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July 07, 2009

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

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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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