There's lots of life beyond skills

August 3, 2007

Maria Misra suspects a Gradgrindian view of humanities lies behind the Government's privileging of science

So now we are all working for the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Education has two ministries in the Cabinet, and many have rejoiced that this marks the further promotion of education as a major priority of Government.

Yet is also seems as if science has been singled out - the DIUS includes a Government Office for Science reporting to the Prime Minister. Are we to suppose that other branches of study have now been subsumed under the rubric of "skills" - widely regarded as code for "business"? This seems, on the surface, to reflect Treasury thinking on the broader significance of higher education in society, which we have already seen in the business-oriented Lambert report.

Clearly, publicly funded universities should play a role in the development of science and the skills thought necessary by business, but surely they have a broader role as well. One would not have to be Cardinal Newman to feel that art, literature and history are more than simply convenient vehicles for conveying "skills". If such a utilitarian role is intended, then would it not be quicker and easier just to teach the skills (essay writing, group presentations - or whatever is wanted) directly, and dispense with reading, imaginative thought, research and all that other self-indulgent flim-flam?

This attitude towards the study of the humanities is already lurking behind the imposition of science-based models of research assessment - the fetishisation of citation indices and the volume of grant applications - threatened in future revisions of the research assessment exercise. Even scientists cavil at the gloomy future for "blue-skies" research heralded by these dismal indicators.

But in rejecting both Newman's and Gradgrind's prescriptions for higher education, we are still left with the problem of justifying the humanities in this hyper-utilitarian era. One possible defence, given current political concerns with the revival of religious "fundamentalisms", would be the centrality of the humanities in promoting the understanding of our own and other cultures. Surely the quality of national debate in these areas, already rather etiolated in media stereotypes, would be further impoverished by the neglect of teaching and research at the highest level. And is not Britain's great claim to global competitiveness in part based upon its much-vaunted openness to and interest in other cultures?

But have we also not heard a great deal from politicians of all hues of late about "happiness"? Following the insights of the economist Richard Layard, our leaders now claim to recognise that we cannot live by business skills and high-tech achievements alone. Happiness, it turns out, is not the consequence of earning more, of climbing international league tables or of deploying our skill sets in some great global economic machine, but of creativity, self fulfilment and the sense of living for a purpose.

And many people find the study of how their predecessors have interpreted their lives and given them meaning deeply satisfying. One has only to note the popularity of continuing education courses in art, history and literature among the middle-aged, or to look at the soaring popularity of "educational" holidays. But perhaps we should not push this justification too strongly. Doubtless it will not be long before education finds a third voice in Cabinet - this time subsumed within a Department of Leisure, Tourism and Pensions.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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