Hold your nerve, humanities told

'Tsunami of reforms' may favour sciences but all is not lost, conference hears. Matthew Reisz reports

November 11, 2010

At a time when the future of the humanities in the UK is unclear, leading experts have called on academics to build alliances with students, to redefine the terms of the debate and to be far more energetic in explaining their role in addressing crucial social challenges.

A one-day conference last week, titled Why Humanities? and organised by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, was opened by Stefan Collini, professor of English literature and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.

He called on academics to "hold their nerve" and stop their opponents setting the agenda. Once the premise that "research should be supported because it contributes to 'growth'?" is accepted, "we cease even to notice the way it represents intellectual enquiry as though it were a kind of hormone and 'growth' an unambiguous good", he said.

Nor was there any reason to accept the existence of "the mythical beast" known as "the taxpayer", who is always assumed to be "intensely suspicious of all contact with others, fearing the abduction and loss of its hoard".

In reality, suggested Professor Collini, applicants and the public had "a much greater reservoir of interest in and appreciation of work in the humanities than this narrow and defensive official discourse ever succeeds in tapping into".

The conference followed the government's decision to cut 40 per cent from the higher education budget. The reduction in teaching funding is expected to be even higher, with many humanities courses set to lose their public funding entirely.

Joanna Bourke, professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, worried that scholars had become "vulnerable to the swaggering philistinism of management scientism as well as the bruising confidence of the sciences".

Far from just helping citizens chat about culture, the humanities should "worry, disturb, disrupt and critique society and notions of justice", she said.

Kate Soper, emeritus professor at London Metropolitan University's Institute for the Study of European Transformations, feared that we were now reaching "a final crisis of legitimation for the humanities".

Yet at a time when ecological survival "depends on the capacity of affluent societies to shift to a low- or no-growth economic model", the humanities can generate "social, economic, political alternatives to our current ways of doing things".

It was left to the historian and novelist Iain Pears to argue that "in a completely free market, the humanities would clean up".

"Faced with a choice between an arts degree costing £8,000 a year and one in science costing upwards of £30,000 a year, history and philosophy would suddenly become very popular," he said.

Although the ill-conceived "tsunami of reforms" had rigged the market in favour of the sciences, Mr Pears argued, eventually there may be a rebalancing of the system, with teaching enjoying "equal status once more".

He added that students "may be willing to stump up for their own education" but not to fund vice-chancellors' pay rises.

"They may want to know where their money is going and how it is spent," he said. "As most humanities departments operate on a shoestring, this natural curiosity in the young is a characteristic that should be encouraged."


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