War on the humanities, again

The THE reports that leading historian Professor Peter Mandler has delivered a paper on the “crisis in the humanities”, concluding that there isn’t one. In particular, he says:

It is hard to take too seriously talk of a crisis in Britain when even by the narrowest definition of the humanities the absolute number of humanities students has increased fivefold since 1967, and by the broader definition almost 10-fold.

In the US, over a period of much slower expansion, their numbers have still doubled…Talk of a crisis triggered by a decline in a percentage point or two does seem like an over-reaction that is likely to contribute to rather than ameliorate the alleged problem.

As well as looking at student numbers, we can look at the UK data for academic staff numbers, as a proxy for resource allocation.

hesa-1

The figure shows the percentage of academic staff in STE (Science, Technology, and Engineering), Humanities (shown dashed), and Medicine from 1994 to 2008, using the freely available HESA data sets. The break in the curves corresponds to a change in the reporting of data. The details of how staff numbers were assigned to the three categories are given in a separate PDF.

The first part of the plot shows a drop in the percentage of STE staff, which might correspond to the closure of Chemistry departments over that time (the data for these years are not broken down to subject level), while Medicine rises, and Humanities are fairly steady.

After the change in reporting methodology in 2003, Medicine has about the same proportion of staff as before the change, while Humanities increases markedly and STE reduces. Clearly, this is an artifact of the breakdown of data and does not indicate real changes in the proportion of academic staff in STE or Humanities. The trends from 2003 onwards are validly indicated, however, and show STE and Humanities holding more or less steady.

In summary, the data from 1994 onwards show a sharp drop in STE, a rise in Medicine, and a small drop in Humanities.

Crisis in the humanities? What crisis?

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Paying for education

As seems likely, we in the UK are about to see the price of education hiked by another few grand a year. It turns out that the problem of what to pay for education was solved by William Blake a couple of centuries ago:

What is the price of Experience? Do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy
And in the wither’d field where the farmer ploughs for bread in vain

or, if you prefer, fame costs:


Theodor Adorno and Michael Gove

So there I was, minding my own business, when I discovered that the Frankfurt School was responsible for giving gay men and women in Ireland the right to marry.

“Well now,” says I, “what else might they be responsible for, these gnomes of Frankfurt.” It turns out they have been the source of the “ideas” for education policy in the United Kingdom for decades. From Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Cultural education spread with bourgeouis property. It forced paranoia into the dark corners of society and the soul. But since the real emancipation of mankind did not take place with the enlightenment of the mind, education itself became diseased. The greater the distance between the educated consciousness and social reality, the more it was itself exposed to the process of reification. Culture became wholly a commodity disseminated as information without permeating the individuals who acquired it. Thought became restricted to the acquisition of isolated facts. Conceptual relationships were rejected as uncomfortable and useless effort. The aspect of development in thought, all that is genetic and intensive in it, is forgotten and leveled down to the immediately given, to the extensive. Today the order of life allows no time for the ego to draw spiritual or intellectual conclusions. The thought which leads to knowledge is neutralized and used as a mere qualification on specific labour markets and to heighten the commodity value of the personality. And so that self-examination of the mind which works against paranoia is defeated. Finally, under the conditions of modern capitalism, half-education has become objective spirit. In the totalitarian phase of domination, it calls upon the provincial charlatans of politics, and with them the system of delusion as the ultima ratio: forcing it upon the majority of the ruled, who are already deadened by the culture industry. The contradictions of rule can be seen through by the healthy consciousness so easily today that it takes a diseased mind to keep them alive. Only those who suffer from a delusion of persecution accept the persecution to which domination must necessarily lead, inasmuch as they are allowed to persecute others.


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.
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It’s only yourself you’re hurting in the long run

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. Read the rest of this entry »


A pox on student satisfaction

If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are? (T. S. Elliott)

One of the methods used to rate universities, and departments, in the UK is the National Student Survey, based on a questionnaire seeking new graduates’ opinions of their degree courses. It claims to `build a broader picture of the quality of Higher Education‘ by measuring student satisfaction. In the interests of transparency, I should declare that my employer is very proud of having the highest NSS score in the land.

The logic here seems to be that if students are satisfied, the university has done its job properly. Students are invited to think like customers, because they are paying, and because customer satisfaction is the objective of the supplier. Apart from the unexamined assumption that `satisfaction’ is the same thing as good service, for this to work, students need to forget that charging for a service puts a limit on what is to be expected: you can’t get more than you pay for, if you pay in cash, and if you do not invest part of yourself, `satisfaction’ is all you will get from the transaction.
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How to write a high impact paper

Academics, in the UK at least, are being encouraged to write papers with `impact’. There is some discussion about what exactly `impact’ means, but these seem to be two papers which can reasonably claim to have had some:

  1. a paper in one of the world’s leading journals, cited 1730 times in fifteen years (according to Google Scholar), which described a previously unknown phenomenon, and led to a massive change in public behaviour.
  2. a paper cited 543 times in three years, which led to changes in government policy world-wide, with far-reaching societal effects.

Paper 1 is Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent Lancet work which found that the MMR vaccine can cause autism. As a result, vaccination rates fell as low as 80% in the UK, with predictable results.

Paper 2 is Reinhart and Rogoff’s paper claiming that government debt above 90% of GDP slows economic growth. The authors made an error in Excel (using it was their first mistake) which led to them leaving out data which contradicted their conclusion. Governments have used this paper to justify their cutting of public services, on which many people depend, with predictable results.