Why are the humanities always under fire? We need them more than ever

David Mayall reflects on the ‘war on humanities’, Brexit and graduate employability

July 8, 2016
Michael Gove, Conservative Party
Source: Getty

Anyone who has worked in humanities for any time will know that the value of the discipline is always being questioned.

Academics are constantly being put in a position of having to defend the discipline, their subject area, the value of their research and the benefits to students and wider society of what are regularly presented as non-vocational subjects that produce graduates without the skills required in periods of economic downturn and highly competitive job markets.  

An article by Alex Preston in The Observer last year wrote about the “war against humanities”, led by an “austerity-obsessed” government, with its origins dating back to the time of Margaret Thatcher and picked up with enthusiasm by Michael Gove and David Willetts. The discipline is presented as outdated and, in comparison with the highly valued and productive STEM subjects, the teaching of universalist values with a global perspective is seen as an extravagant luxury that cannot be afforded.

The opposite is true. With Brexit and the danger of slipping further into what has been termed a Little England mentality, we, more than at any other time, depend on a discipline that is based on principles of openness, an inclusiveness of all societies and cultures, and an outward-looking approach. 

While these attacks can be both annoying and frustrating, based largely on ill-informed prejudices and myths, they do force a reaction and the need to fight back and correct the myths.

There are now a number of books and articles that focus on the value of the humanities. Websites have been set up to defend and promote the discipline and expose the misapprehensions and misrepresentations of the critics. The discipline and its subjects are more accurately portrayed as innovative, forward thinking and progressive and known for producing graduates who are highly skilled and ideally suited, not necessarily to a specific vocational route, but to a range of employments as diverse as the jobs’ market itself. 

At the University of Derby, my institution, we have a most distinctive and exciting combination of subjects under humanities, bringing together what might be considered the more traditional text-based subjects such as history and English with more practice-based and vocational areas such as journalism and publishing.

The distinctiveness is further enhanced by creative writing working alongside media and communications, and American studies and liberal arts alongside film and television. But even this dualism of traditional and vocational is misleading. The more “traditional” subjects are anything but that, with the courses adopting a range of imaginative and sector-leading teaching, learning and assessment practices, using virtual reality learning, integrating employability in ways meaningful to the subject, engaging students in the community and region using local content to illustrate wider issues, and a range of practical, experiential activities that take students into the wider classroom of real-world learning.

While journalism might be considered one of the more vocational areas, the courses deliberately and consciously extend far beyond what is termed the legacy media of print and television and instead train students for the range of possible employments in print and digital media and beyond into the wider communications, writing and PR industries. 

So does this make our students employable? The answer to that is an emphatic yes. But the difficulty and challenge facing us at Derby, and of course elsewhere, is that the employment outcomes measured by the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education statistics compare unfavourably with the more vocational subjects.

Anecdotally, I discussed exactly this issue in meetings with final-year students last year. Many, although by no means all, said that they were in no hurry to find what they called “proper jobs”, which in our language would be graduate-level employment. They spoke of their love for the subject that had been engendered by the course, which they wanted to pursue in a less pressured environment away from classes, assessment and concerns about degree classification. They were relaxed about the prospect of short-term casual employment and looked forward to enjoying a period of travel and personal and intellectual exploration.

While we would all support this attitude and probably look on in envy, we also have in the back of our minds the impact of this on graduate employability statistics and league table performance. The world of metrics cannot be escaped. It is exactly this concern that has led to recent studies that show that if data were collected just one year after graduation instead of after six months, and more so if over a full working life, then the picture from the statistics about graduate employability and earnings in the humanities would be very different. 

I have worked within the humanities for a long time and it is constantly changing, rethinking its parameters, bringing in new perspectives and approaches, and responding to wider societal and technological changes. Like any other discipline but perhaps even more so, the humanities faces challenges. Not only do we not mind that, we actively welcome it. Challenge is imprinted in our DNA. It is an exciting and important time for the humanities.

Then again, it always has been.

David Mayall is head of the department of humanities at the University of Derby.

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