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Oh, the humanities!

History, literature, film studies—these subjects expand our understanding and enrich our democracy. They are also under assault
November 1, 2023

Are the humanities always in crisis? A number of books and opinion pieces proclaiming an emergency and pronouncing the death of this or that subject would suggest so. Yet, as the Royal Historical Society recently noted of teaching and research in history at British universities, for all the controversies that erupt within them, the humanities are not in crisis.

The same is true for other humanities subjects: classics, languages, literature, philosophy, cultural and film studies. Like all disciplines, they are subject to the gravitational pull of received ideas and the impatient chain-rattling of newer ones, and the conflicts these generate. Somewhere along the way changes take place, sometimes swiftly, often at a more stately pace. Disciplinary change may entail finally moving beyond untenable ideas and practices; or it may just follow academic fashion.

More real for the humanities than any “crisis” within is that they, along with the universities that house them, are repeatedly subject to and undermined by attacks from the outside. Universities generally, and the humanities more particularly, have long been a political football, with governments scapegoating and shifting blame for their own failures, especially where young people are concerned.

In post-Brexit Britain, reeling from vicious inflation and a steady decline in living standards, it is unsurprising that the Conservative government has thrown itself into a concocted and convenient “culture war” which has targeted, among others, Britain’s universities and the humanities. This is a government that would have us believe that millions of ordinary Britons’ lives have been made worse by refugees, trans women and “woke university professors” rather than the economic and political train crash that was Brexit, a parade of prime ministers who have failed to deliver economic improvement, endemic cronyism and repeated displays of flailing ministerial incompetence. Britain’s young people have, of course, been among the hardest hit. A recent report from the Royal Society for the Arts found that 57 per cent of those aged 22 to 24 are financially precarious.

What’s a government to do? Change policy course? Seriously address economic inequalities? Consider a fairer taxation system, rein in corporate greed and profiteering? Not a bit of it. It is much easier for ministers to shift the blame for failed market economics and a decimated welfare system onto “dead-end courses” and “rip-off degrees”—a thinly veiled attack on the arts and humanities.

The prime minister, a beneficiary of expensive private education in Britain and the US, joins the chorus as if student debt has nothing to do with the hefty tripling of tuition fees and the elimination of student grants that his party effected in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. That imposition of debt bondage on students was combined with the near total removal of the government’s “block grant” to the humanities. Public funding for a vast swathe of higher education was, in other words, abolished. While STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—would still get some assistance, the arts and humanities were thrown to the deep waters of the market, left to survive or drown based on consumer demand.

Facile teaching 

The consequences of that wrecking ball are becoming increasingly apparent. At the University of East Anglia, 31 out of 36 job cuts are in the humanities. At the University of Roehampton, several courses will be closing, including classics, history and creative writing. At Sheffield Hallam and Cumbria universities, standalone English literature degrees have been shuttered and incorporated into broader courses in the last two years. The University of Brighton has announced that more than 30 lecturers in the arts and humanities will be made redundant. According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, the number of university students taking humanities subjects has fallen by about 40,000 over the decade to 2021.

The fall in numbers is not necessarily indicative of a lack of enthusiasm for the subjects. At open days and in our classrooms, those of us who teach in these areas can still see the high interest in the humanities. There are, however, two factors that account for a recent fall in the numbers of students taking humanities subjects in secondary school.

The first is the increasingly facile way in which teaching of these subjects is being enforced. Take the new English GCSEs rolled out from 2015 with much fanfare. Teachers and pupils deprecate the lack of coursework, the frequently unchallenging and uninspiring choice of texts, mechanical tick-box approaches and a return to rote learning: a “joyless slog”, as one put it. Students speak of schools that emphasised “how wonderful STEM was and what fields you could go into”, comparing it to the lack of similar support—clubs, school trips, additional teaching—given to humanities enthusiasts.

The second factor is an amplified and incantatory claim that only STEM subjects will provide employment and decent salaries. Say a thing often enough and it takes on the status of absolute truth. Choosing to study subjects outside STEM is deemed a risky, even self-harming, proposition.

Is it possible, then, to continue to make the argument for studying the humanities? It is worth saying of course that, within the handy STEM acronym, it is really Technology and Engineering in the service of profit-making that elicits political support, not so much either “pure” science or mathematics as subjects in themselves. Indeed, attacks on the humanities open the way to denigrating “useless” science that doesn’t directly lead to profit.

Even to make a case for the humanities is to concede that some subjects and modes of inquiry are loftily above explanation while others must repeatedly justify themselves. Fortunately, within the humanities, robust critical scrutiny of what we do as scholars, teachers and communicators, and why we do it, is regarded by most, though not all, as a healthy practice in itself.

Even in the most directly monetary terms, it isn’t hard to make the case that a degree in the humanities is not a “dead-end” and does not automatically spell unemployment or poverty even in a skewed economic landscape. A 2020 report by the British Academy noted that “except for STEM graduates in highly paid professions (eg, medicine), there is a limited earnings gap between STEM and AHSS [Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences] graduates.”

It suggested that STEM graduates “have just a single percentage point advantage in finding any job within a year of graduating than humanities graduates.” While it would be disingenuous to deny that elite branding gives some of them an edge in the job market, my own students at Cambridge have become civil servants, journalists, teachers, theatre managers, education administrators, publishers, editors and website designers in the last decade. If teachers and many civil servants earn poor wages that says less about the vital work they do or the subjects they studied than political interests who don’t believe in public services and public servants.

It is a profound dislike of public good as a value, in favour of the relentless advocacy of private enrichment, that drives attacks on the humanities and on public universities. You’ll see waffly phrases like “national prosperity” and “societal requirements” in calls for the arts and humanities to be defunded (moot, since they effectively have been) in favour of STEM. In such instances, the assertion that only STEM can produce “national” and “social” benefits obfuscates an ideology in which not only is wealth the main index of “value” but is to be only privately accumulated rather than publicly shared.

A public good 

There’s a touch of irony, then, that the humanities, often treated as a private passion to be pursued on your own dime and time rather than “funded by the taxpayer”, are most urgently defended in terms of their public value. This is not in itself unusual: generations of writers and intellectuals have made the case that university education is itself a public good and that the humanities develop skills and ideas which benefit individuals as well as society at large.

More recently this line of thinking has been elaborated by the American moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum in her book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. From a moderately redistributive (though by no means anti-capitalist) “human development” perspective, Nussbaum argues that the humanities and arts impart skills like critical thinking and empathy which are necessary for any liberal democracy.

This is broadly true, but requires some caveats: not all who study or research in the humanities espouse these skills, while critical thinking or empathy in themselves cannot generate deeper change without social mobilisation. What we can say is that the humanities make such skills available to those who seek to develop them. Certainly, imaginative empathy can be the basis of public good in a way that private enrichment is clearly not, dubious claims for its “trickling down” notwithstanding.

We should be careful not to suggest, falsely, that educated people make better citizens

While valuing high-quality education and propagating universal access to it, we should also be careful not to suggest, falsely, that educated people make better citizens and elected representatives. It is an argument often used in my country of birth, India—from where Nussbaum draws many of her examples—where such an assertion is often a veneer for preserving caste and class hierarchies, and a top-down model of both education and politics.

In fact, Indian ballot boxes have shown, and not infrequently, that very disadvantaged people who lack basic literacy can make canny electoral decisions and agitate for their democratic rights. We also know that the university-educated classes, whether in the US or UK or India, the three formally democratic contexts in which I have lived, studied or taught, are susceptible to disinformation, fake news, skewed analysis and uncritical acceptance of manufactured consensus.

Nonetheless, Nussbaum is right to point out that a model of education solely driven by visions of economic “growth” can be deeply misleading. A growth model does not, despite repeated claims to the contrary, prevent deep social inequality; and achievements in health, education and civil liberties are “very poorly correlated with economic growth.”

We cannot know ahead of time when knowledge shapes an outcome, public or private, or when it becomes “useful” in a specific way. This is as true of the sciences as it is of the humanities. Famously, when the existence of radio waves was proved by the German physicist, Heinrich Hertz, there was no particular use tied to its discovery. Yet, some years later, it formed the basis of the invention of wireless radio by Guglielmo Marconi.

William Shakespeare wrote his plays to make a living and to draw audiences; he ended up changing the English language profoundly. Sometimes planned “use” can also result in something very different to what was intended. In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay famously called for English language and literature teaching to be deployed in India “to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” The result was the creation of a group of English-speaking campaigners in India who contested the British Raj in its own language and on its terms, helping to bring it to an eventual end.

The reign of untruth

Let us return, though, to the question of public good. What can the humanities contribute to the welfare of wider society, to the human existence from which they derive their name, more generally? What is it, anyway, that the humanities do?

Each discipline has its own objects and practices, from deciphering ancient texts and tongues to reconstructing the pasts of different cultures, religions and nations. The humanities also encompass the study of contemporary foreign languages, art forms and writing technologies. What they create and develop between them are resources for reading, interpreting and making connections.

These are practices and skills developed over centuries and practised across cultures in multiple languages; to refuse to teach, research and study them is to refuse to pass on humanity’s shared heritage as well as to erase specific cultural bodies of knowledge. Reading, like writing, is an active process, an ability that can be grown and finessed like any other: gymnastics, playing an instrument, painting. It takes work, patient attention to how language is used and facts are marshalled (or not). You can be better or worse at it, and you can certainly be taught to improve. Interpretation also involves making connections that are often obscured or only implicit with history, society, institutions and other texts.

How is interpretation a public activity, let alone a public good? Read Dickens in your own time, savour magical realism after a hard day of investment banking, goes the argument. While private enjoyment of and reflection on texts is valuable, the act of reading is fundamentally social, involving an engagement not just between reader and writer but between the networks within which each is located. Texts contain worlds within them. Reading entails unpacking and inhabiting both words and worlds.

I am, however, going to make a more pointed, even use-oriented, case for the public good dimension of developing the skill of informed reading or interpretation. This case is premised on the oddly contentious idea that there are better and worse; richer and poorer; truer and falser interpretations of texts and objects.

In our disinformation age, when the systematic dissemination of falsehoods has been amplified to unprecedented levels by social media, it sounds hopelessly idealistic, even desperate, to suggest that the ability to read carefully and make informed connections might be one flank of resistance to the reign of untruth. “We” are not even individual minds in this scenario but data sets. How can we hope for truth to prevail?

Diminished: the University of East Anglia, where 31 out of 36 recent job cuts are in humanities departments © Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo Diminished: the University of East Anglia, where 31 out of 36 recent job cuts are in humanities departments © Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

The writer Peter Pomerantsev argues that more mandated transparency on the internet and a clear sense of who is telling us things would make us feel “less like creatures acted on by mysterious powers we cannot see, made to fear and tremble for reasons we cannot fathom.” He’s right. Yet to be really “able to engage with the information forces around us as equals”, we need to be able to read carefully, process information, cross-reference evidence and have the means to adjudicate between competing claims.

Historical understanding is indispensable to this process as is a command of language(s). I don’t mean only in the sense of basic literacy—though that too is vital and also cannot be cultivated without the humanities—but by being able to understand the workings of language itself. For even before intentional fake news and active disinformation, there is language’s infinite capacity to perform sleights of hand.

That was, of course, the point of George Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics and the English Language”, with its reminder that political language was designed “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Yet, Orwell exhorts us, we are not doomed to this state of affairs, or at least there is nothing inevitable about it. This is true even at a time when media power is so largely concentrated in the hands of a few corporate juggernauts with an army of less than conscientious journalists in their employ. Superficial thinking might lead to imprecise and evasive language, Orwell writes, “but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”. The point, however, “is that the process is reversible.”

This is where the humanities play their part. Orwell’s case for the wider relevance of using language with care and precision is that it matters profoundly to society at large: “to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” The fight against evasive, imprecise, or outright dishonest language “is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”

It is fair to say that the practice of reading carefully—of responsible, attentive and informed interpretation—is at the heart of the humanities, at once a science and an art that requires training and practice. It requires the patient work that humanists do but it is not, therefore, an esoteric art. Such work is, however, as much a choice as a skill and some will not make that choice.

The democratic art of careful reading and attentive interpretation was also explicated by the late Palestinian--American literary critic Edward Said. In his posthumously published work, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Said outlined dangers that Orwell had already detected in his time and incorporated into his dystopian fiction about authoritarian societies.

In our times, in formally democratic nations, where ballot boxes seemingly determine who governs and where freedom of expression may be enshrined in law, the dangers to clarity of thought and understanding do not necessarily come from direct repression. They don’t have to.

Pointing to the tiny number of organisations and individuals who control the flow of information, Said wrote: “We are bombarded by pre-packaged and reified representations of the world that usurp consciousness and pre-empt democratic critique.” Such pre-packaged information and easily consumed soundbites, which conceal more than they reveal, dominate “our patterns of thought”. They frequently lull us into acquiescence instead of stimulating thinking and knowledgeable discussion. Even “debate” takes the form of wilfully ignorant grandstanding for shock value rather than grappling with complex historical realities.

Said died before the era of the meme and the genre formerly known as the “tweet” had fully taken off, but what he had to say about the exclusions and evasions of telegraphic modes of communication are all the more relevant now when single, sometimes faked, online images appear to convey instant truths. For him, the central value of the humanities and their core overlapping disciplines—the study of language, culture and history—lay in the ability to offer what he called “humanistic resistance” to the complacent reign of dangled clickbait and toothsome soundbite, shoddy thinking and half-baked reasoning.

Investigating the mind

The humanist’s job is also to bring into view what has been historically rendered invisible or silenced. This conception of resistance has little to do with campus activism or the “woke left mob” so often caricatured in the tabloids, but is about developing patient and careful techniques of interpretation that dive beneath the surface and seek to make connections. Importantly, the scrutiny given to what others say and do has also to be directed at one’s own thinking. Both entail activating “the power of the human mind of investigating the human mind”, as the literary critic, Leo Spitzer, a major influence on Said, famously put it. This is an insight that cuts across the political spectrum: vigilant and critical thinking—for ourselves as much as others.

Substantive, as opposed to merely formal, democracies would do everything in their power to foster the humanities rather than let vested political and financial interests undermine them. It is no accident, perhaps, that those whose commitment to real democracy is less than robust do not champion the kind of knowledge and skills that might leave their own modus operandi open to wider scrutiny.

In the US, the UK and India—Turkey under Erdoğan and Hungary under Orbán also come to mind—retrograde politicians with a penchant for authoritarianism have undermined universities and harassed university teachers while also tampering with what can be taught in schools or universities. They have targeted the teaching of history in particular because, in its fullness, history does not fit a narrow lens that glorifies ethnic or religious majorities, whether those are white, Hindu or Sunni Muslim.

Rather than a concocted face-off between STEM and the humanities, what the world needs is the collaborative use of the imagination

An electorate armed with historical understanding and an ability to parse the politics of language is a less pliable electorate. We cannot look to the political classes to protect knowledge or the humanities; it is very much not in their interests to do so. The persistence of attacks on the humanities and on universities states the case for them more eloquently than any defences can.

The case for the humanities, however, does not involve rejecting STEM. Knowledge is an ecosystem in which science, social studies, arts and humanities depend on and draw from each other. In his brilliant “biography” of cancer, the oncologist and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee draws heavily on literature and stresses the importance of both history and storytelling to medicine, noting that he “used the past to explain the present”: “To name an illness is to describe a certain condition of suffering—a literary act before it becomes a medical one.” Even astrophysicists must reckon with how culture shapes the mind which tries to understand the universe.

In a recent Spectator piece suggesting that the humanities might be defunded, the author makes a familiar claim: “Science and technology look forward to a progressive future while English and history look back into the past and at best, attempt reinterpretation and revision.” It is, of course, a fallacious and lazy characterisation of both science and the two disciplines it targets, but what exactly is meant here by “a progressive future”? Precisely those extractive and profit-driven versions of science and technology in the name of a narrow understanding of progress that have brought the world to unfolding ecological catastrophe. We need to look deeply into past and present now and radically revise our relationship to the world and to each other in order to have a future at all.

So rather than a concocted face-off between STEM and the humanities, what the world needs is the collaborative use of the imagination to head off a future of certain destruction. We need options and alternatives to the way in which we have conducted ourselves. A sole emphasis on profit, or what the writer Barry Unsworth called “Sacred Hunger” in his novel of that name, is part of the problem that now has us in its death grip. Contrary to what narrowly market-focused visions of progress tell us, there is an alternative: there has to be one. Finding it together, talking across disciplines, is a matter now not of just “crisis”, but human survival itself.

Correction: this piece originally described Guglielmo Marconi as having made the transistor radio. In fact he invented the wireless radio—the transistor radio was not invented for another half-century. The text has been amended to reflect this.