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.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Summer Receptionists

University Of Chichester

PhD fellow within Machine Learning for Personalized Healthcare

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Lecturer in Finance

Maynooth University

Teaching Laboratory Assistant

University Of Bristol
See all jobs

Most Commented

women leapfrog. Vintage

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman offer advice on climbing the career ladder

Canal houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

All three of England’s for-profit universities owned in Netherlands

Mitch Blunt illustration (23 March 2017)

Without more conservative perspectives in the academy, lawmakers will increasingly ignore and potentially defund social science, says Musa al-Gharbi

Alexander Wedderburn

Former president of the British Psychological Society remembered

Michael Parkin illustration (9 March 2017)

Cramming study into the shortest possible time will impoverish the student experience and drive an even greater wedge between research-enabled permanent staff and the growing underclass of flexible teaching staff, says Tom Cutterham