Gary Day

April 23, 2004

...Quite a lot, actually. For a start we still don't know if Becks was unfaithful'

Scientists can easily prove their value to society, but humanities tutors have a tougher job to justify their existence

Do you ever wonder about the value of what you do? I often envy scientists.

They can have no doubt about their contribution to the human race. Only recently they showed how we could improve our career prospects if we behaved more like chimpanzees. If you want to get ahead, groom your dean.

And now that our colleagues in white coats are being sponsored by industry there'll be no limit to what they can achieve.

For instance, the combined brains of Cambridge, Essex, University College London and Manchester and University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology have just come up with an electronic device that, inserted into clothes, tells you exactly what they are made of. No more worrying about whether that T-shirt really is pure cotton.

Thanks to radio-frequency identity tagging we'll know that it isn't. But that's not all. This same chip instructs your washing machine not to shrink your favourite jumper, which is great news because mine never takes any notice of me.

If you are unmoved by that particular retailing breakthrough, then how about this? Scientists at Aston University have developed a product that is set to revolutionise the cosmetics industry. At present we use cream to slow down the ageing process, but soon we'll be able to use a substance that delivers active agents such as vitamins A and E into the skin over a long period of time. With these new "cosmeceutical" products we will all look young for longer with the added advantage that unlike those who've been injected with Botox, we'll still be able to frown without our faces exploding. And the list goes on.

One of the very latest inventions is a vehicle that can travel by road and rail. So now you can choose whether your car is going to be cancelled or whether it's going to be caught in a 12km tailback.

Best of all is a new machine for measuring male potency. This has become a problem due to all the oestrogen in the environment and the habit of wearing tight-fitting trousers. Engineers fill a wind tunnel with your specimen and then study it using laser pulses. Lewis Wolpert wrote that science is difficult because much of it is counter-intuitive. Here's a perfect example of that. I would have thought that if you can fill a wind tunnel with sperm, then potency is the least of your problems.

Still, unlike the people who devised this particular experiment, I'm not an aerospace engineer. My ignorance in these matters serves only to increase my admiration for scientists who make a difference to our daily lives and, through their partnership with business, generate income for their universities, causing vice-chancellors to look kindly on them while demanding to know exactly how we in the humanities justify our existence.

For after all, what can we offer?

It's no good saying that education makes you a rounded person because so do crisps and pizza. Harold Bloom remarked that literature helps you confront your own mortality, which may be true, but it's not a strong selling point.

Much better to tell prospective students about the sort of jobs they are likely to get from studying English or history. Then again, perhaps not.

Just console them with the thought that an arts degree at least enables you to despise the wealth it prevents you from achieving. It would be a much better world, we tell our students, if only they stopped trying to get rich and developed their critical faculties instead. Unfortunately, some of them take us too literally and think they contribute to society by making adverse comments about people who wear baseball caps. Criticism is a far more serious business than that.

If I hadn't been to university, I wouldn't have been able to point out to my daughter that she wasn't allowed to see Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed because it conformed to gender stereotypes. Women, I lectured her, shouldn't be portrayed as either beautiful like Daphne or brainy like Velma. Sitting in the cinema later, I thought the film was finely balanced between an Enlightenment critique of the supernatural and a Romantic valuation of authentic selfhood. I also found myself strangely drawn to Velma.

So much for criticism then, whatever that is. In my subject we can't even decide what to teach. The canon, or cultural studies? And no, I don't know what they are either. Even if we managed to agree on a syllabus, we'd still disagree about the meaning of every single book on it. Wait a minute! That's it! We could teach disagreement. What could be more useful in a democracy? Quite a lot, actually. For a start we still don't know if Becks was unfaithful. Somewhere, no doubt, scientists are working on a formula to find out.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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