Defence of the humanities draws applause

Scholars laud Sarah Churchwell’s Times Higher Education essay restating value of arts and humanities disciplines

December 4, 2014

Source: Christian Bertrand/

Last month, Times Higher Education published an article entitled “Humanities: why the study of human culture still matters”, in which Sarah Churchwell (@sarahchurchwell), professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities at the University of East Anglia, defended the importance of humanities scholarship.

“The politicians and corporations telling us that the humanities do not matter are, by no coincidence, the same people who think of us only as workers and consumers, not as citizens or individuals, and who strip away our human rights, one by one,” she wrote.

“If we agree that the humanities do not matter, or fail to challenge this assessment, we are colluding in the very practices that reduce our humanity, that impinge upon all the other ways in which we can enrich our lives, our abilities to express our creative individuality.”

The article, which at the time of writing has been viewed online almost 8,000 times, received a largely enthusiastic welcome on the web, particularly from our followers on Twitter (@timeshighered).

Alex Preston (@ahmpreston), lecturer in creative writing at the University of Kent, described it as a “brilliant, urgent and angry piece”. “Bravo!” tweeted Lyndsey Stonebridge (@LyndseyStonebri), professor of literature and critical theory at the University of East Anglia. “A wonderful and timely article,” added Krystina Osborne, a PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University.

Adam Sowards (@AdamMSowards), an associate professor of history at the University of Idaho in Moscow, said that it was “always nice to read” defences of academic disciplines. “That they are necessary frustrates,” he added.

A number of tweeters said the article was a welcome riposte to Nicky Morgan (@NickyMorgan01), secretary of state for education. In a speech at the 10 November launch of the Your Life campaign (which aims to boost the number of teenagers studying maths and physics), Ms Morgan appeared to advise youngsters not to study arts and humanities subjects if they wanted to secure good jobs.

“A decade ago,” the minister said, young people were told that if they “didn’t know what [they] wanted to do…then the arts and humanities were what you chose, because they were useful for all kinds of jobs. Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects.”

“Another strong robust [response] to @NickyMorgan01’s daft speech,” said “traveling horn player” Anneke Scott (@AnnekeScott) of Professor Churchwell’s article. “Nicky Morgan, and [chancellor George] Osborne and [prime minister David] Cameron all did humanities. Their career choices clearly limited by it,” tweeted Professor Churchwell herself.

Lucy Gill (@LucyGill09), communications assistant at Coventry University Students’ Union, was less subtle. “Spin on THIS, Nicky Morgan,” she tweeted, with a link to Professor Churchwell’s article.

However, Chris Bertram (@crookedfootball), professor of social and political philosophy at the University of Bristol, disagreed with the position expressed in the article as he saw it. “Sarah Churchwell seems to think we need Latin in order to defend our rights,” he tweeted. “Thank goodness she’s wrong about that.”

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