Priceless humanities

January 20, 2011

The government is asking a generation of students to regard university study as a financial investment. Tuition fees of £9,000 a year are, apparently, an acceptable price to pay for a better - read economically enriched - working life. Students are now expected to take on the very risks and acute levels of debt that precipitated the economic crisis in the first place. Higher education is becoming a sub-prime market. Such a paradox might be risible were its effects not so catastrophic.

One effect will be the irreparable transformation of students' relationship to their own study. They will regard the university not as a site of learning but merely as a credentialing service, an exclusive club. The emotional and intellectual experiences that are integral to education will be lost as soon as students perceive their qualification as a right rather than a process.

Yet the abolition of public subsidy for the teaching of degrees in the arts and humanities has already revealed just how content many of us are to justify the humanities as exactly such a credentialing service. The funding cuts have called upon us to offer a cogent defence of what we do. Sadly, the most common response has been to assert the contribution that humanities graduates make to a dynamic "creative economy".

But by simply defaulting to the vocabulary and logic of capitalism, such an argument offers an apologia for the very economic system that is dismantling the public university in Britain. It only reinforces the government's conviction that the value of the humanities is commodifiable - and thus something that the state can dispense with and the individual can purchase.

We must assert the immense, unquantifiable, value of the humanities. They nurture critical subjects who can engage with the world in intelligent, sensitive and passionate ways; who possess the skills to participate in debate; and who are alive to the ideology of their society and their government. The humanities teach us to look beyond face values. Is this not worth fighting for?

Julia Swindells, professor of English, Anglia Ruskin University and David Francis Taylor, Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral Fellow in the humanities, University of Toronto.

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