The third great balloon debate

February 16, 1996

For the past two weeks we have loaded up our metaphorical hot air balloon, first with young scientists and then with young social scientists.

Each time the balloon was overloaded and plunging to earth. The incumbents had to argue which of them should jump to allow the representative of the most important discipline to float to safety. This week we take on board seven disciplines from the humanities. Which should survive? It is up to you. Vote by fax on 0171 782 3300; by email on balloon@ thes.; or on the Internet, on But vote quickly. The deadline is Monday, February 19. Next week is our grand finale. Each survivor will defend their faculty - science, social science or humanities - in our Research Opportunities supplement (February 23). Again, you vote and comment.


Have you heard of Mehmet II? No? Posterity forgets the names of cultural barbarians. Do you want to hang in some obscure gallery of philistinism like the man who in 1453 sacked Constantinople, the only place where many ancient texts had found sanctuary for 1,000 years?

Yet Mehmet could not destroy classics. Nor did the banning from the British stage of that steaming sex-romp Oedipus Rex by forgotten 19th-century lord chamberlains deter people from reading the utterly unforgotten Sophocles. Latterly we classicists have countered the national curriculum's threat to our subject by inviting undergraduates to embark upon it from scratch, producing an impressive rise in the number of students, from all kinds of schools, nationwide.

Classics is the indispensable skeleton in every university department's cupboard. The Renaissance means nothing without discussing the ancient ideas that were actually being "reborn"; try researching James Joyce without reading Homer; scholars of the French revolution and Third Reich must investigate Republican and Imperial Rome. Some disciplines hate us, as children hate parents, because of their infantile dependency on our subject matter and expertise. But they need us more than we need them. As caring parents concerned for our offspring's survival, we are however prepared to be renamed Classics and Its Legacy, and cordially invite them to enrol with us forthwith. If you throw us out of the balloon we will migrate elsewhere, just as the ancient Greek authors were taken to Italy from Constantinople before Mehmet II arrived. Classics has survived because people demand it; it is the emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic equivalent of science's study of the Big Bang. You can temporarily inconvenience classics, but you can never proscribe humanity's curiosity about its origins, or ban it from ghost-raising the cultural ancestors of the West. Why waste your time in the attempt?

Edith Hall, Somerville College, Oxford University

Religious studies

Anyone who thinks that religion is a dinosaur, waiting to be encased in a museum, must live in a media-free ivory tower. The sacred has insinuated itself into the fibre of modern global society. Most recent social movements and political conflicts - Bosnia and Northern Ireland for example - have had an overwhelming religious dimension. Religious organisations such as the Christian militia in the United States, liberation theology-inspired churches in Central America, Jewish settlers in Israel, and Japan's Aum sect, have sparked national crises and struck deep at the heart of the modern state.

The study of religion is fundamental to an understanding of contemporary social dynamics. Religious studies must be maintained, not out of some nostalgic desire to reassert a moral order in a society seen to be teetering on the edge of chaos, but out of a critical engagement with political, social and cultural reality. Such an engagement also seeks to develop proposals for the transformation of that reality. Religion cannot be left to intolerant and jealous guardians of religious truth.

The academic who survives must be the one who helps prevent academia from slipping into myopia and irrelevance, and who addresses the most pressing questions and phenomena of the day. Religion is one of the most prominent of these.

Susan Hawley, Mansfield College, Oxford

Fine art

Some words from Turner Prize winner Damien Hirst: "Isolated elements swimming in the same direction for the purpose of understanding."

As education becomes increasingly specialised, led by examinations and course assessments based on "right" answers, and as students are encouraged to narrow their fields of study, fine art as an academic activity remains the most elusive. It has escaped being pinned down by these structures. It offers the greatest scope for personal development and investigation. Just as all art can be related to the breadth of human existence, so fine art teaching carries the broadest of lessons.

Other subjects may require the student to give an account in terms of facts given to them by the teacher. In fine art it is far more important for the student to be there on the course, making his or her own work. Fine art centres around situation rather than regurgitation.

While fine art involves cognitive activity, its exclusivity as a subject lies in the fact that its true nature is art-making. Hand in hand with a high level of debate and theory, the practical quality of fine art practice produces a unique self-reliance and independence.

Hirst's words are the title to a work he did in 1991. As they suggest, the goal of knowledge is the common denominator within a fine art department. This is self-knowledge, not a condensation of approved facts.

Jon Archdeacon, Royal College of Art

Modern languages

The modern linguist approaches life with what Erasmus described as "a mind replete with every kind of learning". Scholarship has crossed continental boundaries and modern languages have replaced Latin as its language. More a super-discipline than a discipline, only modern languages can provide the diversity and precision necessary to equip us for life.

Modern linguists can turn the diversity of their education to practical advantage. They can, for instance, defuse a potentially explosive encounter with a foreign taxi driver, not only through their grammatical precision and idiomatic fluency, but also through their competence to discuss the meaning of life, football, the EMU, elections in Russia, the poetry of the Koran or the pernicious effects of 19th-century colonialism, while haggling over the fare. Modern linguists read books and newspapers, watch television, go to films and the theatre, worry about government policies, travel, eat, drink, meet and make friends, talk, listen, write and think. Does it sound like life? It is.

But modern linguists do it better than anyone else because the replete mind of the modern linguist is one which has encountered the peoples, texts, and systems of thought, language and transport of other cultures. Thus we have fulfilled the Erasman educational ideal: we have learned to know and develop the character and feelings of our own hearts.

Teresa Bridgeman, Bristol University


So you want to know which subject is most vital? Such enquiry makes you a philosopher. Welcome aboard the train.

A meaningful life is much like a train, with its inter-dependent parts. History is the track, along which our lives and civilisations roll. Theology is the guard, announcing vital information, like buffet cars and schedules and connecting services - but always in a voice incomprehensible to the human ear. Literature is the window through which we see the passing world, which sadly can only reveal the viewers when they see their reflections in the darkest tunnels of the trip. Languages couple the carriages together, but provide no power of their own, and the creative arts amuse us in those stretches when the scenery seems dull and we can think of nothing more constructive to do.

But philosophy? Only philosophy can say with certainty whether you have boarded the right train, whether you will like its destination and why you are travelling. In academia, philosophy provides us with the tests for truth and meaning. Why waste years on a thesis, when a little philosophical analysis might tell you that your arguments are metaphysical rather than testable - and therefore your thesis only says something about your own psychological state? Why waste years in bitter dispute, when philosophy might have shown that you and your enemies believe the same fundamental truths but just use different means to express them?

Philosophy forms the foundations of a meaningful life and of research based on reason. It points you in the right direction at the start and acts as a lode-stone along the way.

Michael Pockley, Institute of Education


According to Lady Thatcher, the study of history is a luxury, and she clearly felt it could be dispensed with. But that is clearly a mistake.

The days when historians could be seen as tweed-clad eccentrics obsessed with discovering obscure facts about important chaps are long gone. Nearly every subject now acknowledges that history is central. The examples are numerous. The history of science bridges the "two cultures" and provides exciting insights into the nature of scientific method.

Economic history has examined past decisions about the distribution of resources and shows how they have shaped our most pressing problems today. Cultural history, by tackling Rembrandt, Neighbours and Quentin Tarantino, has charted the material, institutional and ideological constraints that have informed the changing nature of preference and "taste". Feminist history has not only recovered the once hidden history of women, but led us to reassess the role of gender in everyday life.

We live in the present and worry about the future, but what the flowering of the historical discipline has shown, particularly in its cross-overs with other subjects, is that where we are and where we are going are dependent upon where we came from. Every individual, every family, every society and every nation is in vital ways dependent on its past. Whether this past is an objective "reality" or a subjective "construct" our history informs us of what we do and what we think we could do. Perhaps for this reason history not only overlaps with but encompasses every other discipline. We should rename all the balloonists historians and by saving one save them all!

Ewen Green, Magdalen College, Oxford


The academic pursuit of English studies must be preserved because it is a discipline which is now questioning itself and the purposes for which it has been used. In doing this its proponents have a unique awareness of the manner in which self and world are fashioned. This process absorbs the knowledge of most other disciplines, strikes into the heart of epistemological enterprise, and offers the promise of social renewal - what more can any discipline claim?

English studies, as opposed to literary and linguistic study in some other area, is especially well-suited for this because of the peculiar history of its development. It has been set up as a way of assimilating the marginalised into the habits of the majority. This has sometimes been at the behest of the marginalised and sometimes by others, as a way of controlling them.

The discipline has developed in ways that have been largely ingenious, ideological and cultural forms of imposition, domination, evasion, marginalisation and misrepresentation. Understandably then its self-examination is more revealing than most other disciplines. Spiralling outwards from the objects of the discipline (different texts in English), from the readings and transmissions of these objects, are issues such as race, gender, and cultural integrity; multiculturalism and nationality; taste, style, rhetoric and aesthetics; subjectivity and truth. At this moment of self-interrogation, English studies is a discipline of disciplines. Now, of all times, it must be preserved. English studies is the only discipline which can, given its present condition, come to terms with the absurdity of being the solitary survivor.

Suman Gupta, Roehampton Institute

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