It’s only yourself you’re hurting in the long runPosted: 2 April, 2015
Recently, Sarah Churchwell, `one of our most prominent public intellectuals and professor of American literature at UEA’, was quoted on the subject of the `war against humanities at Britain’s universities’:
“What has changed radically in the last 10 years is that they’re trying to turn everything into a for-profit business,” said Churchwell. “And that’s bullshit. Universities are not for profit. We are charitable institutions. What they’re now doing is saying to academics: ‘You have to be the fundraisers, the managers, the producers, you have to generate the incomes that will keep your institutions afloat.’ Is that really what society wants – for everything to become a marketplace, for everything to become a commodity? Maybe I’m just out of step with the world, but what some of us are fighting for is the principle that not everything that is valuable can or should be monetised. That universities are one of the custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration. That education is not a commodity, it’s a qualitative transformation. You can’t sell it. You can’t simply transfer it.”
Churchwell is right: education is not a commodity and should not be monetized, and universities are “custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration” (letting pass what Paulo Freire might have made of such a concept of learning). It can surely be agreed that universities are, in Stefan Collini’s words, places where things are studied for their own sake and that the value of education is not monetary, whether to the student or to an economy, that education needs no market justification because it is a good thing for people to be educated and for there to be places where disciplines can be pursued for their own intrinsic worth. She goes on, however:
Churchwell went on to talk about what would be lost if we didn’t stand in the way of this systematic destruction of the traditional liberal education. “Virtually every cabinet minister has a humanities degree,” she said. “And I think there’s something quite sinister about it: they get their leadership positions after studying the humanities and then they tell us that what we need is a nation of technocrats. If you look at the vast majority of world leaders, you’ll find that they’ve got humanities degrees. Angela Merkel is the only one who’s a scientist. The ruling elite have humanities degrees because they can do critical thinking, they can test premises, they can think outside the box, they can problem-solve, they can communicate, they don’t have linear, one-solution models with which to approach the world. You won’t solve the problems of religious fundamentalism with a science experiment.”
This is a shocking thing for a serious academic to say. Consider the assumptions inherent in the statement that `[t]he ruling elite have humanities degrees because they can do critical thinking, …’. Churchwell is saying that what distinguishes the holders of humanities degrees from `technocrats’ is a certain set of traits and skills. In other words, engineers and scientists are not able to think critically, not able to test premises, not able to `think outside the box’, not able to solve problems, and not able to communicate (rich from someone who uses the phrase `think outside the box’). Furthermore, we have linear, one-solution models with which to approach the world. This is bollocks on stilts with its mickey hanging down.`You won’t solve the problems of religious fundamentalism with a science experiment’ belongs in the same category as Euler’s apocryphal `Monsieur! ( a + bn ) / n = x, donc Dieu existe; répondez!’ The claim that the humanities graduate is more subtle, more keen-minded, more `intellectual’ than the scientist or engineer belongs in the day when someone might seriously claim that anyone who had done Greats could `get up’ science in a weekend. This, remember, comes from someone who wants to defend humanities in universities, but thinks that she can do so by telling her colleagues they’re not very bright. The attitudes inherent in the statement are also dangerous. Churchwell frames the value of the humanities in terms of `transferable skills’ (out-of-box thinking, problem-solving, communication) and not in terms of the inherent value of her discipline or others’. She is not even defending humanities; she is defending the things which are a routine part of any respectable degree course. She has framed the discourse in the terms used by those who attack universities and want us to adopt a model of higher education as a private good, an `investment’ in future earning potential, and not a transformation of the student and the academic. She is selling humanities as the degree for people who want to run the country. Once the discourse is framed in those terms, the argument is lost, for the humanities and for any other discipline which falls out of official or commercial favour. What would a defence of the humanities look like? It would be a defence of all academic disciplines as part of a common culture, made up of human beings who have left a mark in different ways, whether that be words on a page or the machine which made the page. Within universities, that means defending all academic inquiry, whether in STEM or elsewhere, because it is a good thing in its own right, and defending the degree courses which initiate students into a discipline they want to study, because those disciplines have value for their own sake. It means defending academic inquiry from the pressure to demonstrate `impact‘, `return’ or any other spurious monetary measure. It means academics defending their colleagues, whether or not they understand what it is those colleagues do, and it means refusing to justify ourselves in any terms other than those we choose. In short, it means solidarity with the living, to preserve what has gone before, and to leave something for the future. It does not mean setting up a lazy stereotype of a large part of our culture, and then making a show of rejecting it. If you want to see this done properly, Rebecca Schumann has laid out exactly what is wrong with the way tenured academics deal with casualized staff.