More than just a Book at Bedtime

Humanities' value is not calculable in media buzz and 'impact', forum hears. Matthew Reisz reports

May 12, 2011

Noted figures from politics, business and the media joined academics at a forum on The Value of Arts and Humanities in the 21st Century.

Participants in last week's event at the University of Sheffield included David Blunkett, Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough and a former home secretary, who suggested that current government higher education policy could lead to "a 'brave new world' of drones led by spivs. That is why this Socratic dialogue about the future of arts and humanities really does matter," he said.

Robert Hewison, professor of cultural policy and leadership studies at City University London, said the arts and humanities "provide an understanding of both the longer-term history and the immediate context of an idea", enabling us "to understand the language in which that idea is expressed" and "respond critically and independently".

Although a university education had long been regarded as "a public good", Professor Hewison suggested that "by withdrawing direct funding for teaching the arts and humanities, the coalition government regards them as valueless".

In light of ministers' intention to create a market in tuition fees, the clustering of fees at the top of the £9,000 cap "is a sign of their naive incompetence", he said.

Equally depressing were the signs of how "impact" would be used to determine research funding, Professor Hewison continued, where "'reach' will be judged by whether you have a Twitter feed, and 'significance' by being chosen as a (BBC Radio 4) Book at Bedtime".

Peter Hitchens, the Conservative columnist, argued that the arts and humanities could and should "sustain and preserve the heart and soul of our civilisation".

Yet while it was the role of universities to defend such values, they had often been undermined by "the idea that the young should be encouraged to discover for themselves and that there is no settled body of knowledge which we are obliged to learn and teach", he said.

"Had this idea been pursued in the hard sciences, or among language students, we would have no science, and nobody who could speak any foreign languages."

The most personal contribution came from Nigel Shardlow, who works for the strategic consultancy SHM. The study of philosophy, he said, had helped him to address questions about morality, responsibility and the relationship between the mind and brain during his mother's struggle with mental illness.

"On the threshold of adulthood, we all have questions we want to explore ... when the questions are about what it means to be human, we need the humanities," he said.

Dr Shardlow also described a recent project at University College London in which cancer patients had produced personal testimonies.

Submitting this material to humanities academics "to read, interpret, understand and offer commentary" had led to "six remarkable insights into patient experience" which were now being adopted by the medical team, he said.

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