July 07, 2009

A response to 'The value of higher education in the arts and humanities'

Writing about web page http://www.egovmonitor.com/node/25870/print

To those unfamiliar with UK higher education policy, it may come as a surprise to learn that of the three major branches of learning – the arts and humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences – the arts and humanities consistently draw the short straw on both funding and state recognition more generally. So it was striking to find the new minister for higher education, David Lammy, speaking in such broad and positive terms about the art and humanities at a recent speech delivered at the Royal Society for the Arts. Both the Guardian and the Times Higher gave the speech prominent coverage.

While Lammy made an excellent speech, it was really about the defence of a certain liberal arts ideal of general education, not about the humanities as specialist subjects. So, those who want to increase research funding in those fields still have their work cut out. And while Lammy is certainly justified in claiming all sorts of long-term social, cultural and even economic benefits from study in the arts and humanities, English (though not Scottish) higher education is currently not organized to realize them. This is because students come to university already specialised, not least in the various arts and humanities subjects. For Lammy’s vision to be truly realized, at least the first year at university would have to be an intellectually exploratory period, in which students are required to sample from an array of general education courses whose staff would be taken from many, if not all, departments. These courses would be specifically designed to cover both skills and content that encourage the openness of mind and breadth of knowledge needed to live in today’s world. The result would bring Britain closer to an American model of higher education (at its best). I don’t know if Lammy quite realizes the massive overhaul of the teaching and examination system across both the secondary and tertiary education sector that such a shift would entail, but I for one would welcome it.

You can find a précis of my general take on the value of the humanities in a syndicated column I published last year.

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  1. Alan Rudy

    Steve: My sense of the US system suggests that the west side of the Atlantic is in need of as much restructuring as the east. In preparation for the Berkeley-Novartis study, we closely read Michael Power’s book, Audit Society and I focused much of my attention on the not clearly unintended consequences of the ever-more robust rituals of verification that pervade modern society but find exemplary expression in education. The relationship between economic stagnation, fiscal crisis, political delegitimation, risk society, audit-ary culture and the renewed hegemony of self-interest tied to neoliberalism is one where more and more students are forced to and actively take an instrumental and reductionist approach to education.

    At the same time that technical, rather than social or humanitarian, skills are the focus of the vast majority of educational institutions and “the best” students, there is a simultaneous recognition, in the academy, of the need for interdisciplinary approaches to no-longer simply disciplinary social problems, and, across the public, a greater and greater sense of the limited policy imagination and effectiveness of “Progressive” science-based policy. In the academy, however, colleges and departments continue to rule the roost and have, passively, accepted the imposition of constant, ritualized and a-rational audits of research, teaching and service “excellence” – rituals which reinforce, and structurally reward “efficient” practices within, disciplinary boundaries.

    I can’t speak to the conditions in the UK but the vast, vast majority of my students at the Research I Land Grant University where I worked (grad and undergrad) and at the Research II public university where I am now (undergrad only) not only arrive in college with instrumental, technophilic, or dude,-let’s-totally-party-all-weekend-starting-Thursday-pm attitudes – and without having been encouraged to be intellectually inquisitive much less critical thinkers – but also with a largely inchoate but deeply post-modern lack of faith in the pillars of modenity: science, the market and the state.

    And then I make matters worse – especially given their deep individualism – by simultaneously stressing the centrality of science/technology, legislation/bureaucracy and production/markets while pointing to the all-but wholly undemocratic nature of all three phenomena. In short, I find that the opportunity presented by students’ secular relativism needs to be closed and inspected before it can be critically reopened. It is here that topical general education courses present a fantastic place for introducing empirically-grounded, disciplinarily-synthetic and personally-stimulating material to students – and it is what I do (and what I do with my Intro Soc classes – courses which simply fill distribution requirements for most of my students). However, while I tend to get really high – and sometimes quite personal – student evaluations, being able to do this is not something most of my more-disciplinary colleagues were trained for – what a blessing to have gone to UC Santa Cruz for grad school and Swarthmore as an undergrad – but it is also not something rewarded in the slightest by the universities… esp. at the Research I university, the integrative general education courses are undesirable teaching assignments because they are four, rather than three, credit hours and everyone knows that the students really don’t want to take them… a condition only exacerbated by the fact that most faculty then teach the course as variants of the introductory course in their discipline.

    Thanks for stimulating these ruminations.

    14 Jul 2009, 16:27

  2. Alan Rudy

    The page told me this paragraph made the previous post too long… so here it is a moment later:

    It is particularly sad, these days, that the present crisis seems only to be deepening the interest administrators have in audits which prove we’re making the grade and students have in focused job skills. I don’t want to go back to the days when only the best of the best students – almost all of whom were from the wealthy, professional and/or upwardly mobile classes – went to colleges and universities but my sense is that the revisioning of higher education you’re post points towards depends on conversations and changes of a breadth and scope beyond that of individual and/or groups of colleges and universities.

    14 Jul 2009, 16:28

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