Blogs > Cliopatria > "They are trying to rob us of our right to communicate"*

Feb 4, 2012

"They are trying to rob us of our right to communicate"*

The infrequency with which I post at Cliopatria has a lot to do with my not really understanding what I have to say that might be of interest to its largely-silent audience, but I had at least hoped to keep that audience updated on the developments in the defunding of the humanities in UK universities. Unfortunately, since I last did that, there have been no changes worth reporting. The widespread student protesting, the Oxford vote of no confidence and similar actions elsewhere, the subsequent meetings of vice-chancellors with the UK Prime Minister David Cameron,1 all made no difference at all to the state of the government's policy, which remains to cut all support for teaching in the humanities and to hang much of what research is funded on its social impact. Admittedly, the terms in which `impact' has finally been defined could be liberally interpreted merely as, "having readers not at university", which we might all hope for, especially the bloggers, but the general odour of marketisation makes us view it with justifiable fear and suspicion anyway.

Instead, the academic community appears largely to have disappeared into navel-gazing (not least at Oxford, which has the signal problem of having taught much of the current government, so that their views of how much the humanities could be worth in their personal development must partly originate here) about our failure to combine and make a decent statement of the point of a university. There was a spirited conference in London in December, including a contribution by Keith Thomas that went into the London Review of Books and the Oxford Magazine, but it can justly be argued, and has been, that defences in terms of tradition and its values are never going to impress those who have already stepped away from those values as they were taught them.2 If times are held to be a-changing, arguments that nothing need change probably cut little ice.

All the same, it is rather embarrassing that our assembled philosophers, economists, lawyers and, yea, historians, can't get our heads together and come up with a working model for a practical and self-evidently worthwhile modern humanities education that doesn't date back to the circumstances of the 1850s.3 It's all the more embarrassing because the opposition to it is so illogical and incoherent. Vast schemes have been constructed by David Willets and his cronies to relieve the burden on the UK taxpayer of paying for all this damn education, and yet what has resulted from it is a scheme that will apparently cost the government more up front, and has even less chance of being eventually paid back than did the original Conservative student loans scheme, adjusted many times since its inception in 1991. This one, on the other hand, was being adjusted even before it was made law. We have all kinds of instructions about improving access, and yet the sector is being starved of money and penalised for charging fees at the same time as being required to. What is supposed to lead to a diversification of `the student experience' is in fact a force for its homogenisation as a market-led degree system competes in a system where increasingly, the only metric of success is salary-added, something that the situation of the wider economy hobbles before we can get started. If this is what we're up against, it's pretty shoddy that we can't offer something obviously better.4

More deeply than this, however, I have for some time been worrying about what on earth the government think they're doing. These are, by the metrics I'm pre-disposed to use at least—as in, the place where I teach at degree-level gave many of them degrees—not stupid men. (Though they are mostly men, plus ça change.) The flaws in their plans are obvious to anyone who does the maths or knows the history, and they should be able to see this, or have people handy who can; how can these things be missed? Can they really be this incompetent?

The trouble is, of course, the alternative, which is that there is a purpose. In my darker moments, when reflecting on the awful passivity of the British voter and the way in which probable criminals who ignore public expressions of opinion can be returned to office simply because there's no-one better, I have wondered if that state of quiescence isn't actually what the current ruling class in the UK want, the lack of protest that will allow them to feather their personal nests quickly enough to get out of office safely before the shell they've hollowed out in the public sphere collapses in their wake. I thought this was unduly cynical, however, until I came across this excellent piece by Alun Salt, entitled "The UK government's attack on the humanities is an attack on democratic accountability". Do read it, not just for the satire—Alun writes much better than I do—but for this, towards the end:

"Education has been reduced to a purely economic commodity, and so the mantra is that it must be economically justified. There is no recognition that an educated electorate is necessary for a functioning democracy. I benefit from large numbers of people being educated and able to spot when a policy is a fantasy, because it has consequences at the ballot box. This is a function of education that isn’t an economic asset because democracy isn’t inherently an economic asset. If it were inherently an asset then we wouldn’t be spending billions supporting dictators around the world, and overseas tycoons wouldn’t be spending large amounts of money on electoral campaigns to block equal access to the electorate. David Cameron is firmly establishing that education is not something he admires in an electorate, and that’s why it's necessary to tax it."

The alarming thing is that Alun originally wrote this in 2010, before all the pieces of the puzzle were in place. I increasingly begin to think that this is really the heart of it, though. The things we preach the humanities as providing, critical thinking, independence of mind, the ability to evaluate sources against each other, spotting precedent, not "believing rubbish": why on earth have we ever thought that these are things a government in power wants more of in its electorate? How could it possibly advantage them and make it easier for them to stay in power or profit from power? As for history, the benefits of a historical perspective in public policy are so bluntly obvious that the Onion has taken the chance to point them out to the US public:

"... one thing we can do, before making a choice that has permanent consequences for our entire civilization, is check real quick first to see if human beings have ever done anything like it previously, and see if it turned out to be a good idea or not."

But our policy-makers don't need or want to think about how things will turn out in the long-term. Even if they did want to be rewarded for doing good, they would need that benefit inside a five-year cycle, before re-election. (Perhaps it's no wonder they have made academia jump the same repetitive rope, they have been raised to think it natural and game it.) Education is a much more slow-burning gain than that, and if it is to be reflected in greater inventiveness, creativity, wealth, health and, not least folks, not least, HAPPINESS—that will all come round in two, maybe three, governments' time, or even more, when this lot will be well out of it, or at least I assume that they presume they will be. So they would see little gain from their good efforts.

But I don't even credit them with that much good intent; I see what is effectively, as Alun says, a sabotaging of democracy leading to a continuation of the political disengagement of the electorate and the persistent ignoring of popular calls to change that, even when those calls were met with manifesto pledges now long abandoned. And this is being done by intelligent, educated people. Can they all be incompetent? Oblivious? Unconcernedly amoral? Or is this actually a successful policy? I don't like any of the answers but only the last one seems sustainable as this situation rolls onwards. The current generation have worked out that they can get away with murder if people don't criticise on the basis of knowledge. The pacifying resignation of messages like, "things were ever thus", "there is nothing new under the sun", and so forth, legitimise them. If it's ineluctable, people, ya may as well elect it, amirite? So we can expect bad history, written quickly by people with only a casual acquaintance with the sources and debates, to be encouraged (especially since it may pay for itself via book sales) and good, critical, academic history, to be defunded, and voilà, so it is being. I'm afraid that it makes sense after all.

* The title comes from a song by Hawkwind, 'Coded Languages', whose words were written by Michael Moorcock; it first appeared on their album Sonic Attack (RCA 1981).
1. Though given the fact that the vice-chancellors have been essentially passive and assimilative about the whole thing, it's a pity we couldn't have got someone else sent instead, as the results were probably predictable as was.
2. Keith Thomas's "Universities under attack", in London Review of Books Vol. 33 no. 24 (London 2011), pp. 9-10, was reprinted in Oxford Magazine no. 320 (Oxford 2012), pp. 7-9, along with two other papers from the same conference, Rachel Malik, "Universities under attack: from within", ibid. pp. 3-5, and Peter Scott, "What kind of University?", ibid. pp. 5-7, the last of which is an absolutely excellently clear review of the situation, but cf. Martin Davies, "Quis custodiet...?", ibid. pp. 12-13, which points out the likely problems with idealistic approaches like Thomas's.
3. Many of the participants in the debate (if I can call such a one-way traffic a debate) have invoked John Henry Cardinal Newman's The Idea of a University, ed. G. N. Shuster (New York City 1959) or Frank M. Turner (London 1996) but originally given as lectures in 1852; Laurence Brockliss, "In Search of the New Newman", Oxford Magazine no. 319 (Oxford 2012), pp. 4-6, is most detailed. Cf. again however Davies, "Quis custodiet".
4. It might, of course, be that we don't like the likely costs of workable alternatives: David Palfreyman proposes some fairly dire but arguably coherent reforms to Oxford in a letter to the editor of the Oxford Magazine, no. 319, p. 22.

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