The Value of the Arts and Humanities in the 21st Century - a report

On Thursday 5th May 2011 a public debate on The Value of the Arts and Humanities in the 21st Century had been organised at the University of Sheffield. I have attended the event and I decided to write a personal report about it. Among the participants were (in alphabetic order) David Blunkett; Mike Braddick; Robert Hewison; Peter Hitchens; Nigel Shardlow; and David Sweeney. Parts of debate, especially exchanges between David Blunkett and Peter Hitchens were openly of political nature, and will not be discussed here. Controversial ideas, or ideas that received no support from other discussants are also ignored here.

The reason for having such a debate is the threat to public funding of arts and humanities in European and American universities following the budget cuts resulting from the current global economic crisis. The "debate" consisted of short presentations (without slides) from the panellists and a short debate within the panellists, partly addressing very few questions and comments from the audience. The actual value of arts and humanities in modern societies was not discussed in a scholar manner and it was assumed that all presents agreed there was value to be found in the arts and humanities (and so it seemed in the discussions). Some interesting points were made throughout the event, and some agreement was reached in the end among the panellists, despite the obvious differences in political orientation and the different areas of work of the panellists (politics; journalism; academia; and business were represented).

Of some interest may be my own count of mentions of specific disciplines in the debate: history; philosophy and archaeology were mentioned most frequently, with arts and literature barely mentioned. History was praised for its ability to extract socially meaningful narratives from very complex data sets; philosophy for its ability to answer fundamental questions that form the basis of ethics and morality (important in scientific areas of research such as medicine and technologies that may affect human bodies and essential human cognitive faculties); archaeology for its ability to test and expand historical narratives by inferring social, economic and other behaviours and structures from the material record, and for its interdisciplinary approaches. In general terms it was recognised that humanities provide an informed and critical thinking that is absent in heavily data-driven disciplines. Humanities also have the benefit of recognising and addressing properly issues relevant to human beings from very complex data sets that may not privilege the human perspective. The arts, including literature, provide cultural richness and contribute to the identity of people and promote creativity.

There was dismay and astonishment in recognising that the role of arts and humanities in our societies was challenged so deeply in public and that the humanities had now to justify their role in society to access the necessary public funding (although the humanities do not depend entirely from public funds, such funds are essential in the current academic systems to pursue research and provide adequate teaching). Historically sciences had to prove themselves in the past and have a long tradition of justifying themselves. This is not the case for humanities as the value of educated persons has generally being recognised. The panel recognised that it was correct for arts and humanities to justify their spending, but also agreed that the current proposals for reforms of the academic system are going to penalise arts and humanities for political reasons since those involved in the humanities have not yet fully engaged in debates justifying their spending. As a result, the general mood was that the pursue and teaching of humanities will be greatly affected until a useful dialogue could be constructed. Serious concerns however were expressed by some of the discussants regarding the terms of the debate, which has been constructed with value in mind, especially direct economic value. Ideally, ideas resulting in profitable patents in the scientific world should be matched by ideas resulting in popular copyrighted books in the humanities. In reality, in both sciences and humanities original ideas cannot be frequently transformed in profitable ventures and rather enrich and further our understanding of the world, often leading to valuable achievements in the technological and creative industries. Only some sub-disciplines can produce economically valuable results directly and in quantity, but the immediate value of some discoveries should not eclipse the social and economic value of other researches that contribute to our societies.

In particular, David Sweeney, Director of Research, Innovation and Skills at Higher Education Funding Council for England, the organisation that distributes public money for teaching and research to universities, seemed to confirm that UK politicians favoured a funding system that forced the humanities to focus their energies towards goals designed by the politicians themselves. At least this was my impression deriving from his words; for instance, research on migration was cited as relevant to our times. Such a system would be deeply flawed, as it attacks critical thinking at its core and expects that a decision taken potentially by a single person should be blindly followed by many, without the possibility to question it. The problem was evident in the issue of assessing the results of research, which appeared to the discussants skewed in favouring some sciences, and frankly the new Research Excellence Framework (REF) proposed in the UK to replace the previous Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) did not convince anyone in the lecture theatre. The academic and business perspectives in particular questioned the ability for the REF to determine the real impact of research on social and economic issues or on employability. Highly technical and narrowly focussed research can provide excellent value for money when successful, but broader frameworks remain necessary to establish what should be researched, and people taught within narrow projects usually are unable to adapt easily to different techniques and technologies.

The debate ended somewhat surprisingly in unity, with some consensus. Towards the end of the debate the discussion focused on whether egalitarianism was the real problem, with a political division on the specific issue. Both the Labour and Conservative discussants however agreed that the real problem was liberalism, and specifically the idea that there could be an education "market" with education being interpreted as a commodity. David Sweeney admitted that when a full market will be established in 2012 in the UK according to current proposals, entire departments may be closed, and there will be winners and losers among students who will have to pay for courses which may or may not provide them with what they want. Such a system would be significantly different from any academic system in Europe and the UK, and there was a sombre forecast that the UK would lose its academic leadership as a result. A significant problem is posed by the age and experience of the majority of students at the time that they will decide which course and university to choose: they will be 17. This means that people at that age will shape the future of academia, and their choice will determine which courses will be taught and which not, as they will be the consumers bestowed with free will in the education market. Of course, someone with no working experience, little life experience, and no precise idea of what academia is, cannot assess what is good for them to learn and their choice will predictably fall on courses with high appeal but no substance, or will oversaturate some courses (as it has happened in some forensic science courses following the CSI television dramas effect) at expenses of others. Furthermore, the 9,000 pounds fee that they will be paying every year, in addition to other expenses, and the possible costs of eventual postgraduate studies, even if not immediately payable, will give them confidence in getting into heavy debts at an early stage of their life, before even having a job. Debts have been the cause of the present economic crisis, and having the most educated section of society happy to be in debt could have devastating effects in the management of societies and institutions. The losers, those with an education that will not be useful for a career or as general knowledge (also valuable for employability), will have wasted their university time and acquired large debts to be paid later in life, becoming a liability instead of an asset to the country. So far students went to university to get an education from qualified teachers; in the future students instead of teachers may decide what a good education is. The United States have recently trialled a political project that consigned to the general public the responsibility to vet research projects following the cuts: it ended in disaster, with people not understanding most of the research projects and largely basing their decisions on common sense and the mention of tangible results, which are exactly the opposite approaches of what is needed to assess experiments and trials attempting to find something new.

The consensus against liberalism and the resulting commodification of values that cannot be monetised was a defining moment of the debate. While the debate was proceeding, the people in the UK was voting in local elections and a referendum, and the result from those has punished unequivocally the liberals, which had been singled out and indicted as ideologically responsible for the unsatisfactory reforms in the lecture theatre. Rampaging liberalism was recognised as the cause of problems in academia also in Europe and America. I am not referring to specific parties or individuals regarding the policies here, and from the debate it emerged clearly that each perspective had its flaws, but the current proposals seem to have brought together most flaws and disadvantages from different perspectives without any benefits. David Blunkett, the first speaker, begun his own presentation making the example of the shareholders of BP counting the damages of the decision by the BP chief executives to attempt profiting too quickly from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which exploded in 2010. The lesson from history would have been to avoid blindly trusting unproven technologies and carry out appropriate tests, but only economic profit and narrow "science" played a role in the decision process, with disastrous consequences. This is a cautionary tale that seems to have been take as a model instead by some administrators. The debate demonstrated significant fear for policies aimed at short term advantages and fast economic profit, as these are hardly sustainable and may cause more problems (and expenses) than well-thought long-term policies. In general, the panel expressed doubts about a future when the success of a degree is linked to the wage of the job that will provide access to. In such a system, some degrees and related jobs will be more desirable than others, but ignoring personal fulfilment and the potential lack of suitable candidates for necessary jobs not paid for as others may cause serious problems to the current economic system. Although bankers were not mentioned once, it was clear that the lure of money and easy bonuses deriving from those jobs is an active agent in wrecking the contemporary society as well as academia. It was also mentioned by some discussants that historically in most cases where political and social freedom was involved, academics were the first segment of the population to be pressured. I stress that, with some minor differences, people of both Labour and Conservative ideas supported a free and thriving academic community, as there are benefits for people of all social and economic backgrounds.

The discussants concluded hoping for quick changes to the proposed system in the UK and an engagement of arts and humanities in a discussion aimed at justifying their contribution to society and economy and therefore their merit to access public funding. There was shared condemnation for the idea that cuts should not be equally distributed across broad disciplines, with the idea that arts and humanities were less important than some sciences. Improving interdisciplinary approaches and maintaining the cultural richness of academic studies was deemed to be critical for future students to form general skills and for businesses to have the possibility to employ people with different backgrounds, education, and thinking methods to assess markets and situations properly. Arts and humanities were also linked to free, critical and alternative thinking, which is essential to sustain democracies.

It has been an interesting and useful debate, and above all it has been very timely. The discussion has been also very worrying, revealing that arts and humanities are facing tougher times than they should, and more worryingly some sciences and the general academic system will suffer too. The UK proposals to reform the academic system seem to be very bad, the worst of those presented following the budget cuts across the world perhaps, but the arts and humanities are threatened also in Europe, North America and Australia. Administrators and academics seem to not understand each other, and the position by David Sweeney on having academics assessing academics, frustratingly repeated several times, was questioned on the basis of the methods used to make such an assessment. It should be noted that, as I noted in a previous post, sometimes academics can be divided and uncooperative, so that some scientific positions may be favoured on the basis of personal beliefs (the belief in science sometimes mirrors beliefs in religions) or attitudes of those called to make the assessment. Academics that for whatever reason succeed in receiving public funds because their research is fitting the political agenda may have few problems in destroying competing researchers. Academics are humans, and therefore they are flawed. Plurality of views and ideas cannot be maintained in a pyramidal system, where one perspective/idea must prevail. Even in sciences, different and competing voices are important. For instance, the Shuttle STS-134 mission is scheduled to carry in orbit the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a costly instrument that has received criticism from some scientists, pressuring all parties to maximise the scientific output of the project. Without criticism, even science projects can spiral out of control, with high costs and little scientific value.

David Blunkett candidly recalled some of his time as UK Home Secretary, and how few discussions took place in the Cabinet regarding philosophical issues behind some decisions by individuals. In his opinion, this led to mistakes and misunderstandings, but the administrative and governmental "system" was to blame for the most part, as it presupposes experts who know precisely facts on most issues, rather than a variety of perspectives and pros and cons to be assessed on a case by case basis. Of course, in government it is necessary to reach some decision quickly and political ideas influence heavily these decisions, but this should not be the case for society at large. Several discussant pointed to the apparent lack of critical thinking across society, which is increasingly egotistical and not concerned with public issues and quite focussed on financial matters. Humanities can help there, as they help people to question and understand and ultimately make society better for all, without the need for people to be excessively rich to enjoy their life.

I conclude remembering that the value of arts and humanities was stressed multiple times because of its unique way of thinking, and its potential for sciences and businesses. Nigel Shardlow stressed that graduates in humanities are more important for businesses than generally admitted. Their contribution is more valuable in assessing complex data, understanding, and deciding rather than in re-applying the same techniques in different contexts. Several graduates may think that their education has had little impact in their actual work, and this is true in a way, but perhaps little they know that studying humanities has equipped them with transferable skills and a unique way to approach and solve problems rather than a specific technique, as it is often the case in the sciences. Both are valuable and useful. From an archaeological perspective, for instance, no two cases are equal, but in situations of complexity and diversity, archaeologists still reach an understanding (interpretation) that divides the contexts in meaningful sections and assesses them both in detail and within a broader context. Archaeologists and humanists expect the diverse and complex relationships typical of human beings, whereas scientists are typically more familiar with mathematical relationships. Attempts to frame the human behaviour in some scientific framework have failed so far, and not even the macro-world (the universe), the micro-world (quantum world) or life in general can be explained with one scientific law. Complexity is a facet of our world, and critical thinking exploring alternatives is an integral part of our quest to understand. The current political debate is oversimplified, and may have major consequences, most of which may be difficult to predict. Most discussants agreed that there is a general attempt (or risk) towards "dumbing down" education, at least a political attempt to do so, because dumb people can more easily be convinced and controlled by politicians. Let's hope that people will come to their senses, and arts and humanities will be recognised for the role that they play in our societies.

Posted by Andrea Vianello Saturday, May 7, 2011 4:07:00 PM Categories: archaeology events