The humanities belong outside an ivory tower

Apparently I have 700 words in which to write this article. Should be easy – a quick tally shows me that I’ve written over 50,000 in terms of assessed work for the degree that has just come to a close, so another few hundred shouldn’t be much of an issue at all.

Yet sometimes, when I look at what’s happened over the course of these three years that Warwick has held me to its agoraphobic bosom, words fail me.

Far outside our Bubble, in little old London, Important People have been have seen the instigation of the most comprehensive dismantling of any idea of fairness or social mobility in the Higher Education sector in this country’s history.

My name was one of those on the recent petition by the Warwick University Campaign for Higher Education to declare no confidence in the Universities Minister, David Willetts, along with hundreds of other students and, notably, a huge proportion of the academics working at Warwick.

The Government’s decision to slash teaching and research budgets and allow fees to skyrocket has been rushed and ill thought out.

As is reflected in their plans for the welfare system, for healthcare, for secondary education, the ideologically driven Conservatives, propped up by the Lib Dems who seem to be starting to find a few vertebrae far too late, have taken extreme liberties with the concept of ‘public consultation’.

It’s a well-known truism that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’; as such, it would seem any plan intended to counter the effects of these disastrous policies would be easy to embrace. We may have thought as much, until AC Grayling and his dirty dozen fellow academics/celebrities burst onto the scene with an idea that literary critic Terry Eagleton calls “odious” and that seems as poorly planned as the Tories’ plans themselves.

It seems bizarre even on the face of it that a privatisation plan might be a counter to the Conservatives. Grayling’s New College of the Humanities (NCH) justifies itself by claiming that the teaching of humanities subjects will die out without its guiding hand.

Of course, what it actually seems to indicate is that the humanities will return to the academic days of old when such an education, or at least the best of this education, was a preserve of the rich. NCH’s £18,000 annual fees stand in stark contrast to its promise that money will not be a “barrier” to studying there.
The criticisms of this establishment have been instant and widespread: that it seems to be exploiting a crisis in the sector; that the majority of the declared professoriate are famously liberal and so seem hypocritical – their motivations clear, with Richard Dawkins admitting on his website that the money offered to him was difficult to refuse; that the fact that they are public figures meaning that the promise of 12 to 13 hours contact time a week, long a dream of humanities students, is surely false or at least misleading; and many more.

But a qualm that is closer to home is the way that this adds to the idea that the humanities are elitist, oldfashioned subjects, studied only by the super-rich and serving society in no meaningful manner apart from the tiny minority that go onto the creative industries. As one who is about to receive a degree in Philosophy and Literature (failing a more disastrous exam showing than I thought), I am among the first to joke about the supposed meaninglessness of these subjects – Philosophy is meaningless and doesn’t know, Literature is meaningless and doesn’t care – so perhaps I am stinking of hypocrisy myself here. Nevertheless, while the NCH claims that it is saving the humanities from its neglect in the eyes of the public, the feeling that it is simply exacerbating the typical impression of them is overwhelming.

I am all for admitting that it is important to push for more graduates in science and engineering subjects – these are vital for a great many industries, naturally. What I am opposed to is the idea that the rest of us have no use. Clearly Grayling and his chums agree, but the appropriate response to this idea is to show the rest of the world how humanities can integrate with it, not carry it further up an ivory tower.


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