Valuing the Humanities: a panel discussion

Yesterday I went to see a panel discussion at the London School of Economics under the auspices of the Forum for European Philosophy. There was a fairly varied panel present. Martin Rees, a person with a great many titles: Astronomer Royal, President of the Royal Society, Lord of Ludlow, Master of Trinity College Cambridge and of course, a professor in Astrophysics. An unusual choice was a Richard Smith, known as a one time editor of the British Medical Journal and by his own testimony holds a passionate appreciation of literature, philosophy and poetry. The other ‘humanist’ panel were Prof. Martha Nussbaum, who is well known for her work in international social issues such as gender relations in India and her recent work seems to involve some familiarity with south-east Asia. Finally and by no means least was a certain Professor James Ladyman, a philosopher of science who has also been known in broadsheet media as a stern critic of the managerial style of academia since well before the annoucement of the Browne Report.

Some interesting points were made, some of which give a lot of historical and cultural context which is often forgotten by the knee-jerk and short-termist politics and journalism of the present day.

Democracy and the humanities

Nussbaum made the point that the humanities have a vital role in well functioning democracies. The humanities have an important role even outside democratic countries. Nussbaum gives the example of China, Singappore and India, which has invested much into their technical and vocational institutions which provide professional qualifications. These countries, according to Nussbaum, have realised the worth of humanism and the skills that come from learning about the humanities and have introduced courses as a crucial component to vocational/professional training. These skills are important to the corporate world in the understanding of other people and how one might deal with different personalities or castes.

How to make an appeal

A case should be made for the intrinsic value of the humanities, but in the discourse of public reason, it is important to appeal to a terminology and set of factors that politicians and the public would be appealed by, which would involve an instrumental form of reasoning. As such, many academics have to subordinate or submit to the logic of capital in how funding is allocated. This means that if one is to concede to academic funding and the mechanisms which organise it, certain key factors are hindered, such as freedom of the pen, and allowing the authority of the management-style administration of the university.

Professor Ladyman noted about the absurdity of the management reasoning, in one meeting he noted that the university authorities proposed that they had to do something to ‘invigorate’ the economy, or how important philosophy is in fighting extremism, for instance, with tackling movements like intelligent design proponents. Ladyman pointed the absurdity in this: while he is being asked how to tackle extremism as an academic, Bristol City Council has cut a scheme to teach english to Somali immigrants: one of the most vulnerable groups in the community. Ladyman makes the important point that the agenda imposed by HEFCE of ‘impact’ for ‘good research’ is absurd. The standards of excellent scholarship are internal to the subject of study. Also, the ‘impact’ of an intellectual development is hardly known immediately. Ladyman cited a great many examples:

  • G.H. Hardy, author of ‘Pure Mathematics’ once said that ‘Quantum Mechanics and Relativity’ have no relevance during his contemporamous early 20thC. Now, think about superconductivity, or the GPS technology. Consider the potential impacts of quantum computing. Impact isn’t the implicit reason why good research comes about, sometimes it is just about knowing more about a specific subject.
  • Bertrand Russell’s theory of descriptions and work on logic and foundations of mathematics became the staples of further mathematical logic, and spruned on developments in artificial languages and essentially foundational issues in computer science.
  • Philosophers who during the Enlightenment talked of the fundamental political values of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ led to the intellectual emergence of the founding of the United States, as well as the liberal democracy around Europe. Consider the ‘impact’ of a certain Second Treatise of Government

The case of the sciences

Lord Rees came from a completely different background to talk about the humanities, but unusually for a panel discussion (especially one which would involve philosophers), there was widespread agreement about the value of the humanities, but practically speaking, it had to take until the motion of increased tuition fees was passed before any reactionary talk happened.

Consider by contrast the ‘Science is Vital’ campaign, which launched well before the Browne report came out. The Science is Vital campaign anticipated that there would be a threat to cuts and many figures rallied for the cause, such as Guardian’s ‘Bad Science’ Columnist Ben Goldacre, one-time ‘Belle de Jour’ blogger Brooke Magnanti and Richard Dawkins. There was not such a co-ordinated effort for the humanities. An open question was asked: Why is this? The suggestion made by a few audience members was because the humanities are not a unified body. You will have philosophers who often define themselves as ‘analytic’ and deriding ‘continental’ philosophers (I’m guilty of engaging in this line of thought), and social-theory leaning intellectuals in the arts who are so much talk and not enough action. The lack of action and a co-ordinated political effort is a testimony of the challenges that the Humanities face in creating a decent campaign.

It is up to the unusual suspects to speak up for the humanities. A certain Astronomer Royal, for instance, or medical scientists like Richard Smith who emphasise the importance of humanism in health. Richard Smith spoke of how inappropriate it is to train people to be doctors from the age of 18 where they have little life experience or humanistic education. In the US, for comparison, medics have to complete a liberal arts education before technical training.

Context over the short term

The issue of the government deficit is in a sense a distraction. The Humanities were at risk long before the Lehman Brothers’ crash. The Humanities were under threat from within and without. The decision to increase tuition fees will be implimented in a few years, a time where there may or may not still be an economic crisis. This decision is made on a reasoning of short-termism but its impact is long term. It is not exclusively the blame of the present coalition government, as the state of the education system has faced challenges and decisions made by the conservative and labour government s of the past three decades. Students, who are 18-21 years old are the least to have such a grasp of historical context. Its important to know of the past struggles and campaigns for higher education over the past few decades.

The panel discussion ended with an amusing quip by chair Mark Lawson (famous for his broadcasting on Radio 4) who said: I have to go and interview Ronnie Corbett now. An interesting juxtaposition to end a discussion titled ‘valuing the humanities’.


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