Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Pressure on the Humanities

The news mentioned in the previous posting is part of a general trend in the UK and also in other countries in the world. The general notion that there needs to be any focus, support or attention given to the place of the humanities in contemporary education has been entirely lost. In the current general election here in the UK the manifestoes of all three major parties are silent concerning any significant role for the humanities, focusing all their attention on the place of STEM subjects. The Labour Party has been particularly bold in this emphasis, folding the Dept for Education into that of Business whilst the Liberal Democrats intend to merge the Higher Education Funding Council for England with the Skills Funding Agency in order to create a single Council for Adult Skills and Higher Education. Since HEFCE pioneered the notion of impact assessment before the Labour Party there are some senses in which its loss would not be as grievous as all that but merging it with a skills council speaks volumes for the general view of higher education assumed.

Whilst the political parties are adopting these blinkered points of view universities across the UK are closing or cutting their philosophy departments. Amongst others there are threats of cuts at the University of Sussex, King's College London, the University of Leeds and Gloucestershire University. It can hardly be expected that these attacks are likely, in a situation of increased budgetary constraint, to cease.

It is worth pausing, however, to question why it is that the humanities in general and philosophy in particular are particularly susceptible to these attacks. It is true that the justifications offered for the cuts are often framed in very narrow budgetary terms as appears to be the case at Middlesex. Such terms do not intrinsically prevent other types of subjects and subject areas being affected and, indeed, at University College London, it is the life sciences that are threatened. However, despite the correctness of this point, there is a particular pattern of assault on the humanities in general and philosophy in particular, that reaches beyond the narrow rationale of budgets.

In a new book Martha Nussbaum takes aim at a logic that generally views the humanities as of little contemporary significance, a view that we can see reflected in the general failure to view focus on them as any kind of political priority. The economic situation has led to an intensification of a trend visible for sometime. This is one in which the value of education is generally assessed in terms of the price of wage one can attract after having consumed it. It is the model of education in terms of preparation for work, as is particularly evident in the subsumption of education under business and the merging of higher education with training.

In this situation the central difficulty with providing a general rationale for defending the humanities in general and philosophy in particular is that alternative views of the point of education are thought to be of little relevance in straitened times. The intriguing thing about this, however, is that this does not apply equally to education that is based on fine art. Whilst this is hardly a season of rejoicing in the arts in terms of funding there is not the same antipathy towards arts that is expressed towards the humanities. The reason appears to be that performance can be guaranteed from art whilst little that is taken to be significant emerges from the humanities.

The central political question that emerges from this concerns how it is that a sustainable civil society is meant to develop without education that is concerned with the nature of civility itself. Politicians make much out of the conditions for civility but seem to think that civility is merely a matter of moral exhortation, not something that requires development of moral sensitivity. Similarly, the focus on instrumental gain from knowledge leaves aside any questions concerning the nature of knowledge itself and hence does not allow for serious engagement with the point of relations with others. The basic case for philosophy as an enquiry is that without it assumptions ossify and prejudice replaces judgment. A "culture" without philosophy is possible, just not desirable and the case for this looks like needing to be made again.

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