Posted tagged ‘humanities’

Humanities and science: an unequal competition?

March 1, 2016

Over recent years the debates on higher education funding have addressed not just whether that funding is sufficient, but also increasingly how it should be distributed. In this context the growing volume of science funding, often linked to economic development priorities, has sometimes raised the issue of whether science and engineering have got a better deal than the humanities, the arts and the social sciences. Sometimes this debate addresses issues of how the humanities can also stimulate the economy, and sometimes it has more generally raised the question of whether we are neglecting disciplines that have major pedagogical benefits and which moreover provide important social and cultural supports.

This issue was discussed last year in the Observer newspaper by the writer Alex Preston. He argued that an attack on the humanities set in under Margaret Thatcher, who attempted to centralise control over universities:

‘She asserted more government power over the universities in an attempt to strong-arm them into complying with her vision of an entrepreneurial, vocational education system.’

According to Preston this has led today to a culture of higher education bureaucracy that spends (wastes?) money on ‘bureaucrats hired to manage the transformation of universities from centres of learning to profit centres.’ In this world the humanities are an immediate target because they are ‘less readily yoked to the needs of the corporate world.’

It is hard to know what to do with this debate. Clearly universities, at least as a sector, need to maintain a balance between the disciplines, though this may still allow some individual universities to specialise. In the meantime one of the welcome developments has been the growth of interdisciplinary dialogue between the humanities and the sciences and the growth of joint projects between them in both teaching and research.

So is there really a war against the humanities? It is probably unavoidable that scientists will, in overall money terms, gain more funding than the humanities because their infrastructure and equipment is much more expensive. Nor is it entirely unreasonable to fund research that will secure major economic growth and benefits. But it is also vital that the university sector overall demonstrates – and is encouraged and funded to demonstrate – the value of the humanities, arts and social sciences. For this to be done satisfactorily, the value and ethos of higher education as a whole needs a more principled expression than it now often gets. That may be the first task to be addressed. And if I may be permitted a bit of self-indulgence, there are worse places to start the reflection than in the introduction to the report of the 2012 review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland (which I chaired).

Advertisements

No nose for Irish industry?

April 13, 2011

In a world where statements about higher education are often less than fully informed, it is important that the dialogue between universities and the relevant regulatory body – in Ireland’s case the Higher Education Authority – is conducted with a degree of sensitivity and mutual respect. Mostly that has been the case, even where there are disagreements. Therefore I found it somewhat startling when the new chair of the HEA, John Hennessy, was recently reported by the Irish Independent as saying that some academics in the arts and humanities ‘”hold their nose” at the idea of working with industry’. He went on, apparently, to suggest that ‘the humanities have a problem in communicating their contribution to the wider society – a problem the sciences do not have.’

It may of course be that the HEA chair had some specific evidence for these assertions that the newspaper did not include in the report. It may also be that he had more detailed proposals as to how and where the arts and humanities should be engaging with industry where currently they are not or where their communication with society falls down. But if so, it would be helpful to see some of this evidence and assess the proposals. As it is, my fear is that the comments, which he made on the occasion of a public lecture, reinforce the tendency to make unsubstantiated judgements about academic work and use these as a basis for new regulatory restrictions and controls.

It cannot be a matter of surprise that the arts and humanities have less interaction (but hardly none) with industry than is the case with science or engineering. However, in my experience they often work closely with the performing arts, with educational bodies, with voluntary organisations, with cultural and tourism bodies, and so forth. Accusing the arts of not working with industry is in some ways like accusing biochemists of not working with the Abbey Theatre.

John Hennessy’s appointment has been welcomed by many, and it is hoped that he will oversee a well judged and effective cooperation with the academic community in Ireland. But it might be better if the patterns of this cooperation were established a little better before he moves to launch public criticism of some sections of higher education without much visible evidence to back it up. I suspect that the arts and humanities can always usefully review their interaction with the wider society, including industry, but it is better to stimulate such a review in a somewhat more sensitive and less caricatured way. I hope that a constructive dialogue will be more typical of what is to come.

Eagleton on the humanities

December 19, 2010

As I have noted here before, the future of the humanities as an accepted part of higher education has become an issue of some significance, not least in the light of the approach now being adopted in England (where it is intended that humanities programmes will no longer enjoy state funding). Readers interested in this may want to have a look at the case put forward by Terry Eagleton, Professor of English at the University of Lancaster, writing in the Guardian. I would not necessarily support his key argument (which is to do with role of the humanities in opposing capitalism), but the article is well worth a read.

Saving the humanities?

November 10, 2010

For a whole variety of reasons, subjects in the humanities are coming under severe pressure in higher education around the world. In the United States, students are increasingly choosing to study other subjects that they think are more visibly career-oriented, while in England the proposed new funding model may remove state support for humanities subjects altogether, so that students will have to pay fees amounting to the full cost. Furthermore university research in science, engineering and technology is getting the lion’s share of funding.

But what can be done? We cannot force students to choose courses they don’t want to study, and research funding models are unlikely to change dramatically. But there are things we can do. We can point to the significant social (and even economic) need for expertise in humanities subjects. We can point to the convergence of new media content with new technology, and the significance of the humanities in this process. We can aim to re-invent some of the humanities to make them more attractive to students who no longer instinctively understand or have a feeling for traditional disciplines. When money becomes available, we can ensure that higher education infrastructure is not consistently at its worst in the humanities.

A university system without the humanities, or one in which the humanities are studied by wealthy students only, is not a proper university system. We must be careful to ensure that this is not where we are going.

A future for the humanities?

September 26, 2010

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.

Re-thinking the research culture?

May 14, 2010

Here’s a question that might get some pulses racing: is all humanities research completely pointless? Well yes, suggests Clive Bloom, Professor of English and American Studies at Middlesex University. The whole thing is just a glorified hobby for academics looking for something to give meaning to their holidays. It doesn’t save lives like medical research or create a new product like engineering research; it just fills the pages of journals that nobody will read.

Have a look at a little sample of the kind of argument he advances:

‘How indeed does one “research” such diverse things as Slavoj Zizek’s account of the Iraq war or chivalry in medieval literature or the meaning of Wittgenstein’s theory of colour, but by sitting and reading in a comfy chair with a nice cappuccino and some leisure? In other words, our personal choices about what we research are the merest hobbies, rather like some highfalutin version of model train collecting.’

There are two things in his piece that invite comment. One is his dismissal of scholarship in the humanities, or his calling into question whether the topics that might be addressed are actually of any concern to society or whether the research methodology used is at all respectable. Maybe I should leave the answer to this to colleagues from the disciplines involved, though my own view is that many of the issues that have become crucial to modern society and which need to be analysed and understood are in the humanities. I do however suspect that the continuing insistence of many humanities scholars that they need to work alone and that team work is just for scientists could usefully be questioned.

The other issue is this: do we always know at all why we are promoting academic research with such vigour, or has it just become a way of life that nobody has the time to question? Are we merely worried that nobody will respect us or our institutions if we don’t have a steady stream of publications, or is there a more direct purpose to it all?

In terms of the general value of research, I don’t think the case is arguable at all: high value academic research is at the heart of medical, technological and cultural progress across global societies. It enhances quality of life, supports employment and facilitates critical thinking. No question, it is essential. But is that true of all the ‘research’ pumped out by people who really aren’t scholars but who have been forced more or less at gunpoint to publish something, anything? Probably not. An academic research policy should be about promoting excellence, not about overcoming writer’s block for people who really won’t set the world alight with their published output.

Personally, I believe that strong research is the vital element that makes a higher education institution useful to society. Its existence in the institution is, I think, even necessary to guarantee excellent teaching, because today’s students also need to learn the value of research. But research is worth very little if it is conducted just to meet performance indicators. It needs to be driven by passion, not obligation. And this in turn needs to be reflected in how institutional research is assessed and rewarded financially.

So I do believe that the approach of recent decades – that universities need to be seen to be promoting research – is correct. But this policy should by driven by the desire to have high value research outputs, with support for working methods most likely to achieve that end. Enforcing a writing habit in every academic is not the same thing as promoting a university’s research excellence. We need to get better at distinguishing between the two.

Science and the humanities: an eternal battle?

March 29, 2010

Over recent years the debates on higher education funding have addressed not just whether that funding is sufficient, but also increasingly how it should be distributed. In this context the growing volume of science funding, often linked to economic development priorities, has sometimes raised the issue of whether science and engineering have got a better deal than the humanities, the arts and the social sciences. Sometimes this debate addresses issues of how the humanities can also stimulate the economy, and sometimes it has more generally raised the question of whether we are neglecting disciplines that have major pedagogical benefits and which moreover provide important social and cultural supports.

This issue was recently discussed in the Guardian newspaper by the columnist Simon Jenkins. He argues that an attack on the humanities, arts and social sciences set in under Margaret Thatcher, who considered these areas to be socialist breeding grounds, and that since then politicians have maintained a bias towards science funding, with Peter Mandelson in the UK completing this process. Jenkins argues that the universities need to re-assert their autonomy and their support for all disciplines on a fair basis.

It is hard to know what to do with this debate. Clearly universities, at least as a sector, need to maintain a balance between the disciplines, though this may still allow some individual universities to specialise. However, it is not helpful to suggest that there is some sort of academic class war between disciplines; in fact one of the more helpful recent developments has been the growth of interdisciplinary dialogue between the humanities and the sciences and the growth of joint projects between them in both teaching and research. It is also unavoidable that scientists will, in overall money terms, gain more funding than the humanities because their infrastructure and equipment is much more expensive. Nor is it entirely unreasonable to fund research that will secure major economic growth andf benefits.

However, it is also vital the universities develop a clear policy for the development of their disciplines, and that such a policy should leave no doubt about the equal value of the arts, humanities and social sciences, and their claim to be recognised as vital academic areas. It is in nobody’s interests that there should be hostility between different parts of the academy. To avoid this requires a better dialogue and more transparent decision-making.