Sarah Churchwell, professor of American literature at UEA, who has written in defence of the humanities in Times Higher Education. Photograph: David Hartley/Rex
“There are two types of education… One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.”
– John Adams
It appears that the new Research Evaluation Framework (REF) in Britain has set off a lot of skirmishing. It’s interesting to read, and has implications for us here in the States as well.
As near as I can make out, the government funds most research in the UK (or at least England, it’s not all that specific) and the government is imposing structures that lead to generating hard numbers for quality, quantity,and ‘impact’ on the world. In other words, they are looking for short-term monetary impact.
Well, my standard answer for that is that “He who pays the piper, calls the tune”. They wanted all that government research money and thought (I suspect) that the government would fund their whims no matter how ludicrous. And don’t kid yourself, The United States Universities do at least their share of worthless research as well. We’ve all seen the lists.
In addition what many humanities people like to do is talk, not act, and teaching, which I at least consider to be the prime mission of a school (whether it’s a kindergarten or Oxford itself) is an action, and needs to be performed efficiently That does not mean authoritatively however. that’s not education, that’s indoctrination, and it stifles creativity like nothing else.
Just ask China, the benchmark for measuring education why they are sending their students to England to learn to be creative.
As an aside, that is the exact reason I oppose ‘Common Core’ as well. I don’t care what the test is, if you base performance and pay on a test, the test will be taught to. If you base (what we call) grant money on short-term applied research, you’ll get short-term applied research.
I was talking with a British pure mathematician yesterday, and he says in his field, he has the same problems as his humanities colleagues. I can’t say I was surprised either. You see of all the so-called STEM subjects pure math, like the humanities, has a long-term effect but little short-term benefit.
And yet, the old Bell Labs, the antediluvian research arm of the old Bell Telephone system was almost a pure math shop. They didn’t accomplish much either, only the world-wide telephone system, inventing the transistor,and inventing Boolean algebra, which is the underpinning of every digital device, not just the computer.
But none of it was short-term, it was pure research intelligently applied, often I suspect by humanities majors, who could see new applications and worked with enough engineers to be able to translate the jargon of engineering.
None of that says that accountant aren’t important. they are. They keep score, but are not players in innovation, nor are they players in transmitting our culture to our descendants. Even more than engineers, they are rule bound, and like lawyers, they will nearly always say no, if they can’t understand something, and their understanding is limited to arithmetic.
One of the people I know slightly in British Academia is Sarah Churchwell, I always hope she’ll pardon me for reading her name often as Sarah Churchill. (she’s a lot younger than the mother of the first Duke of Marlborough, after all!). I also think she’s one of the best things to come out of Chicago since pizza. She was one of the people interviewed for The Guardian piece linked, and this some of what she had to say:
Aren’t humanities academics stuck in the 1950s, desperate for an age of long lunches and even longer holidays? “The stereotypical academic world of the 1950s, of dilettantes lounging around with pipe and slippers sipping sherry, disappeared decades ago,” Churchwell said. “The idea of the easy life of the academic is a straw man, a caricature of academics when they say ‘You can’t just swan around like it’s 1950 any more.’ There’s been no swanning for some time, believe me. What initially happened under Thatcher was the forced professionalisation of academia and actually I don’t disagree with the imperative of professionalisation. But this notion that there are still academics at universities who can say ‘I’m going to spend 50 years at this institution, I’m never going to write a book, I’ll never publish, I’ll just sit around reading and chatting with students’, is absurd. Yes there are still a few people who chronically underperform and whom it is difficult to remove. There’s a bit of dead wood. Now I don’t know much about government-funded organisations outside of HE, but I’d venture to speculate that this may be true in other bureaucratic regimes. And the vast majority of people in UK HE are working extremely hard, all the time.”
Obviously I can’t speak in generalities and be accurate, but I know several who bear the title of Professor, and I’ll tell you a (not) secret: they are almost all in the humanities and they are amongst the hardest-working people I have ever met (some of the nicest too, although that may not be relevant, unless you’re their student, of course.) Without exception, they are also outstanding writers as well. To continue:
“What has changed radically in the last 10 years is that they’re trying to turn everything into a for-profit business,” said Churchwell. “And that’s bullshit. Universities are not for profit. We are charitable institutions. What they’re now doing is saying to academics: ‘You have to be the fundraisers, the managers, the producers, you have to generate the incomes that will keep your institutions afloat.’ Is that really what society wants – for everything to become a marketplace, for everything to become a commodity? Maybe I’m just out of step with the world, but what some of us are fighting for is the principle that not everything that is valuable can or should be monetised. That universities are one of the custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration. That education is not a commodity, it’s a qualitative transformation. You can’t sell it. You can’t simply transfer it.”
Churchwell went on to talk about what would be lost if we didn’t stand in the way of this systematic destruction of the traditional liberal education. “Virtually every cabinet minister has a humanities degree,” she said. “And I think there’s something quite sinister about it: they get their leadership positions after studying the humanities and then they tell us that what we need is a nation of technocrats. If you look at the vast majority of world leaders, you’ll find that they’ve got humanities degrees. Angela Merkel is the only one who’s a scientist. The ruling elite have humanities degrees because they can do critical thinking, they can test premises, they can think outside the box, they can problem-solve, they can communicate, they don’t have linear, one-solution models with which to approach the world. You won’t solve the problems of religious fundamentalism with a science experiment.”
The war against humanities at Britain’s universities | Education | The Guardian.
There’s a lot more, and it;’s all excellent. Remember this, in any case, I’m an electrician and a lineman, essentially a technician or even a technocrat and a manager. That’s how I’ve made a living for nearly a half century. Without the background in the humanities from my parents and my schooling, it would have been a drab and sterile life. is that really what you want for your children?
What I really think is that our societies need to get over this kick that everything must have an immediate payoff. The most important things never do. In addition, our schools (UK and US which the two I know most about) need to be funded from diverse sources, with diverse goals. How we get there (actually back there) I have some ideas but, not all the answers. But Sarah is right in all she said here, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s time for people with vision get involved in this.
“I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy.”
– John Adams, letter to Abigail Adams, May 12, 1780.