Richard Smith: Battling the assault on the humanities

Richard SmithHaving decided that higher education is no longer a public good, the coalition government has cut completely the funding for teaching the humanities. This is a desperately short sighted move, and at a meeting at the London School of Economics just before Christmas speakers spelt out the value of the humanities.

Some training in the humanities is fundamental to being a fully active member of a democracy, argued Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago and author of Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. People need to be trained in critical analysis of an argument, to understand the historical context in which a democracy operates, and to have the capacity to see the world as others see  it. She argued that this could not all be achieved through a school education and that ideally every form of higher education should include these components.

A successful university needs the humanities as much as it needs science argued Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society. If Britain allows the humanities to wither our universities will wither as well. Questioning the coalitions’ policy on higher education, he pointed out that “If a plane is overweight you don’t ditch the engines.” He argued as well that the obsession with impact was misguided. A committee of the research councils is wholly ill equipped to decide which research will have impact.

James Ladyman, professor of philosophy in Bristol, suggested that the Treasury officials obsessed with return on investment might as well put their money on a horse in the 3.15 at Chepstow. But he was also making a broader point that in order for there to be a 3.15 at Chepstow there needed to be more than one horse. Academia cannot be all about winners. He quoted Don Bradman, the world’s greatest batsman, that Everest does not arise from sea level but from a high range of mountains. In order for there to be great philosophers there need to be middling philosophers.

He also quoted the mathematician G H Hardy writing in his Apology for Mathematics in 1940 that everything he’d ever done was useless as was, he wrote, the work on relativity and quantum mechanics that was going in Cambridge at the time. It’s very hard to know what will turn out to be of huge importance.

Everybody who spoke at the meeting thought the value of the humanities self evident, but Ladyman adopted arguments that he thought might convince those for whom economic value is everything. “We are cheap,” he said. His department in Bristol has some 30 academics but costs the government only £450 000 a year. The department attracts students from overseas who pay high fees and spend money in the UK.

Despite the low investment, Britain is, he said, a world leader in philosophy. There are not many things where Britain is a world leader, and why put at risk something comparatively cheap where Britain does lead? Picking a philosopher from each part of the British Isles (but forgetting Wales) he said how Locke, Berkeley, and Hume had all had global influence. Indeed, Locke gave the US constitution and the world the most quoted phrase ever: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Nussbaum thought John Stuart Mill’s address when he was made rector of St Andrews one of the finest accounts of the role of a university, and he had ideas that are quite the opposite of those of the coalition government. A university, he said “is not a place of professional education.

Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings.” Later in his speech he said:  “Men are men before they are lawyers, or physicians, or merchants, or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men, they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers or physicians.”

Ladyman doubted that the Treasury would achieve its aims by asking university departments to concentrate on economic return. “A successful football manager does not,” he suggested,  say “Right, boys, go out there and create shareholder value.”

He feared that it was too easy to take philosophy for granted because its ideas become ingrained in our lives. People, he said, can claim rights and be an atheist because philosophers conceived of those possibilities. It wasn’t always so.

The meeting signalled the beginning of a campaign to promote the humanities, and I’m sure that many people from other parts of the forest—including doctors, scientists, business people, media folk (Mark Lawson chaired the meeting), and even celebrities—will want to join the campaign. Indeed, it’s ironic that the politicians who have been so brutal with the humanities have themselves been trained in the humanities.

A recording of the meeting is available at:

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004.