The humanities under fire

I am still recovering from the announcement that the new British government plans to cut practically all funding for the humanities, it is just unbelievable. It does seem to be true, however, as the Minister for Universities confirmed when questioned by members of parliament:

[Mr. Willets] confirmed that, under Lord Browne’s proposals, the teaching grant for band C and D subjects – arts, social sciences and humanities – would be all but wiped out. […] And he suggested there may be some extra protection for strategically sensitive subjects such as modern languages. But he would not guarantee that there would not be closures. He said: “It’s not possible to give a guarantee that all departments will carry on. We are looking for savings that will start in 2012.” (BBC) [By the way, I’m also sorry to see that the tendency to turn subclauses into independent clauses thrives in Britain as in The Netherlands].

On 10 november, there will be a major demonstration by the student unions, supported by leading academics in the humanities. In The Netherlands our universities are inviting British students to join our courses, but as far as I’m aware the cuts have not caused major upheavals in the Dutch humanities. I think they should. The question is — how to react, what action can we take?

In their reactions to this kind of neo-liberal thinking, academics tend to stress that the humanities do have a value for society. In a reaction to earlier cuts, for example, Jonathan Bate was quoted in The Guardian as saying

that the value of the arts was not always measurable in the same way as other research. “If you are an expert in 14th-century Islamic history or the philosophy of Immanuel Kant or the poetry of John Keats, there is not an immediate sense of a patent or business innovation that can follow your research.” Referring to the economic output of British arts graduates, Bate pointed to two of his former students, Rachel Weisz and Sam Mendes, who are now “global leaders” in the world of film.

Although to ring the alarm bells in a national newspaper is of course necessary, Bate’s implicitly supports the economic framework from which our universities are being viewed. By asserting that many of our graduates do end up in sectors that render a profit, such as the creative industries, this kind of response tacitly acknowledges the importance of economic value.

The title of Martha Nussbaum’s new book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton 2010) leads one to suspect that the book will not argue for the economic value of the humanities. Indeed, Nussbaum stresses that the humanities have a value that cannot be captured in economic terms: they are of the essence for citizens to function in a democracy. The humanities teach their students key democratic skills: “the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.” (7) In order to cultivate these skills, students need to engage in active thinking and discussion, in a Socratic model of education such as John Dewey or Rabindranath Tagore’s. Despite of her title, however, Nussbaum also argues that the humanities do have economic value:

As I develop my principal argument, I shall also argue, secondarily, that […] economic interest, too, requires us to draw on the humanities and arts, in order to promote a climate of responsible and watchful stewardship and a culture of creative innovation. Thus we are not forced to choose between a form of education that promotes profit and a form of education that promotes good citizenship. A flourishing economy requires the same skills that support citizenship[.]

By following the line of argument in which the universities are increasingly asked to show how their research and teaching contribute to the nation’s economy, these defenses of the humanities in a sense validate the economic model of thinking. Indeed, we do so perhaps even if we assert the humanities’ non-economic value, since we then still defend our work in terms of value. I intend to look for alternatives in the work of the historian Stefan Collini, whom Nussbaum quotes as saying that academics in the humanities must insist that their research is “a collection of the ways of encountering the record of human activity in its greatest richness and diversity” and has a right to exist for that reason (130).

I find it problematic, then, that Nussbaum still makes use of the economic argument even in a book which argues against the influence of economic thinking on the humanities. In other parts of her book she seems to turn a blind eye to the economic pressures that operate in the humanities, for example when she argues that American liberal arts courses come closer to her ideal than European practices of teaching.

In the United States, the kind of education that Nussbaum recommends is in her view still doing reasonably well in the liberal arts courses (122). The US is therefore a seemingly “secure bastion of the humanities” (133), even though they are also under threat from a economic way of thinking about university education. In Europe, however, matters are much worse:

Outside the United States, many nations whose university curricula do not include a liberal arts component are now striving to build one, since they acknowledge its importance in crafting a public response to the problems of pluralism, fear, and suspicion their societies face. I’ve been involved in such discussions in The Netherlands [and other countries]. […] Whether much reform in this direction will occur, however, is hard to say, for liberal education has high financial and pedagogical costs. Teaching of the sort I recommend needs small classes, or at least sections, where students discuss ideas with one another, get copious feedback on frequent writing assignments, and have lots of time to discuss their work with their instructors. European professors are not used to this idea, and would at present be horrible at it if they did try to do it, since their graduate education includes no training in teaching and this is not regarded as an important part of their job file; in the United States, by contrast, graduate students are teaching assistants, frequently teach their own tutorials or small classes, and are supervised by faculty[.] (125)

Firstly, I do not think that professors in The Netherlands would be “horrible” at teaching small classes which encourage students to discuss ideas with each other. This is – or used to be – common practice at our faculty, but this model of teaching is increasingly under threat. At my university, the board of directors has announced that courses taught to fewer than 80 students are no longer considered economically feasible. This is the reason why the idea of a liberal arts model is being considered, purely as a means to attract more students, as an economic measure, and not because the humanities are considered of “importance in crafting a public response to the problems of pluralism, fear, and suspicion [our] societ[y].” The turn to a liberal arts model here is part of what Marc Bousquet has called the “Corporate University” – universities are  “inextricably implicated in profoundly capitalist objectives, however “nonprofit” their missions” (How the University Works, 9).

Marc Bousquet, How the University Works (introduction and chapter 4 free download on the How the University Works weblog

Secondly, graduate students do receive a training in teaching in The Netherlands. The aim of involving graduate students in teaching, however, is perhaps not to train them in Socratic modes of education. Although some professors do indeed support their graduate students and give valuable feedback on their work in the classroom, the overall picture is that graduate students are structurally used to replace tenured staff who are unavailable for teaching because they have managed to obtain external research funding. Their teaching is not so much part of their graduate education, but part of the way the university works. According to Bousquet, this is also the case in America:

Most graduate schools admit students to fill specific labor needs. One of the core functions of graduate programs is to enhance flexibility, always presenting just enough labor, just in time. As a result, management cannot reduce graduate-employee admissions without making other arrangements for the work that graduate employees would otherwise have performed. (20-21)
Like the interest in the liberal arts model in the Netherlands, then, the teaching work of graduate students can be seen in a bigger context of the corporate university, rather than as part of a Socratic model of education.
Perhaps, then, we should not fall into the trap of answering the corporate university in its own terms and defending the value of the humanities, but analyse more critically the ways in which our universities adhere more and more to capitalist objectives. As Marc Bousquet writes, especially tenured staff seems to accept capitalist values and objectives — “there is little evidence of anything that resembles an oppositional culture. Indeed, it has become increasingly difficult to speak of anything resembling faculty culture apart from the competitive, market- based, high-performance habitus designed for them by management” (13). But does critical analysis alone suffice to stem (no pun intended) this tide?
I will be reading Stefan Collini: The Future of the Universities ( next.

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