STEM sells while humanists yell

Michael Carley dissects the onslaught against third-level education.

Like the lizard-thing busting out of the astronaut’s half-digested chips, academics in Britain are erupting screaming into the broadsheets. The provocation is the “War on the Humanities”. The first sign of this war was a statement by the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan:

The arts and humanities were [once] what you chose because they were useful for all kinds of jobs. Of course, we know now that couldn’t be further from the truth—that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering and maths].

From the Senior Common Rooms of the nation, the mutter gathered against such philistinism. Academics such as Terry Eagleton have discussed the “slow death” of the university and claim that “it is the humanities above all that are being pushed to the wall”, while Sarah Churchwell puts forward the case for the defence:

The humanities shore up democracy, civil liberties and the middle classes: they teach analysis, critical thinking, ethics, cultural comparison, and autonomous individual reflection; they… refine us and are one of the means by which we define human aspiration beyond material ambitions.

This is where the defence of the humanities begins to look like a defence of something else altogether, namely, a “refined” existence. The humanities exist so that the right kind of person can also exist.

This is not a new idea. A classical training was long seen as part of the essential apparatus of the right sort of chap, ready to control a colony by force of personality. The humanities functioned as instruments of prestige, offering those allowed to learn “useless” things at school numerous means of dropping hints of intellectual superiority, a lightly-carried conspicuous consumption.

The radical journalist Alexander Cockburn writes of being taught of the Roman conquest of Britain and the slaughter of Scots near his school, as the right and proper expansion of empire into lands savages were not fit to hold. Similarly, the Western Civilisation courses common in US universities trace their origins to the First World War, so that the college boys sent to France would know what they were dying for. One editorial described their purpose as the creation of “thinking bayonets”. The “Enlightenment values” touted by the defenders of the humanities emerge every time as a bellicose liberal demands that “we” (who?) impose “democracy” in some faraway country.

There is another tradition of the humanities, one of critical engagement and resistance to the status quo, whether by interpretation, appropriation or subversion. Cockburn, after learning of Agricola’s conquest of Britain from L.A. Wilding’s Latin textbook, consults the Gaelic chieftain Calgacus’ speech to his troops:

Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. They make a desolation and they call it peace. That phrase has echoed down the ages as the tersest condemnation of Rome. Nothing of this in Wilding.

The so-called “war on the humanities” consists of academics in those disciplines finally noticing what is being done to independent academic inquiry. The sciences, broadly speaking, have long been encouraged as “good for the economy”; the arts now follow suit, defended for their contribution to “creative industries”. Of course, if the justification for a discipline is financial, the justification can change when the money does.

What is required is a generalised defence of education as a good thing in its own right; of universities as sites of independent and critical inquiry; of all disciplines as worthy of study and protection because they are good for their own sake. Those who do not believe that science or engineering can make critical interventions into society should try publishing something on GM crops or the safety record of the oil industry.

We may be at the point of losing the argument about education. Universities are already run as the fiefdoms of their principals, acting out their fantasies of being dominant CEOs; students are already thinking of their time at university as a financial investment requiring a financial return; the role of universities in sustaining an intellectual culture is being abandoned.

Universities are to be defended because we are a rich country, not in order that we become one. If the defenders of the humanities frame their defence in terms of shoring up a middle class and refining us, their defence is a defence of the status quo.

Michael Carley is a Lecturer in the University of Bath.

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