Justifying the Humanities

October 12th, 2010 by Gabriel Bodard

On the day when the Browne Report proposes cutting all government funding for teaching in the Arts and Humanities in the name of making the British university sector “more competitive”, there has of course been much online discussion (notably on Twitter) of how to (and indeed whether we should have to) justify the arts and humanities in a shrinking academic economy. Several important opinion pieces have been cited:

For my part, the answer is very simply that the reason society should value a strong Arts and Humanities culture is not because of any measurable “value” in economic terms (although cases can and are being made for that), but because a civilized society benefits from having a large number of educated citizens with as varied backgrounds as possible who are able to (and in the habit of) critically examine an arbitrary statement or text.

I’m willing to concede that society gets very little (if any) measurable gain from my study of the role of marginalized women in Ancient Greek narratives of magic. But the fact that I spent so much time studying anything that closely makes me better able to critique the rhetoric of a politician, or to analyze the social impact of a controversial television programme (and I’m no scholar of political science or media studies, both of whom have important roles to play there). In short, my liberal arts education has made me a better citizen, and the students I have been involved in the teaching of likewise.

Others can and have made better cases than this, and I hope will continue to do so, in the comments here and elsewhere. This may not be an especially convincing argument for politicians, but it is, in my opinion, the truth.

5 Responses to “Justifying the Humanities”

  1. Ryan Says:

    There’s also been a rather long-running thread debating this and related issues in the Commentary and Letters sections of the Times Literary Supplement:

  2. Melissa Terras Says:

    There’s also “past, present, and future” from the British Academy, 2010. http://www.britac.ac.uk/policy/pastpresentandfuture.cfm
    which “highlighted the “enormous reservoir of public value” which these disciplines [arts, social sciences] generate, outlining their contribution to Britain’s health, wealth and international reputation”.

  3. Melissa Terras Says:

    also see the side panel in the above website – has links to 4 or 5 other reports. I need to do some reading!

  4. Gabriel Bodard Says:

    John Theibault writes:

    “An even more succinct case than Fish’s for the centrality of the humanities in today’s educational environment http://bit.ly/9sv0UP

  5. Gabriel Bodard Says:

    The open letter from Gregory A Petsko to the president of SUNY Albany makes the same point that I was trying to make in the post above, but more eloquently:

    “I’m now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.”

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