

Photo by John Tsiavis

Churchill’s few words on this occasion have always seemed to me the best summary of what we’re living for: “Britain had run out of money for munitions during World War II at a time when they were expecting an invasion from Germany. Churchill called an urgent meeting of his cabinet and asked what could be done to raise money for munitions. One of his senior ministers suggested they take the arts budget, which was substantial. Churchill replied, ‘But that’s what we’re fighting for.’”

Alex Miller is a celebrated Australian novelist and two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, first in 1993 for The Ancestor Game and again in 2003 for Journey to the Stone Country.

He was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow in 2011.

The Humanities are more important than ever, as we seek to deal with the big challenges of the age. The industrial age has produced the existential threat of climate change, destroying nature as we have known it, and the unfolding realities of globally connected surveillance capitalism, now threatens to undermine our humanity. We can only effectively respond if detailed knowledge of the values, stories and experiences that underpin our humanity are widely known, shared and cherished.

Alex Miller is a celebrated Australian novelist and two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, first in 1993 for The Ancestor Game and again in 2003 for Journey to the Stone Country.

He was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow in 2011.

The Humanities make and give meaning to human endeavour. Both individually and collectively, people seek meaning to contextualise, make sense of and affirm their place and their role in the world. The long perspective of the Humanities helps us do just that and it is a wonderful gift. If we fear a dystopian future, won’t it be crucial to harness the power of the Humanities to understand the implications and to help shape a meaningful future? If, as a recent Deloitte report contends, the future of work is human, it will be just as important to continue to pursue creative and innovative approaches to our humanities-based enquiry. Here’s to 50 Years of the Academy of the Humanities and the many decades to come!

Alex Miller is a celebrated Australian novelist and two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, first in 1993 for The Ancestor Game and again in 2003 for Journey to the Stone Country.

He was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow in 2011.

More and more, our view of the past and present is all too easily fogged up, so that we can’t see ourselves. To study the Humanities is to rub away this patch of mist. They make clearer where each and every one of us has come from. They put into perspective where we stand now. On top of everything, the Humanities light the way to where we’re going; at their best, in such a way that we are excited, even impatient, to get there.

Nicholas Shakespeare is a celebrated biographer and novelist, resident of both the UK and Australia. He was described by the Wall Street Journal as ‘one of the best English novelists of our time’.

He was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow in 2018.

Photo by Alletta Vaandering

Nearly two thousand five hundred years ago, Socrates challenged Athenians to examine their lives and the values in accordance with which they were living. Philosophy continues this quest, seeking the values that should guide us as we grapple with global poverty, climate change, genetic selection of our offspring, and biodiversity loss. Philosophy changes the lives of its students. It even challenges the Academy’s motto, Humani nihil alienum, querying its implied exclusion of nonhuman animals, and perhaps in decades to come, of new forms of consciousness generated by artificial general intelligence.

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne.

He was elected to the Academy in 1981 and became a Corresponding Fellow in 2016.

Literature has always offered me more than storytelling. Reading prose and poetry—in whatever form—provides a set of entry points into the context of human society and how the observing eye and, often, a surfeit of emotional connections can follow two threads: the pleasures of the text itself and then the endlessly enriching act of analytical thought. It took me time as a young woman to realise each of the Humanities disciplines was formed from a different viewing platform, imaginatively, and the erudition and instinct carried in literature could suggest ways a lay reader such as I was to enter into past, present and future. A lifelong pursuit.

Terri-ann White is the Director of UWA Publishing and established the Institute of Advanced Studies, a cross-disciplinary centre at the University of Western Australia.

She was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow in 2012.

The Humanities are a reflective extension of who we are. The hHmanities are what illuminate our status as human and our understanding of ourselves. When the philosopher Protagoras observed in the fifth century BCE that “people are the measure of all things” he was suggesting that it is impossible to understand our universe without understanding ourselves and each other. A job for the Humanities is the enterprise of grasping who we are, where we have come from and where we might be going. One thing, though, is clear. Without the Humanities no one would wish to live. Who would wish to live in a world without music, poetry, art, literature, food and drink, thought, sex, criticism, exercise, entertainment, friendship, ethics, disagreement, curiosity and love?

John Vallance is the State Librarian of NSW and a distinguished scholar in classical studies.

He was elected to the Academy as an Honorary Fellow in 2018.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.