Leader: Work of infinite value

Science alone cannot get to the heart of what makes us human, which is why the humanities and social sciences matter so much

March 17, 2011

John Martin is a cardiologist. He fixes people's hearts not so they can return to employment but so they can "fulfil themselves by enjoying art, literature and music".

The humanities, he says, make him happy. An eminent scientist, he is nonetheless clear that "the job of science is simply to measure the Universe and predict its activity, whereas the job of the humanities is to help the human being achieve his own internal destiny as a true human being, not as a molecular machine."

Professor Martin, director of University College London's Centre for Cardiovascular Biology and Medicine, also writes poetry. One of his poems, about an old Polish soldier in hospital, was used by Norman Davies, the historian, to close his book Europe at War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory.

At the House of Commons last week, the cardiologist touched hearts, and this one in particular, when he read the poem. It recounts how a lice-ridden homeless war veteran tells Professor Martin's young doctors in his Slavic accent, "I fought at Monte Cassino." But they, "in their ignorance/remained unmoved by man or by history", unaware that he had played a part in one of the most significant battles of the Second World War. "I turned to them/with my hand on the shoulder/of my patient/to address them on the greatness/of the Second Polish Corps/and the infinite value/of all human beings," the poem concludes.

It is that value that the arts and humanities constantly remind us of. They help us understand who we are and make sense of what is going on around us: they give us our anchor in life. But scholars in these fields today are feeling vulnerable. Recently, at the British Academy, they heard these uplifting words: "Your disciplines are the cornerstones of academia...fundamentally worthwhile in and of themselves. They are deep sources of human satisfaction, helping us to navigate our way through the world - both as individuals and as a society." Odd as it may seem, this reassurance came from none other than the universities and science minister, David Willetts, whom many blame for their present predicament.

Mr Willetts, a thoughtful and intelligent man, has been at pains to point out that the government has no bias against the arts and humanities. They have not been singled out in the cuts to the teaching grant, he insists; it is purely the price band in which they fall that makes it appear so. Sciences too have suffered cuts; but because they are more expensive to teach, they received more funding in the first place so the reduction seems less stark.

All this may be true. But perception is all. When coupled with the cuts to the nation's arts in the Comprehensive Spending Review, one cannot escape the feeling of a blundering government blindly pursuing the reduction in the budget deficit while vandalising the nation's cultural heritage and cultural industries, one of the things we as a nation are rather good at.

To highlight the importance of their work, academics in the arts and humanities last week launched the Humanities Matter campaign. Its organisers say the debate about university funding has emphasised knowledge over understanding and employability over education. However one sees the role of higher education, they say, "the humanities and the social sciences still matter". For those of us who believe ourselves to be human beings rather than just molecular machines, they most certainly do.


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