Spaces to think, question and create – we need them more than ever

We are witnessing an assault on the humanities, nationally and globally, to the extent that many academics now feel it necessary to ‘defend’ the humanities – something that would have astonished any previous generation of scholars – and to warn of a growing crisis which could threaten their very existence.

In Australia it seems likely that A$100 million funding for the humanities and the social sciences will be ‘reprioritised’ to where it is ‘really needed’, principally in medical research. The language of the debate there may be tonally different, but it plainly echoes the UK government’s emphasis on science and research and in particular on so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and its treatment of other disciplines as nice-to-have but not essential.

In the UK we have seen the beginnings of a debate about the value of the humanities, but it is, in the main, a depressingly narrow debate, focused on their contribution to employability and the economy. The culture secretary, Maria Miller, has argued – ‘claimed’ might be a better word as (as is so often the case with the austerity rhetoric of the coalition) there is no real argument, only an unsupported assertion of necessity – that ‘in an age of austerity, when times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact.’

Of course, it is much easier to defend investment in medical research, for example, than it is to defend investment in the humanities. The benefits of medical research are clear, measurable and comparatively well-understood. The case for the humanities is more difficult to set out, particularly against the backdrop of a policy and media environment which is stubbornly resistant to abstract or difficult thought or to any opinion which overtly challenges conventional thinking. No doubt the decision of the UK government to withdraw the university teaching grant for the humanities was made, in part, because it was a cut that would be hard to argue against, given the way debate is constrained.

We need to remind ourselves that not everything that is valuable is valuable in terms that can be expressed on an abacus. Much of what is most valuable in our lives is valuable for reasons which are not particularly easy to understand, that involve reflection, thoughtful articulation and learning. But that is no reason to dismiss or overlook them.

It is not only economic considerations that guide our choices, even in times when money is tight. In fact, when times are tough it becomes even more important to look beyond the economic concerns which regulate much of our everyday behavior, to reach towards some vision of how things might be different and better. A broad, general education and an understanding of the humanities and social sciences become all the more important.

I was in Edinburgh recently to meet a group of adult education students and activists interested in broadening and deepening the debate about Scottish independence in the run-up to next year’s referendum. The debate, as reflected in the mainstream media and the rhetoric of the two campaigns, was characterised as dull, sterile and negative, with the focus on the economy and projections, often negative, about what economic life in Scotland will be like in five or 10 years time.

No-one, of course, would deny that these things are important. But, beyond the mainstream, the debate is much wider, as was reflected in the discussion the students had. This touched on questions of value and social justice, history and literature, politics and political education, but was, above all, about culture and identity. As one student, Andrew Morrison put it, ‘Economics is important, but the issue is identity’. It is questions of culture and identity that are truly enlivening the debate, and which, I suspect, will be foremost in people’s minds when they walk into the polling places.

I was reminded of this conversation when I read James Kelman’s short column on Descartes in Saturday’s Guardian. Painting with a broad brush, Kelman traced ‘almost every literary tradition’ back to Descartes’ profound philosophical scepticism and, in particular, his emphasis on ‘the primacy of the individual perception’: ‘A sceptical voice, the child questioning the adult, the artist challenging convention, the individual challenging authority; casting doubt on infallibility and the imposition of authoritarian control.’

Five centuries later, philosophical scepticism and our insistence on the primacy of individual experience remain strongly linked with our reasons for valuing the humanities. Crucially, the humanities teach us to think – for ourselves – in creative and critical ways, to argue and to respect the arguments of others, and, most of all, to question. It also helps us to develop new visions of what the future might be, to challenge conventions and to think about how things might be different.

These are critical resources, particularly in times when the outlook is bleak and people are unsure of how to move forward or to change things they see as plainly wrong. While no-one (again) would question the huge value of medical research, we, as a society, also need to be able to reflect on the legitimate limits and use of medical research, to consider the conventions and how we might change or improve them, to maximise the benefits for humanity, with in a set of agreed boundaries. The humanities help us to do this.

As Richard Taylor argued recently, we need a broad, cultural education, and not just for children and young people. Adult education for active and informed citizenship is an absolute condition of democracy. Adult education is closely linked to the democratic process. It gives people a safe, neutral space in which to gather and discuss issues of concern, to think critically about the world as received through the news media and to engage in an imaginative and open conversation about how things might be. Given the pressing challenges we face as a society – from wealth inequality to climate change to the democratic deficit – this is more necessary than ever. It is much more than a nice-to-have. We need more spaces to think and more awkward customers. Adult education produces both.

Of course, education itself is not exempt from this kind of critical questioning. The cuts to higher education funding have resulted in heightened questioning of the value of higher education, what it is for and what its wider civic and community obligations are – and I think this is welcome. For too long, parts of the academy have been far too remote from communities, from ordinary people – and have been far too happy to remain so. This has begun to change. There is no room for complacency. Academics in the humanities and social sciences must do more to demonstrate the wider value of their work – not through soundbites and with abacuses, but by slow and careful engagement with people and communities. You can’t really be told about the value of the humanities. You have to experience it.

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