Research: the wrong priority for the arts and humanities?

Public funding in these subjects would be better spent on teaching, argues David Oldfield

February 12, 2015

Source: Daniel Mitchell

All researchers in the arts should ask themselves: ‘Outside the ivory tower, does anyone really care about my topic?’ No, they do not

The fact that the publication of the research excellence framework was such big news indicates the extent to which every university department has become obsessed with its performance since research assessment exercises were established in 1986.

The overwhelming focus on research means there is little concern these days for the social value and purpose of a university education. Providing students with the intellectual skills needed to lead happy, successful and independent lives through engaging teaching should be the priority. Yet we are going through a dismal period in which a lecturer’s research is seen as more important than a student’s education. I must stress that my comments about research apply to research in arts and humanities subjects. Research in the sciences is critically important to society as demonstrated daily in innumerable ways. Research in the arts can rarely make the same claims.

The cult of research flourishes within the artificial world of academia, where one finds the specialised audience required to appreciate it. Personally, I enjoy listening to or reading about the latest research in my subject, art history. But I also realise that it is a personal taste of mine that 99.9 per cent of the population do not share. I realise I have a great deal in common with – and a great deal of empathy for – trainspotting anoraks who stand on the end of platforms exchanging train numbers and other information about the trains they love to watch and study. To stop researchers from getting exalted notions of themselves, they should realise that they are simply the trainspotters in their field. All researchers in the arts should ask themselves the following question: “Outside the ivory tower, does anyone really care about my research topic?” The answer would frequently be, no, they do not. That really should give pause for thought. Is research about 18th-century governments, literature, music, art or anything else in the mythical land of Ruritania really that important? Or is it simply interesting because we have a curiosity about life in Ruritania?

Call me naive, but I have always thought that university departments in the arts and humanities should be primarily about teaching and learning, not research. Surely it is morally right, in arts subjects, for taxpayers’ money and students’ tuition fees to be spent on educational aims rather than being linked to the achievement of research objectives. That’s not to say that research does not have a role to play. We need something substantial to teach and good course material is reliant on the discoveries and views of researchers past and present. But if the focus is to be on a student’s intellectual needs rather than the lecturer’s, then research needs to be used as a means to achieve an educational end rather than a selfish end in itself.

Academics need to be forced to take their educational duties more seriously. The monetary and career rewards that are now linked to an academic’s research should be transferred to achieving the educational objectives of their students. Academics should be paid according to how much they teach and the quality of their teaching. They should also undergo teacher training. At present, applicants for university posts in the arts are chosen on their publication record rather than their teaching abilities. This has to change. Indeed, I see no reason why the training required for university teaching should be any different from that for primary school or secondary school teaching. University teachers, like primary and secondary school teachers in the state sector, should be obliged to do at least one year of teacher training. It would be an invaluable opportunity to consider educational theory and to get practice in achieving educational objectives through teaching.

Our educational aims for undergraduates should be dictated by the variety of opportunities that await them once they leave university. This is nothing new. Arts graduates have always been highly sought after in the job market, not because of any specialisation in a particular subject but because of the general intellectual skills that they have acquired.

It is as university undergraduates that students go from dependent learners to independent thinkers. Primary and secondary schools have sadly been forced to become increasingly insistent on students memorising knowledge in order to pass one exam after another. Arts and humanities subjects at universities represent a vital, if initially unsettling, opportunity for students to learn that often there is no easy answer to questions, no objective right or wrong and that they must learn to form their own opinions and points of view on the basis of the evidence available. It is the difference between what to think and how to think.

We are the last link in a long educational chain that equips young people to lead enjoyable, fulfilling and independent lives. This is what government money should be funding – not research.

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Reader's comments (5)

Absolutely spot on! Faculty should be encouraged to do research to identify areas for the improvement of teaching and not be forced to do research for the sake of some obscure KPIs that the organization falsely believes to be indicators of scholarship and good teaching.
Teaching without research would result in a groundhog day culture in Arts and Humanities. The curricula would be static, and academics would be simply recycling that congealing body of learning. What point is there in doing a PhD, some minister of witholding funding would be stirred to ask, if they are never to 'use' it. And what is the point, really in teaching hobbies? Why arts education? Do we need to fund a coterie of trainspotters? Yep, I fear you have played into the hands of STEM essentialists with the trainspotting analogy.
Art historian who has never engaged with the questions of his discipline posed by theories of visual culture. Yep, no need to read books, m8.
I agree wholeheartedly with David Oldfield. There may be some research in the area of arts and humanities which is of value but the focus must be on providing high quality and engaging teaching and learning which develops our students. They should be at the centre of our work and not at the periphery because lecturers are focused on their research which may be of questionable value.
David Oldfield's comments begin with an erroneous assumption. The disciplines of the Humanities are not and never have been static subjects just to be taught at university level or even at school level. They advance in the light of new insights and understanding which needs to be properly communicated to students in higher education. One of the key facets in developing their knowledge is an appreciation of this elementary point, hence the importance of research in the humanities at an advanced level.

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