A future for the humanities?

Two interesting reports have just been published about the humanities. The first is a report jointly commissioned in Ireland by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) and the Higher Education Authority – though curiously neither body has any reference to it on their websites (the HEA site rather charmingly suggested that my search was unsuccessful but might work better if I used the key words ‘blue smurf’). However, according to a report in the Irish Independent, it recommends that student should receive a ‘more rounded’ education by ensuring that both science and humanities elements are present in all degree programmes. This would also give a boost to the creative industries, which may turn out to be particularly significant in the next phase of economic development.

The second report (in the UK) is by the Sutton Trust, which is an education charity. According to a survey carried out by the Trust, a larger proportion of students in subjects like history and philosophy are the children of people from wealthier backgrounds. This may be due to the fact that people from poorer backgrounds prefer a degree that is more closely aligned with a particular career or vocation, but the consequence may turn out to be that humanities subjects will become the preserve of the wealthy, and by the same token of universities that themselves are better resourced.

Both of these reports suggest that it is now urgent that we have a clearer strategy for the humanities, both in their more traditional setting and in some of the newer interdisciplinary models. It seems to me that a system in which the humanities are kept apart from science and engineering, and where they are seen as something best suited to the well off, is not a good one. It is time to act before that becomes a reality.

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14 Comments on “A future for the humanities?”

  1. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    I read an article during the week that Princeton required its STEM students to do a humanities subject – such as drama, to develop a more rounded student.


    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Virtually every self-respecting American university (the exception being Brown University) has such “distribution requirements”. Students must take a wide range of subjects before deciding on a major. I went to such a college and though I eventually settled on a humanities subject, I had to take science courses and social sciences and maths as well.

      Ireland should do everything it can to emulate such a model. Unfortunately, we run up against the absurd 3-year time frame for most degrees here which, given the economic circumstances, is not going to change. In the US, where the 4-year degree is the norm, students generally spend 2 years filling distribution requirements and taking introductory courses in a wide range of subjects and then a further 2 years working almost exclusively on their majors.

      • Perry Share Says:

        Remember – honours degrees in the ITs and TCD are generally 4 years in length. Its the NUI that has pursued the 3-year degree route.

    • Al Says:

      Surely this only works when the student takes it seriously…
      Just like ethics courses?

      • Kevin O'Brien Says:

        Conversely , I know quite a few Arts professionals who strongly advise those new in the field to develop their professional skills (i.e. Contract Law, Marketing, Professional Communications).

        Sounds like sensible advise to me!

  2. kevin denny Says:

    As one who’s education was straight-down-the-line economics (by choice) I wish in retrospect that it had been more varied though I have partly made up for my earlier sins. So I am very sympathetic to the idea that education should be pretty rounded and I would leave my liberal instincts at the door & require all students to study something different from their major field. The UCD modular system has had some success at this. The North American’s have developed this approach pretty well as far as I can see.
    I doubt the Sutton Trust’s result would be mirrored in Ireland. The more vocational majors (medicine, business, law, vet etc), because they require high points (& generate high returns subsequently), are clearly dominated by those from the wealthier backgrounds.

  3. I have argued here in the past that the Arts Degree’s time has come. Indeed I’ve said that what makes a degree a 2.1 or higher is evidence of innovation. Increased use of IT means that thinking people who can work with information are required.

    Colincidentally, I was prompted to put something along these lines on my own blog this morning. http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/the-smart-economy-and-technologys-democratic-vector/

    What prompted me were two articles in the Oct. issue of Prospect: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/09/unloved-british-universities/

    By the way, this notion that people are good at some subjects and not at others – especially the distinction between humanities and science – should be knocked on the head. Being adequately educated means being reasonably competent in both.

  4. Iainmacl Says:

    Yes and many first year entrants to arts degree programmes in Ireland actually have good leaving certain grades in science, often. This whole debate though has a long history and in the Scottish context in which you’ll soon be immersed, Ferdinand, was discussed in the 19th century debates on the Democratic Intellect, in which one side advocated a broad curriculum and that the purpose of a degree was to enable graduates to participate as active citizens in the debates of the time and be generally educated. the other side advocated value in specializing from the outset into specific subjects in order to advance those fields and the economy. This was the trend emerging in England at that time. you can read more in George Davie’s book – if you really want to and have a lot of time on your hands!

  5. Iainmacl Says:

    Argh..curse this automatic word corrector thing…

    • Perry Share Says:

      Iain – relax with a Blue Smurf: 1/2 oz ouzo, 1/2 oz Blue Curacao – Pour into shot glass. An acquired taste perhaps?

  6. iainmacl Says:

    why don’t we set up another taskforce? I see Batt O’Keefe has created another one today to look at the knowledge economy. Yes, another one. Yes, the ‘knowledge economy’, no I don’t know what it is any more either. Why not have a taskforce to look at how government avoids decisions by setting up taskforces? This is all getting a bit absurd, is it not?

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