War on the humanities? What war?

After I wrote a response to Professor Sarah Churchwell’s comments on the `war on the humanities’, she tweeted that if I wanted her opinion, it could be found in a piece on The Conversation, and represented a better statement of her views than a ten sentence extract from a ninety minute interview. I was not the only person to object to the comments as reported, whether in comments on the article, or in the letters page, but it seems only fair to engage with a full statement of the position.

The article begins with a quote from the UK Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan:

If you wanted to do something, or even if you didn’t know what you wanted to do, then 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].

Churchwell quite rightly notes that the “career prospects” of a number of leading politicians have not been hurt by their having a humanities degree: Nicky Morgan, George Osborne, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and David Cameron (more on this later), and that Morgan’s attitude to learning is contemptible in its “false dichotomy between the humanities and STEM, as if education were a zero-sum game and we are only permitted to know one thing”. (Note, by the way, the philistinism of Morgan’s attitude to STEM as well.)

Broadly, my objections to Churchwell’s position in this article are to her quite superficial view of the humanities, and her more superficial view of technology and its relationship to humanities. In effect she is arguing for a correct conclusion on weak grounds, and a bad argument is likely to come back and bite us all on the bum some day. With a caveat about the last line, I agree completely with this view:

So to be clear: when I say we need to encourage young people to study the humanities I am not saying they shouldn’t study the sciences. We acutely need more people who understand both. What we don’t need is this kind of limited, utilitarian thinking, which promises only to help people get jobs, as if the work that can be extracted from us is all that matters. This is precisely the struggle from which the Enlightenment tradition of the arts and sciences fought to liberate us.

What I cannot agree with is the justification: Churchwell holds a view of the humanities as character-forming:

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

The idea that the humanities `refine us’ and make us better people is an old one, well established in the `public’ schools which so many of those powerful humanities graduates attended. In Louis MacNeiece’s words:

We learned that a gentleman never misplaces his accents, …

That the boy on the Modern Side is merely a parasite
But the classical student is bred to the purple, his training in syntax
Is also a training in thought
And even in morals; if called to the bar or the barracks
He always will do what he ought

This view of the arts as `improving’ was neatly skewered by Robert Hughes in Culture of Complaint, his early nineties book on political correctness, when he told the story of Sigismondo of Rimini, one of the greatest patrons of the arts in Renaissance Italy, and also the only man bar Judas Iscariot to be officially in hell. If the arts really do `refine us’, a degree in the humanities is the only thing holding Gove, Osborne, and Cameron back from mugging the elderly for their pension books (though come to think of it …).

The idea that the humanities shore up all the nice things in Churchwell’s list, “democracy, civil liberties and the middle classes[!]” stands little scrutiny: Cabinets of arts graduates have been stripping away those civil liberties for three decades and more now.

Churchwell’s view of the arts as `improving’ comes from her summary of the Enlightenment tradition. Now, `Enlightenment values’ are to an academic what `British values’ are to a politician: a bunch of things decent people agree with, claimed for our own. Under examination, these values turn out not to be universal in practice, and rarely form the bedrock for intellectual inquiry which it pleases some people to believe they do. One collective has recently summarized this critique under the title Eight Reasons Why The Curriculum Is White, laying out the limits of the people to whom `enlightenment values’ applied, in much the same way that the British value of `the rule of law’ usually stopped at Dover, Holyhead and the front doors of the poor.

Churchwell describes the Enlightenment as the tradition of, among others, “Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin”, and John Adams. The values which those men espoused are indeed universal values and should be cherished. It matters, however, that except for Adams they owned slaves, and that the country they founded on Enlightenment principles did not begin emancipation until it was forced to. Against such Enlightenment values in theory, better the practice of Thomas Paine and John Brown.

These Enlightment values of “rationalism, and evidenced-based conclusions in the struggle against propaganda and demagoguery” were used to justify eugenics (take a bow Oliver Wendell Holmes), colonialism, and racial classification, and are still used to justify Western military `intervention’ in those benighted lands where the natives still haven’t worked out what’s good for them.

Churchwell’s Enlightenment, untainted by dialectic or ambiguity, is Whiggish and Panglossian, a gift from the `West’ to the rest, as if Horkheimer and Adorno had never bothered.

Churchwell’s view of technology, and of the interaction between techology and the humanities is also troubling. “Certainly we need engineers, doctors, inventors and researchers” (gee, thanks),

But we also need experts in the humanities to think about imagination, consciousness, and communication in a digital age; to reflect on identity and ethics; to think creatively and problem-solve; to consider the consequences of past, present, and future actions. We need artists to preserve beauty, to help us imagine redemption, to remind us of all that is possible for human beings to achieve beyond building better tools, which is all that technology means.

The distinction between “doctors, inventors and researchers” (researchers in what?) and “experts in the humanities” is, among other things, an ability “to think creatively and problem-solve; to consider the consequences of past, present, and future actions.” Think on that, and then the final statement: “all that technology means” is “building better tools”.

In passing, it is worth noting that no engineering student would claim that technology means “building better tools”, because the first thing an alert academic will ask is `what do you mean by better?’ Engineering design, “building tools”, requires a balance of competing and often contradictory criteria, `technical’, economic, user-based, social and ethical.

Churchwell’s view of technology is precisely the position of the American gun lobby who claim that guns are merely tools, lethal only in the hands of certain people, without ever considering the relationship between technology as material products and the culture which forms it and is formed by it. The idea of technology as merely “making better tools” was given a literal hammer blow when the Luddites broke the frames which their employers were using to worsen their conditions, and there have been many other critiques since.

In the past, I used to give a lecture to engineering students which included Peter Linebaugh’s chapter on the Deptford shipyards from The London Hanged, and a brief account of the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor. The point was to bring home to the students some sense that a technology is not a `neutral’ or `value-free’ intervention, but enters a society with existing power relations and can lend itself to the reproduction of those relations or to their overturning. The example of the Deptford shipyards could be taken as a fruitful interaction between the humanities and engineering, where an insight only available to a historian like Linebaugh can be brought to a generation of students reflecting on their place in the world. Elsewhere Ivan Illich’s great reflections on `energy equity’ are a serious humanist engaging with technology and thinking deeply about how particular technologies shape a society, in this case how the ball bearing, the rubber tyre and the spoked wheel give us speed on a human scale.

When Churchwell describes technology as “building better tools”, she does not seem to ask `better for what and for whom?’, one of those basic insights which I was aiming to have engineering students consider when I asked them to read Linebaugh.

Part of the problem is its framing. There is no “war against humanities”, though there is a campaign against the humanities as part of the ongoing war against education and those values we all hold dear. As Patrick Ainley, Professor of Education and Training at the University of Greenwich, and a leading campaigner for higher education, asks “why have nearly all engineering departments in FE closed”

We can go further. In the decade up to 2005, thirty of the seventy chemistry departments in the UK closed, though a few have since reopened. No comparable discipline in the humanities, to my knowledge, has suffered the closure of nearly half of its departments. The reason for the closures, as well as closures in physics and other sciences, was that sciences are expensive to teach. At the time humanities degrees were well subscribed, the fees were the same for all courses, and it made financial `sense’ to cut the `loss-making’ departments rather than `cross-subsidize’.

Those in the humanities who complain now of being under attack because an Education Secretary has knocked the arts are in the position of giraffes wanting to know why the white rhino is getting all the love: endangered but not as much as the last breeding colonies of some scientists are.

The situation is indeed dire, for the reasons laid out by Marina Warner in her articles on the managerialism which drove her out of Essex University. So what might a defence of university disciplines, humanities included, look like?

First, a defence of all academic disciplines as disciplines and of the freedom of academics within them: in the current drive to marketization, the academic who takes the wrong line on the oil industry or the arms trade is more dispensable than the historian who says what Gove wants to hear about Blackadder. Defence of science yesterday is defence of the humanities today is defence of engineering tomorrow. We have already seen physics and chemistry departments closed at a time when humanities departments were the cash cow for universities, because their degrees are cheap to teach.

Second, an incorporation of the insights from the humanities themselves, and an end to talk of `refinement’ or `elevation’ as justifications, and a proper critique of Enlightenment values as the basis for higher education and intellectual inquiry. Unproblematic talk of `Enlightenment values’ leaves the academy trailing behind a society which, the danger of UKIP granted, is largely comfortable with diversity, and is becoming more so. We should adopt the stated values of the Enlightenment, but we should not unthinkingly maintain the practices and power relations to which it led. The humanities graduates who lied to Parliament to justify invading Iraq were convinced of the superiority of their Enlightenment values and of their right to impose them.

Third, the replacing of A Levels with a baccalaureate system similar to those used for university entry in most of the rest of Europe: it is frankly shameful that students are entering university without having studied subjects across a range of intellectual approaches. Irish universities, for example, require prospective students to present English, Irish, Mathematics, a foreign language, and two other subjects (including a laboratory science for STEM degrees). While I was teaching at Trinity College Dublin, where I also took my degrees, the engineering student society advertized an event with a poster reading `What need you being come to sense, but get down to the EngSoc party’. In fifteen years teaching in the UK, I have only once heard a student spontaneously mention a poet (though it was Roethke, which is pretty damn impressive). Without romanticizing some Irish love of learning, there is something to be desired in a university system where engineers quote Yeats and theologians can solve simultaneous equations. The `comprehensive’ of `comprehensive education’ could take on another, fuller, meaning. (Some alertness to language would also make it easier for me to explain to engineering students why it jars when they call the last equation in a mathematical derivation the `final solution’.)

Fourth, a reform of governance: the villains in all this are not central government, of whom no better was ever to be expected, but Vice-Chancellors who have failed to resist political pressure, because they are quite content to profit from the damage inflicted by each new policy. Universities are being `led’ by people who have no commitment to academic values and who clearly think they are CEOs, or are angling for the plum job at HEFCE. Vice-Chancellors should be senior academics elected to chair the committee which runs the university, with the expectation that after a fixed term they will return to their academic roles. They should also be paid on an academic scale. In business, this would be called aligning the interests of the board with those of the shareholders.

Defence of academic study and the freedom to perform it is a defence of a full human engagement with the reality around us. If we are not prepared to accept the full value of each others’ disciplines and look clearly at what is really happening, in the end, as MacNeice put it “we cut each others’ throats out of our great self pity.”

Note added in proof: Terry Eagleton has weighed in with a defence of the university against the neloliberal pressures which are leading, as he say, to its “slow death”. He also claims, however, “it is the humanities above all that are being pushed to the wall”.

It is a great and good thing that intellectuals with a public profile (Eagleton, Warner, Churchwell) are raising the alarm on what is being done to universities and education generally, and they have the right and responsibility to defend their disciplines. It helps none of us, though, if the defence is based on a wrong impression of the attack we are all suffering. Divide and rule only works if we consent to being divided.

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2 Comments on “War on the humanities? What war?”

  1. […] “After I wrote a response to Professor Sarah Churchwell’s comments on the ‘war on the humanities’, she tweeted that if I wanted her opinion, it could be found in a piece on The Conversation, and represented a better statement of her views than a ten sentence extract from a ninety minute interview …” (more) […]

  2. […] Not for the first time, the argument is being made that STEM turns its graduates into uncultured oafs, recoverable only through the application of the mind-soothing balm of the humanities. This time, however, it’s serious: Paul Vallely, citing a British Council study, claims that there is `“an engineering mindset”, which makes science students easier prey for terrorist recruiters.‘ […]


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