Leader: Factor in the human equation

The liberal arts feel threatened by indifference and the impact agenda. Can we recognise their true worth before they are gone?

January 7, 2010

Is it better to be "a dissatisfied human than a satisfied pig"? That is the question that Lou Marinoff, professor and chair of philosophy at the City College of New York, asks his students. As the humanities come into the line of fire with funding cuts and the impact agenda takes hold, it is perhaps a question society needs to ask itself.

Many leading scholars in the humanities are warning of a bleak future for their disciplines. Whereas some Americans argue that the liberal-arts model is under increasing threat - or even that we are creating "a generation of culturally illiterate zombies", as Marinoff says in our cover feature - British fears focus on the suggestion that the research excellence framework's notion of "impact" will favour the sciences. Lord Mandelson's grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England reinforces this point: he wants incentives to boost courses that "make a special contribution to meeting economic and social priorities". This overlooks the problem that no matter how much you "incentivise" universities to provide more science, there's little point when the great majority of students have already abandoned the subject at GCSE level.

Of course, we all realise that the country needs to dig itself out of a hole. And boy, do we need that high-tech shovel. But we also have to be able to work out how, why and where to dig, and what effect that will have.

Even at Spain's business-focused IE University, the rector, Santiago Iniguez de Onzono, insists that "business people need to learn more about history, anthropology and so on because their decisions affect the lives of many others". Its corporate partners, too, understand the value of a rounded education and the rounded person, seeking graduates with "a critical spirit, sensitivity to other cultures, writing skills and strong analytical skills".

In the next few years, certain subjects look set to contract or become confined to fewer institutions, which may deprive the nation of crucial skills. While this is undeniably important, defenders of the humanities often make far bolder claims: that they have value "in themselves"; that they represent the soul or moral heart of universities and can act as a vital counterweight to managerialism, scientific triumphalism and the kind of thinking that led to the economic crisis.

Although the humanities may feel that they have been betrayed by philistines and politicians, they themselves must shoulder some blame: through academic navel-gazing they have failed to live up to their true mission and potential, often making themselves irrelevant.

What now? Should they keep science and business at arm's length, or reinvent themselves by building new alliances? Perhaps they should take their lead from the University of Texas at Austin, which runs a "Major in the workplace" series that helps those studying liberal-arts subjects to learn how to network, write a CV and perform in an interview.

If the humanities are truly in danger or decline, what might that mean for society? Our national trough may contain little, but rather than asking what impact the humanities have, perhaps both the satisfied swine and the dissatisfied humans should be asking: what would be the impact on the world of taking them away? It is a question that not only goes to the heart of what the humanities are for, but also to the raison d'etre of a university education.


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