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By Sarah Churchwell (University of East Anglia)
In the same week in which I published a piece for Times Higher Education about why the humanities matter, Minister for Education Nicky Morgan gave the following advice to young people:
“If you wanted to do something, or even if you didn’t know what you wanted to do, then the arts and humanities were [once] what you chose because they were useful for all kinds of jobs. Of course, we know now that couldn’t be further from the truth – that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering and maths].”
I have several objections to the claim that the arts and humanities can’t help you get “all kinds of jobs”. First: Nicky Morgan has a humanities degree. So does George Osborne, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and David Cameron. I can’t see that it’s hurt their career prospects. Indeed, news reports regularly circulate that banks or consulting firms are seeking high-paid arts graduates to help them solve problems and resist linear thinking.
My second objection, though, is to this false dichotomy between the humanities and STEM, as if education were a zero-sum game and we are only permitted to know one thing. This divide-and-conquer mentality is destroying a precious tradition that promotes curiosity, independence of thought and pure research across the arts and the sciences.
What is outmoded is not the study of arts and humanities instead of the sciences: what is outmoded is the idea that educated people need to understand only one subject in a globalised world. Our society urgently needs people who reflect on and can communicate about the ethical, moral, social and environmental consequences of the technologies they create, the antibiotics they discover, the houses they build.
How will we protect our justice system if we don’t know political or moral philosophy? How will we avoid repeating the mistakes of our past if we relinquish the study of history? How will we communicate with each other with precision and dismantle the messages and images that define our world without language and semiotics? How will we expand our imaginative horizons if we stop reading literature?
What kind of person advocates philistinism as an educational policy?
So to be clear: when I say we need to encourage young people to study the humanities I am not saying they shouldn’t study the sciences. We acutely need more people who understand both. What we don’t need is this kind of limited, utilitarian thinking, which promises only to help people get jobs, as if the work that can be extracted from us is all that matters. This is precisely the struggle from which the Enlightenment tradition of the arts and sciences fought to liberate us.
By no coincidence, the people who invented the concept of the humanities to educate their citizens were also the people who invented the concept of citizens: the ancient Greeks, conceiving democracy. The great Enlightenment philosopher-scientists developed our modern conception of the sciences – and of the humanities. Voltaire argued that the rule of law, the arts and sciences, religious tolerance, civil liberties and commercial prosperity were all necessary to a free society – not just commercial prosperity on its own.
The humanities are intimately tied with what it means to be independent citizens in a democracy – and it is no coincidence that, as we watch the middle classes shrinking, civil liberties being eroded, and democratic processes paralysing from corruption, the humanities are also being dismissed as irrelevant.
The humanities shore up democracy, civil liberties and the middle classes: they teach analysis, critical thinking, ethics, cultural comparison, and autonomous individual reflection; they teach history, languages, literature and the fine arts, which refine us and are one of the means by which we define human aspiration beyond material ambitions. A narrow instrumentalism that judged art solely on the basis of its mechanical utility would conclude that Gordon Ramsay writes better books than Charles Dickens.
Education is not a smithy in which we forge workers to underpin the powerful. It is how we empower citizens, how we inform and apprehend what it means to be human – and that must include studying the humanities.
Every day we hear the rich and influential discouraging young people from exploring all that makes them human, drilling into them the idea that all they should think about is getting jobs, at the same time that these same so-called leaders won’t protect minimum wages or keep property values affordable.
I am an advocate of people exploring their own interests, whether those be arts, science, or a combination of the two. Everyone should be encouraged to seek ways of being productive and self-supporting that are consistent with those interests and beliefs. Certainly we need engineers, doctors, inventors and researchers.
But we also need experts in the humanities to think about imagination, consciousness, and communication in a digital age; to reflect on identity and ethics; to think creatively and problem-solve; to consider the consequences of past, present, and future actions. We need artists to preserve beauty, to help us imagine redemption, to remind us of all that is possible for human beings to achieve beyond building better tools, which is all that technology means.
The humanities and the sciences are not opposed: the most interesting work today is bringing them together. One of my fellow judges of the Man Booker prize, Daniel Glaser, directs the Science Gallery at King’s College London, an outreach centre teaching young people how “art and science collide”, bringing together artists, scientists, students, and communities “to stimulate fresh thinking”. The gallery will open in 2016 and as far as I’m concerned it can’t come soon enough.
A colleague of mine at UEA, Jenni Barclay, is a volcanologist working with local communities and social scientists to improve communication surrounding disasters; in her spare time she helped develop a volcano version of Top Trumps. Scientists and artists are coming together to understand cognition, the digital world, our changing social and natural environment. We don’t need new policy statements, or to dispense with ‘outmoded’ institutions: we need to empower research and innovation across all fields of creative human endeavour, and stop prioritising one over the other. It should be obvious to everyone that with the world in such a parlous state, we need all the help we can get.
I’ve spent the past five years working on The Great Gatsby, one of the best-loved and most prophetic books in our tradition. In 1925, Scott Fitzgerald wrote a cautionary tale about what would happen to a person (Jay Gatsby), and the country he represented (America), if he took all of his romantic hopes and dreams and ideals and possibilities and channelled them into the reductive, materialistic aims of a corrupt society. Fitzgerald concluded that human greatness lay in our “capacity for hope”, our “capacity for wonder”, “our romantic readiness” – and that settling for mere material comfort would destroy us.
All of us who were thrilled at the landing of the Philae spacecraft were responding to human ingenuity, technology, and engineering — and to a triumph of human inquiry, creativity and imagination. That took science, it took art, and it took humanity. The humanities and the sciences are on the same side: the side of inspiration. The humanities and the sciences teach enlightenment: markets are blind.
In 1784, Immanuel Kant published an essay called What is Enlightenment? in which he declared:
“If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on – then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me … It is more nearly possible, however, for the public to enlighten itself; indeed, if it is only given freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable.”
The reverse is also true: enlightenment and freedom are aligned.
“Enlightenment,” Kant wrote, “is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance … ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”
And it is surely therefore the motto of the arts, the sciences, and the humanities. It is not the motto of politicians who would do our thinking for us, so that we don’t challenge them. We must fight harder to protect our artistic and social heritage, to conserve our cultural as well as our natural environment.
The fight for the humanities is political. It is a fight for enlightenment principles of democracy, civil liberties, scepticism and rationalism, and evidenced-based conclusions in the struggle against propaganda and demagoguery. It is the tradition of Bacon, Hume, Locke and Newton, it is the tradition of Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin. It is their legacy, and we have a duty to safeguard it.
In 1780, the American statesman John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail of his reluctant decision to join the revolution:
I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.
The magnificent hope of some day studying the arts was the ultimate goal, a revolutionary purpose.
Now I hear the cry from all sides: ‘Do not argue!’ The officer says: ‘Do not argue – drill!’ The tax collector: ‘Do not argue – pay!’ The pastor: ‘Do not argue – believe!’ … I reply: the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind …
Free thought gradually reacts back on the modes of thought of the people, and men become more and more capable of acting in freedom. At last free thought acts even on the fundamentals of government and the state finds it agreeable to treat man, who is now more than a machine, in accord with his dignity.
The humanities teach us to be more than machines, to learn the history of human achievement, to retrieve the dignity of our present existence and to imagine that a glorious future might still be possible if we protect the hard-won rights we have inherited.
It is in the humanities, the arts and the sciences together that we find meaning and any hope of beatitude in a secular age. This is grace, beauty, music and art. This is curing cancer, it is composing the St Matthew Passion and it is sitting at the Globe to watch the plays of Shakespeare.
How dare the education minister say that we need no longer teach young people this tradition? The humanities safeguard our higher nature, our higher ideals. This is our freedom: this is our enlightenment.
This is an edited version of a plenary address given at the Being Human Festival on November 15.
Sarah Churchwell is a Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at University of East Anglia. This article was originally published on The Conversation.