Defending the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 16, 2010
Anyone working in the Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences has felt cold winds blowing of late. I’ve felt them very directly myself. When the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds announced last year that all departments and services across the entire university needed to start modelling 20-25% savings on the basis of the cuts to Higher Education funding which he knew (very presciently) were coming, one of the first responses from our so-called fellow-departments in the School of Humanities was to propose the closure of Classics. But my own department is far from the only one feeling the pinch. Other similar cases of late have included:
- Middlesex’s Philosophy department
- Swansea’s Modern Languages department
- King’s College London’s Classical Archaeology and Art posts and Palaeography Chair
- SUNY Albany’s departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts
And there are doubtless others I’ve missed. Now, of course, the total removal of the direct teaching budget for Arts and Humanities subjects is being proposed as part of the measures in the Comprehensive Spending Review. Anyone would think that the Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences had no value – that they were a trifling luxury and a drain on the national resources.
Except that they’re not. This isn’t the first crisis which the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences have faced. We’ve already got very used to defending ourselves by identifying what we have to offer to the wider society and economy within which we operate, and articulating that to the appropriate audiences. Detailed reports commissioned by the British Academy in 2004 and 2010 and by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in 2010 (PDF document) have shown that Arts and Humanities subjects play an essential role in equipping graduates with the analytical and communications skills needed for today’s knowledge-driven economy, that they foster the necessary political and cultural conditions for economic growth, and that they contribute directly to the economy. That’s before, of course, we even bother to mention trivial matters such as cultural enrichment, or the ability to make sense of the changing attitudes, discourses and values at work in the world around us.
Increasingly, public figures have been speaking out about the value of Arts, Humanities and Social Science subjects. These are just some of the examples I have gathered:
- David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham (June 2009)
- Martha Nussbaum, author of Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, published 2010
- Robert N. Watson, professor of English at UCLA (March 2010)
- Peter Jones, high-profile Classicist and newspaper journalist (October 2010)
- George M Philip, a Genome Biologist, in an open letter to the President of SUNY Albany (October 2010)
The central message of all of these articles is clear: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences not only enrich their graduates as individuals, and the cultures within which they operate collectively, but they also make a measurable contribution to the balance-sheets of the universities where they are taught, the companies where their graduates are employed and the nations in which they are pursued.
And, going one step further than individual speeches and articles, the collaborative movement to stand together and make this clear to those who fail to understand it is growing. Martha Nussbaum will be giving a public talk on the subject in London on 16th December. I’d encourage any London-based readers to go – but apparently space at the event is already fully booked out. That shows the growing extent of collective concern about the subject.
And just two days ago, a group of scholars and students in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, working together with business people who support and value their work, set up a collaborative blog for the purpose of speaking out for our subjects, as well as a related petition. This has the potential to be a great gathering-point for everyone who sees the value of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences – especially for people who don’t work in those fields themselves, but want to show their appreciation for what these subject areas can contribute to our culture, society and (yes) economy.
I’ve already signed the petition myself, and will repost what I wrote here for ease of reference:
“Now more than ever, the UK needs graduates who have been highly trained in the skills of rigorous analysis, critical evaluation, digesting and making sense of large quantities of information, and communicating their findings to others clearly, accurately and persuasively. These are exactly the skills which arts, humanities and social science subjects deliver. Furthermore, the academics who teach these subjects are already highly experienced in drawing the attention of their students to these skills as they encounter them, and helping them to develop them further. I know this because I am a Classics lecturer myself, and skills development is central to our curriculum. Undermining all of this now would deal a severe blow to the future of our modern, skills-based economy – to say nothing, of course, of our cultural landscape.”
Whoever you are and whatever you do, I would strongly urge you to do the same.