It's hardly the Dark Ages

Alan Ryan favours imagination over exaggeration when it comes to cutbacks

January 28, 2010

Heaven forbid I should demur at anything said in defence of the Russell Group, the humanities, knowledge for its own sake, truth, beauty and goodness or any of the other sacred things that Lord Mandelson and his vandal hordes are about to visit with rape and slaughter. But 800 years of higher education? Really?

Oxford is the oldest of the UK universities. Its origins lie in a 12th-century grammar school. It was, in the most obvious way, as utilitarian as Lord Mandelson could have wished, producing literate clergy and clerks for royal or ecclesiastical service. Blue-skies research was not on the agenda.

Students and teachers were even more subject to religious authority than the laity. Pursuing truth wherever it led in medieval England was more likely to end on the gallows than with a fellowship of the Royal Society. It is, after all, only since 1872 that anyone other than members of the Church of England could even start a degree at Oxford - in enlightened Cambridge they could do everything except actually receive a degree or hold a fellowship. It did not matter much, since most intellectual life happened elsewhere.

Even at the beginning of the 20th century, and even in the natural sciences, the shelter of a university and its resources were not always necessary. When J.S. Haldane fell out with his colleagues in the Oxford physiology department, he built himself a large house and laboratory - now part of Wolfson College - and got on with his work unmolested. Of course, nobody suggests that physicists today should have to build their own Large Hadron Collider, or even a very small hadron collider, to reduce the deficit; but we ought not to spoil a good case by exaggerating the longevity or depth of publicly supported higher education. Years of university expansion have achieved none of the payoffs to the economy or general enlightenment that we have been promised; it's not likely that contraction will bring about a Great Depression or a return to the Dark Ages.

This is even truer in the humanities than in the sciences. The point of the humanities is - quite rightly - contentious. It is rightly contentious because the connection between knowledge and goodness is difficult to pinpoint, and the exploration of its intractability is one thing the humanities exist for. Simple answers won't do. John Stuart Mill asserted that it was better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, but who knows what the pig thought? On a cursory examination of the evidence, neither happiness nor goodness, nor even ordinary decency, correlates very exactly with a secure grasp of Kant's transcendental deduction of the categories. But when people stop and ask themselves why they are here and what they are here for, the resources of history, art, philosophy and much else are certainly useful. Just how is another matter.

There is, for all that, a distinction worth preserving between a humane - or liberal - education and humanities research; and another worth preserving between humanities research and scholarship. If you think, as I do, that teaching matters most, scholarship next, and research some way behind, you will fear that self-interested special pleading makes it easier for the vandals, by exaggerating both the quality and the importance of work turned out, to satisfy the supposed demands of professionalism rather than the researcher's urge to say something novel and interesting. We have to protect liberal education and the scholarship that's indispensable to it. A lot of research just fills much-needed space on the shelves.

Ensuring that students get a liberal education is a humane project. Being able to take an intelligent interest in art, literature, music, history - the humanities generally - is a resource for a more interesting and a happier life. It may not make us nicer, but it gives us something to think about and to think with. The aim of the vandals is to train students to produce more stuff and sell it to more people; but there is a need to think about why we want it, what we want it for, and how our lives are improved (or not) by the stuff we produce and consume.

Giving students a humane education is not easy, although it is much less hard than teaching a recalcitrant class quantitative methods; it takes time, it needs students to give some intellectual work their undivided attention for a while, and they need to take seriously the old cliche that good books read us while we read them. From the side of the teacher it needs the hard-to-describe (but easy-to-recognise) skill of unobtrusively getting inside a student's head and collaboratively exploring the student's experience of what she or he is asked to think about.

That doesn't need research in the sense in which the research assessment exercise or research excellence framework imagines it. Teachers need well-stocked minds and unflagging curiosity; they do not need to be part of million-pound collaborative projects. Nonetheless, they need help. The United States has an institution that does what's wanted. The National Endowment for the Humanities runs summer seminars and institutes that bring together either a dozen or thirty-odd faculty from colleges and universities that don't themselves have graduate programmes or extensive library facilities. For six weeks they explore an agreed subject, write, discuss what they've read and written, recharge their intellectual batteries and go home newly energised and more ambitious.

Since we are certainly going to have higher education on the cheap under the aegis of Lord Mandelson or David Willetts, let's at any rate have it cheap and imaginative rather than cheap and boring.

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