Sanity on cuts in the humanities

I don’t work in Higher Education, and, while I try to avoid it, it isn’t quite possible to read history blogs without encountering the discussion about the current climate of cutbacks, particularly in the United Kingdom.  Unfortunately most of that “discussion” consists of ever more strident demands “give us money!” and the sense of entitlement is enough to make any normal person feel sick.  It’s my taxes that they are discussing, after all.  Some of us are net contributors to public funds; most of these people are net gainers, intent on looting funds which they do not supply.

So it was a pleasure to read a piece here by Martin Rundkvist, Hope for the humanities?

Yesterday I had been invited to speak at a seminar organised by the Forum for Heritage Research, a network sponsored by four Swedish organisations in the field. The headline was “Hope for the Humanities”, and I must admit that I gritted my teeth at the idealist, anti-market and downright unrealistic perspective presented in the invitation copy. Here’s a piece based on what I said at the seminar.

Conan the Barbarian, or Aragorn son of Arathorn, or Ronia the Robber’s Daughter all represent something of central importance to the heritage sector and to the humanities in general. At the same time, on the one hand they embody something we must always seek to achieve, that is the wondersome excitement of discovering a fantastic past – and on the other something we must avoid if we are to fill any independent purpose at all, as these characters and the worlds they inhabit are fictional. Historical humanities, excepting the aesthetic disciplines, deal with reality. This is our unique competitive selling point that we must never lose sight of.

“How can humanistic and historical scholarship contribute to a better society?”, asked the seminar’s hosts.

The humanities won’t mend a leaky roof. They won’t put food on the table. They won’t cure polio. They won’t create peace or prosperity. And taxpayers know this perfectly well. For these reasons, I believe that we absolutely cannot market ourselves in terms of any indispensable societally structure-supporting utility. We will only makes fools of ourselves. Because the raison d’être of the historical humanities doesn’t lie in any practical utility, but in their enjoyment potential. In the joy of learning something interesting about the past that is true. In the joy of seeing something for real that has survived since antiquity.

This suggests a kind of punk-rock attitude where a defiant humanities scholar says “I’m not gonna provide anything measurable or manageable or trivial or popular!” And sure, that is up to the individual. But if we are to expect a monthly salary from the taxpayers, then I think we will have to accept that they want to be able to measure and manage our product. How else are they supposed to know if it’s worth it to continue paying our salaries? And they want us to produce stuff that, within the realm of solid real-world humanities scholarship, is at least as much fun as a TV game show or Conan the Barbarian.

Martin goes on to discuss various false justifications, with much acuteness. 

I have written before on how state “funding” is not free.  It is exacted by men in uniforms from ordinary people.  After all, the rich man pays hardly any tax, and the higher the tax rate is, the less he bothers to pay.  The rich will never pay taxes, because all countries are run by rich people and always will be.  Every bit of funding for patristics, therefore, is exacted by force from people who perhaps do not have enough to live on, and most of whom will certainly not have enough to retire on, and who gain no benefit from it.  It means forcing the poor and the powerless to work long hours for no reward, so that some official somewhere can “grant funding” to some academic for some purpose.  I am in favour of patristics.  But … phew!  That’s a lot to justify.  We must always remember that taxes are not a good.  They are a necessary evil.  Every tax diminishes us all, bleeds life from us all.

This does not mean that the humanities must be thrown away.  In war time we did not close down all the orchestras!  But it does mean that the humanities do have to justify their receipt of money exacted from the poor.  It is, admittedly, pleasant to read Aeschylus and to learn to quote Horace.  But at someone else’s expense?  I’m not sure about that.

I think Martin has put his finger on a real truth.  The humanities serve the community.  They are a luxury item.  But the community is glad to contribute something, so long as it gets something.  Indiana Jones is a popular figure.  Archaeology there should be. 

But … the sense of entitlement needs to end.  No society has a duty to support a caste of people contemptuous of those to whom they owe everything and who consider communicating with the public beneath them.

Papyrologists and Coptologists … this means you!  Get out there and start earning your salary by engaging with the public.  After all, if the public love you, the politicians will find a way to keep you going.


9 thoughts on “Sanity on cuts in the humanities

  1. Sorry, but couldn’t disagree more.

    If funding is to be on the basis of “engaging” we run the risk that Eric von Danikan or Barbara Thiering would be well funded because for a few years lots of common people found their work in some way interesting.

    But what about for example:
    the boring papyrologist who goes to the effort of adding to to corpus of published dated Roman economic documents
    the boring textual critic who goes to the effort of evaluating the relationship between manuscripts of Homer’s works
    the boring pottery typologist who evaluates thousands of shards to try to determine when a particular type of pottery when out of common use.

    Even if you ignore the fruit cakes and pseudo scholars you would still run the risk that the scholar with media smarts would be better funded than the one who lacks the ability to communicate with a popular audience – even if their scholarly communication is superb

    Sydney, Australia

  2. “Get out there and start earning your salary by engaging with the public. After all, if the public love you, the politicians will find a way to keep you going.”

    This approach is more likely to succeed, I think.

    Consider community colleges in the US – small, two-year institutions, offering both classes for college credit and vocational/technical programs, and also personal/professional development classes. For funding they rely on state taxes, local taxes, public and private grants, and tuition, the tuition itself subsidized by state and federal taxes, and private scholarships. Faced with increasingly precarious funding from the state government, these institutions react differently. One will pull in its horns, cutting programs and reducing services hoping to ride out the bad times. Another will start new programs, engage more with the community, and maintain a local constituency that will vote to fund the college.

    Nothing is guaranteed, but the short-term cutting is likely to turn into a death spiral. “Well, we used to go to astronomy night at the college, but they quit having it. No, Bob doesn’t teach there any more – they got him in the last round of layoffs. My son wanted to learn automotive mechanics, but they cut the program, so he commutes to the Vocational Center.” When it comes time to vote on a tax increase or a bond issue, people conclude the college does nothing for them, nor much for the community. The smaller it grows, the less voters would weep if it closed entirely.

    Better to be an active part of the community, hosting Pioneer Day, offering classes on local history, having musical performances, teaching first aid, et cetera. People who go to the college from time to time, whether to use the library, hear a popular lecture, or take a class in knitting taught by one of their friends – these voters are more likely to fund the institution.

  3. “Thank you for your kind words!”

    You’re welcome. It was a breath of sanity. Most of what I read said on this — and I don’t go looking for it — reads as if it was written by people totally disconnected with the contributing side of the tax system.

  4. Humanities seems like a problem. Today education is more of acquiring technical skills to then sell in the market place. I am not saying this is bad of good, it is just they way I see education today.

    In the past, I think university was something that was available mostly to the rich. I believe the real purpose of this education was for the young people of the rich to meet each other, and get to know each other because they would dealing with each other later in the business and governmental world. The liberal education that concentrated on things like the greek and latin classics acted as a sort of coded secret language that could later be used. What do I mean? Well, if all the “educated” people studied say Horace, later when you discussed a few lines from Horace with another educated person it revealed both “ah, here is another person that probably went to university… he is most likely part of the elite”, and it provided both a initial check that you were talking to another elite, and a conversation starter from which you could expand.

    Universities of that time really didn’t train the elites in their particular skill. Granted a elite child might study “law” which might help him in his father’s copper business. But, just as often that same child might study philosophy. The subject of study often did not related to the family business that the child would come back to work in.

    Those days are over.

    Today, university is almost open to everyone. The rich has got different kinds of social mechanisms to use to identify and meet other elites. Today university’s main purpose it to train citizens in actual skills that people will use in professions.

    The problem is that some of the older traditions are still with us, and some people gravitate still to a degree in say philosophy. What exactly is a degree in philosophy going to do for you in the job market today. Pretty much nothing. What will most likely end up happening is that you will then become a teacher of philosophy. So if you start out with one class of unmarketable philosophy graduates, say of 30, and they all can’t find work, except to teach philosophy, you then end up with a 2nd generation of 30*30 or 900 unmarketable philosophy graduates. It will not take long for this industry of unmarketable philosophy graduates to be a drain, or an least an opportunity cost on society.

    But… now you have a philosophy industry at universities that is set up to be interested in philosophy, that needs to find funding to keep itself going, and pay not only the philosophy graduates to teach more philosophy graduates, but also secretaries, and administrators to support the philosophy department.

    If society has plenty of excess money, this might not be a problem. But if society ends up not having the money to fund all the education it would dream of, it is natural that cuts will have to be made. And society will look around and say something like “Ok, we need to eat, so we want to continue to pay to train farmers, and we like our iPods so we will continue to pay to train engineers… but we think that we can save some money by cutting back on this philosophy department.” From a return on investment stand point, it is only logical.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  5. We were taught in schools that there are three facets to education: (1) Training, (2) Character Building and (3) The Joy of learning. We live in a time and age where only #1 is of importance and organizations like OECD or the World Bank treat each country’s educational based on how good it does job #1. By funding #2 and #3 we are bringing a more holistic approach to education. As Plato said “All science without virtue is guile and not wisdom” (Πασα επιστημη χωριζομενη αρετης πανουργια ου σοφια εστι). We need to teach people wisdom and not guile

  6. Hey Roger,

    Yes, I am also all for teaching the humanities too. I guess my prior comment was a prelude to this idea.

    It is natural for people in an industry to be bummed out when cutbacks occur in their field. My prior post laid a sort of argument that the humanities are a “luxury”. But, seems we both agree it is a useful or a necessary luxury. So… the next question is what do you say to someone in the industry when they loose their job due to cut backs? I mean, first you say “oh, what ashame”, but it is good to try to help them understand that the world is not against them. 🙂

    I kind of think of approaching it like this. I love pie charts! cause you can slice it up, but you see the finiteness of them instantly. you know, a pie chart; this much for rent, this much for cloths, this much for beer, this much for…

    So, then that opens an opportunity to talk about the humanities as part of our overall spending. And the global question is “are we spending the appropriate amount on it”. So I might approach it like this. Let’s say humanities spending is like what that average citizen would spend on going to museums, and other culture events in a year. How often “should” a person go to a museum. That starts a good dialog. If the budget people say that well… we would like everyone to be able to go to a museum about once a month, then we can kind of use that info inside our pie chart and see if we are spending about that much on the humanities. Then, if we are, when an individual humanities person gets laid off, or a school closes, at least we can assure them that at least as a society we are recognizing the amount being spent overall, it’s just that some other lucky slob has their particular job. On the other hand if the budget people are budgeting for once a month museum attendance and the humanities folks think people should be going twice a week… then we have a drastic difference in expectations. And humanities folks are going to complain that society is not spending enough on humanities.

    The question is… what percentage of our overall education budget do you think should be spend on the humanities?

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

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