As a recent Guardian editorial reminded us, Nicky Morgan, former Education Secretary (who studied at Oxford, and is now ennobled and in the House of Lords) once said this about the subject area I practice within:
‘[In the past] if you didn’t know what you wanted to do … the arts and humanities were what you chose because they were useful … We now know this couldn’t be further from the truth. The subjects to keep young people’s options open are Stem subjects.’
Quite apart from being disrespectful and dismissive of the choices made by millions of young people, and of the contribution made by the arts and humanities to British, European and World culture, Morgan was also (as she so often is) factually wrong.
The study of subjects such as History and English (which fall within the Humanities subject area at Northampton) develop exactly the sorts of skills that our country needs now and will increasingly require in the future. Humanities graduates are articulate, able to communicate in a variety of media, digitally literate, and well informed, with a broad understanding of a variety of competing views.
They are well versed in argument, in challenging preconceived ‘wisdoms’, in offering critiques of established narratives; in short those educated in the humanities are not usually prepared to swallow ‘truths’ unchallenged.
In 2017 the novelist (and historian) Hilary Mantel wrote:
‘I think that in this world where false information flies about the planet at the speed of light, then the skills of the historian are more necessary than ever because the historian teaches us to ask: who is telling me this? Can I trust them? Why are they telling me this? Why do they want me to believe this?’
Do we really want to live in a society where nobody questions the actions of those that rule us? Where nobody is able to forensically examine the detail of policies and laws that we all have to follow? Where nobody is able to take ‘a long view’ because our knowledge of history is limited to what the government of the day deems necessary for us to know?
And do we want to live in a society without culture? Without appreciation of the arts, of literature, of music, of theatre? What a dull world it would be if the future was one in which only STEM subjects mattered.
Humanities graduates may not always gravitate in the most well paid careers but many do (many of the politicians that seem to be so concerned to curtail the study of humanities for future generations were themselves students of Humanities subjects). There’s special sort of hypocrisy in denying the value of study to others when you benefited from it yourself (and yes I do mean you Neil Oliver), rather like all those politicians that voted to impose student fees on generations of young people having themselves benefitted from grants in the past.
It strikes me that far too often we are seeing a drawbridge mentality in operation here (exemplified by the incumbent Home Secretary) that says that although ‘we’ have enjoyed these freedoms and opportunities, and have settled ourselves into a privileged position as a result of them, it is now time to shut down the chance for others to do so.
And a good Humanities student would be able to argue this using the evidence and experience of a thousand years or more of English history, literature and culture. And perhaps that’s why they want to close us down, because they are scared that a well-informed future generation will not allow them to continue to enjoy their privileged status as our masters.
I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t value the arts and humanities because it would be a much poorer place. If you want to understand what that world would like – a world where there is only one accepted history, only one agreed set of cultural values, only one state sanctioned opinion I suggest you study George Orwell’s 1984, or Stalin’s USSR and Nazi Germany.
But of course if we lose the chance to study the Humanities in our national universities you may not be able to. Across the country dedicated staff teach arts, literature, and history to thousands of committed undergraduates. Very many of these young (and not so young) people come from working-class backgrounds where there is little or no history of higher education.
We cannot simply say that in the future the only people that can study the arts and humanities beyond 18 are the children of the rich and privileged class in this country. How does that equate to a society where there is equal opportunity for all? How do we change the narrative that has so excluded the voice of Black and other minority groups in Britain for so many decades? We have a PM who can (sort of) quote Homer because he studied Classics. Would he deny the study of Homer to the children growing up on a council estate?
History, arts and literature belong to all of us, and to make decisions on what is (or is not) taught in universities based solely on a reductive understanding of economics has no place in the free and socially inclusive society that Boris Johnson was elected to govern. Young people should be allowed to make their own informed choices about what they do, not have their opportunities restricted or dictated to by ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ politicians.
Drew Gray is the subject lead for Humanities (English and History) at the University of Northampton