Hollowed-out Humanities

To make any sense at all, the Humanities need a higher goal

This article is part of a Universities in Crisis feature from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It has long been a cliché to speak of a crisis in the Humanities. As long ago as 1964, J.H. Plumb published a collection of essays under that title. Six decades later, and an article about external crises for the humanities writes itself: declining numbers, declining funding, declining societal value, declining autonomy and declining expectations.

These issues are rehearsed every year, drifting, unabated, in depressing directions. Yet what is rarely spoken of is the crisis within the Humanities: many of those entrusted with nurturing and propagating these disciplines have lost all sense of shared purpose.

To start with first principles: “Humanities” is not modern branding. The term comes from the very epicentre of Roman culture: in a law court of 63 bc, Cicero first spoke of studia humanitatis (“the pursuits of humanity”) to highlight the learning of his adversary, the austere Stoic grandee Marcus Cato. Fundamentally, humanitas meant the human condition, but it evolved to describe both humane conduct and a liberal education — synonymous with the artes liberales.

With tuition fees now far higher, many have thought it wiser to follow the money

The Humanities continued through the middle ages, with Latin being the lingua franca of all educated discourse: linguistic training was essential, while philosophy and theology took centre stage. Come the Renaissance, the collective disciplinary sense of humanitas was revitalised by figures such as Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni, both Chancellors of Florence; these self-described “humanists” sought the revival of Latin and Greek culture through literature. Their optimistic vision of the humanities endured, in some form, for the next five centuries.

The twenty-first century, by contrast, has seen the Humanities decline, both proportionally and, now, in total numbers. In 1961, 28 per cent of British undergraduates studied a Humanities subject; now, only one in 14 students reads English, Modern or Ancient Languages, History, Philosophy, Classics, Music, History of Art, or Theology.

While this decline is largely due to growth in other sectors, recent years have also seen a real-terms drop. In 2009, 235,000 students read Humanities degrees; 15 years on and more than a fifth — some 50,000 students — are choosing to spend their time and money elsewhere.

As Humanities enrolments decline, many departments have closed — recently at Roehampton, Wolverhampton, Aston, Sheffield Hallam, University of East Anglia, and now Kent, who propose to “phase out” from their “portfolio” subjects such as Modern Languages, Philosophy and (despite a campus in Canterbury) Religious Studies.

In my own lifetime, the Humanities have steadily lost out to both technology and politics. While the great expansion of universities in 1992, and of university enrolment under Tony Blair from 1997, allowed the Humanities to grow again, that government’s decision to introduce tuition fees encouraged students to weigh up future earnings when making their subject choice. And, as a study in 2020 found, Languages and Philosophy, after Creative Arts, secure the lowest net lifetime earnings, with Medicine, Economics and Law as the predictable top trio. With tuition fees now far higher, many have thought it wiser to follow the money.

Your career progression will be made easier by achieving a 2.1 and becoming an administrator

When Labour also removed the requirement to study a foreign language beyond the age of 14, most schools gave up the time-consuming and difficult business of teaching languages to GCSE. In 2004, some 350,000 students took French GCSE, and 130,000 German; now 125,000 and 33,000 do. For A-level entries over this same period, French dropped by half (to 6,510) and German by two thirds (to 2,210). Most British pupils now take no foreign language past 14 and, although the English Baccalaureate requires a foreign language, 60 per cent of schools avoid the EBacc.

These embarrassing decisions were made during those topsy-turvy days when an Education Secretary (Charles Clarke) could opine that “education for its own sake is a bit dodgy”, that government funding should be reserved for studies that have “clear usefulness”, and that “the medieval concept of a community of scholars seeking truth” might deserve one per cent of their current funding to keep them going as “an adornment to our society”. This destructive attitude, though mocked at the time, has now infiltrated the Humanities.

The cultural and disciplinary gap — between (traditional) Humanities, social sciences, and STEM subjects — is now greater than ever. But the biggest divide lies between professional academics and bureaucratic administrators, who neither understand nor sympathise with one another. Historically, the fact that administrators were drawn from the ranks of academics served as a check on the damage they could do. But the emergence, and mind-boggling expansion, of career administrators has put paid to that. They, without question, are in charge.

Administrators, who have no knowledge of academic nuance and complexity, impose what they profess to know: the building of connections between disciplines (which usually leads to time-wasting collaborations, or even crude mergers of departments), the “general skills” of teaching and research (which usually obstruct skill or competence in either), the “capture” and management of grants (which bring in overheads to keep the bureaucracy thriving) — and, for many a university, the control of student numbers.

Spurred on by the Office for Students, a narrowly-defined set of parameters is applied to Humanities subjects. Chief among them is “employability”, i.e. creating an economically useful individual who will not only get a job at the end of the degree but also be a “socially aware” individual imbued with the attitudes appropriate to “the modern workplace”.

Yes, Humanities departments are compelled to play the administrators’ game. But many have let the game play them, wittingly or otherwise: entire research topics are chosen on the basis of what will have “measurable impact”; the “best practice” for teaching is taken up and rolled out for brownie points, despite its emerging from those who know nothing of the subject’s pedagogical reality.

Academics who do their job out of pure passion yield the administration of resources to bureaucrats, who don’t just control the money but also the terms of promotion. And it is a grim paradox that if you seek success in the university sector, your career progression will be easier by achieving a 2.1 and becoming an administrator than obtaining a first-class degree, pursuing an academic career, and spending your life as the scholarly serf of overpaid and overbearing mediocrities.

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For many working in the Humanities in such a climate, there is a crisis of meaning, a loss of confidence, and an uncertainty about what should matter most. Is it teaching? Research? Widening participation? Social justice? Even for the majority who agree it should be teaching — does that mean teaching content or process, providing knowledge or skills? There is no agreement.

“DEI statements” are now tied in with job applications, grant proposals, and criteria for promotion

Even the core duty of appraising students has become troubled. People’s different educational backgrounds, cultural norms, even “ways of knowing” are challenging the holistic and universal principles of the Humanities. If “lived experience” can only be understood and critiqued by someone who shares it, and if discussing such lived experience becomes part of the work submitted for a degree, should it not follow that blind marking must stop, and a suitably “similar” examiner be found for each candidate? Naturally, that would be as ridiculous as it would be unworkable; but as handwringing continues, the outcome is yet more grade inflation and less faith in what degree results denote.

Meanwhile the canard of “decolonisation” continues to busy committee discussions, despite near-total disagreement about what it means and what, if anything, should be done. For most self-appointed “activists”, of course, this was never an intellectual undertaking, but one of destabilisation. It is a cynical extension of the absurd field of “critical studies”, whose self-styled “theories” are unfalsifiable dogmas, and whose supposedly liberatory purpose is both negatively defined and fundamentally destructive.

DEI, EDI, DIE — whatever order the acronym comes in — advances a conformist system bereft of intellectual depth: in an academic context, Diversity means uniformity, Equality equity, and Inclusion exclusion of those who challenge the narrative.

This ideological system is unquestionably obstructing freedom in academia: “DEI statements” are now tied in with job applications, grant proposals, and criteria for promotion. For a handful of academics, writing these is an act of reverence, for most one of rhetoric; for some, it is a ritual of humiliation, since their traditional and technical work is simply unable to talk the talk of modern progressivism.

Those who set about “delivering diversity” — rather than teaching the subjects they are paid to — very often combine statistical ignorance with a complete lack of curiosity about cause and nuance. Blithe assumptions are made about what a given identity group may want introducing to, or removing from, the syllabus; patronising and offensive claims are made about what is and is not appropriate for teaching and reading; crude categories are dreamt up and imposed, and only carefully scrutinised when the results seem to point in the right direction of “representation”. Yet the question is not even posed, let alone answered, of what pool of people demands representation, and why.

I have not encountered any critical discussion of the disparity between men and women

A case in point: what is the most striking imbalance in Humanities students in Britain? The answer, of course, is the predominance of women. At the national level, more than two-thirds of Humanities students are female. At my own university, the School of Arts and Humanities accepted 65 per cent women in 2022, a figure that rises to 70 per cent in Modern and Medieval Languages, and 75 per cent in English. (The figure for the university as a whole is 51.5 per cent.)

Yet in my two decades at Cambridge, I have not encountered any critical discussion of this disparity, let alone any initiative that might deliver “better representation” of our even-sexed 18-year-olds. The fact is, it does not fit anyone’s diversity narrative simply to get more men on the books. So too at the national level does it go largely unremarked that 41 per cent of women attend university compared with 31 per cent of men.

With such conflicting motives — fighting for social change, pleasing bureaucrats, helping students, conducting research — life in the Humanities is more confused than ever. Amid the noise, confidence in the transformative power of universities has declined, while a sad bigotry of low expectations grows.

With each year, reading lists are scaled back, and restricted to ever-more-recent publications; sometimes there is even a cap on pages allowed to be set. Closed-book exams are steadily replaced by coursework; dissertations based on research are slowly evolving into reflections on personal experience and “learning journeys”. Meanwhile, class time is taken up by teaching skills that used to be instilled in school: the ability to read critically, write clearly, and structure arguments.

Yet in the “service provider” model, undeniable and near-irreversible grade inflation means that poor exam performance is a greater problem for a faculty (why did teaching and other provisions fail the student?) than the actual candidate (who paid good money for “world-leading teaching”). Awarding higher marks demonstrates a successful course, secures good student feedback, and avoids unwelcome trouble.

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Without a shared sense of purpose in the Humanities, the field will either deviate from its tried-and-tested course, or devour itself. What, then, are the Humanities for? At root, they seek to understand what others have produced, individually and collectively, and to learn from them about what it is to be human. The central, most material consideration for living life is that of being human. What does that mean? What gives life purpose?

It is the Humanities that open up the accumulated wealth of literature, art and culture to allow for profound exploration of these questions — about what is good or bad, beautiful or perverse, worthwhile and salutary or pointless and destructive. These studies allow us to glimpse universal truths as well as encounter the diversity of humankind in all its fascinating particularities. For it is impossible to find deep meaning in life without rooting it in values and ideas that transcend not just the self but one’s immediate moment. To any external observer, these claims are self-evident; voice them in academia, eyebrows will rise and heads shake.

It is no accident that the Humanities survived for millennia in a context where they formed an essential part of liberal education; it is no accident that most universities were founded with some religious commitment undergirding their studies. Harvard’s motto Veritas (Truth), Yale’s Lux et veritas (Light and truth), Princeton’s Dei sub numine viget (She thrives under God’s power), Oxford’s Dominus illuminatio mea (The Lord is my light) and Cambridge’s hinc lucem et pocula sacra (From here light and sacred draughts) are not idle formulations that sounded good to spin doctors. All are born from the historic importance of Christianity in the university sector.

Any positive value claim about the artistic genius of the Greeks and Romans is treated with high suspicion

Times of course change, and after the Scientific Revolution, the divine became steadily sidelined in academia, out of growing suspicion or disbelief. But when, in our contemporary context, the post-modern and indeed post-enlightenment outlook of many academics rejects the very concepts essential to collaborative academic endeavour and progress — truth, knowledge, objectivity, the scientific method — the university’s mission inevitably flounders.

To make any sense at all, the Humanities still need approaching in a humanistic light. They need some higher goal that provides greater direction and purpose to the otherwise unrooted practices of education for mere instruction and research for mere publication. Without that, it is a matter of time before they descend to ideological purposes, thus corrupting the whole humanistic — and, in turn, academic — endeavour.

At last I come to my own subject, Classics — a microcosm that analyses the Greco-Roman world through almost every discipline of the Humanities. Add that Ancient Greek and Latin are both difficult to access in schools and painstaking to learn thoroughly, then the field plays host to a perfect storm. On the ground, I have never known morale so low: drives for collaborative research leave behind the traditional solo-working scholar; teaching needs grow and research time dwindles; young academics don’t earn enough to live a stable life in university cities; too many graduate students are produced to find jobs; the exhaustion has no clear reward or end.

It should be a joy and inspiration. Classics enjoys, almost uniquely, an unbroken tradition of formal education from antiquity. The discipline is so central to the history of the West that most of our literature and art, much architecture, and many social norms cannot be explained without reference to the Classical tradition, often mediated by Christianity. This inheritance was not something restricted to a learned elite; until recently, it was a natural part of school education, political discourse, popular culture. To learn in Britain about Homer or Caesar or Boudicca or Augustine of Canterbury was to participate in our shared inheritance.

Ralston College models just how different things can be if the Humanities are given the space to breathe and believe

Yet many things that used to be essential to the pitch about Classics are now frowned upon: universal claims about the human condition; wide-eyed praise of profound poetry, beautiful art, harrowing historiography. Faced with the ocean currents of relativism, any positive value claim about the artistic genius of the Greeks and Romans is treated with high suspicion. Despite the subject’s immense influence and importance, Classics, the finger-waggers make clear, must treat itself as an academic subject no different from any other.

Must things be this way for the Humanities in the twenty-first century? No. And I saw a brief glimpse of this last summer: on a Greek island, I was surrounded by 30 students reading Ancient Greek, speaking it to each other, amid long-form conversations about what moved them most in these texts. It was so simple, so fresh, and so incredible that the students in question had never studied Greek before, and that their attendance was philanthropically covered by full scholarships. To begin their MA in the Humanities they sat alongside two of the top five ancient linguists in the world, before returning to Savannah, Georgia, to chart the Western tradition up to the present. That institution, Ralston College, models just how different things can be if the Humanities are given the space to breathe and believe.

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As for students, they expect and deserve more from the Humanities, especially the most bright and independent. They want institutions that stand for something and have confidence in the higher goods they aspire to. They resent being thwarted because their ambitions are amenable neither to instrumental employment or fashionable activism.

Whenever students are instructed to “think critically”, they should reflect “for whose good”? All Humanities scholars must do so as well, since this is a genuine crisis (Greek for “decision”) — a moment to decide what matters most.

For my part, Classics is a subject I will always defend. I too have had to decide; and though employed until retirement (if such a thing will even be legal in 2055), I have given up my Cambridge lectureship. The problems are very real, and very urgent, but the biggest of them are best fixed from the outside. The Humanities will not regain the essential importance they must have in everyone’s lives without the freedom to fight.

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