This summer the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs published its report on higher education: ‘Treating Students Fairly: the Economics of Post-School Education’. The report criticized the government’s commercialization of higher education; it recommended the return of means-tested loans and grants and proposed the reduction of high interest rates on current student loans. It also said that our current HE system does not equip graduates with the necessary skills to enter the labour market.
Although the report did not specifically mention arts or humanities degrees much of the media focused rather gleefully on the ‘uselessness’ of some subjects. Thus “the UK has too many biology and history graduates and not enough workers with vocational skills” in The Telegraph, for example.
We took our daughter back to university last weekend. She tells me she’s sick of people asking, “But what are you going to DO with a History and Politics degree?” It appears we have come to see the study of history as the poor relation in a society now dominated by technology. Where, as Dr Alice Taylor argues in the BBC’s History Extra magazine, ‘the ability to code is seen as having the same high status and capacity for social advancement as the ability to read once did’.
The reality is that humanities degrees prepare students for a wide range of careers, including law, journalism, the civil service, even teaching (!) Moreover, because interdisciplinary study develops critical thinking and analysis, quantitative literacy, problem solving and intercultural knowledge, these subjects create transferable skills that open up possibilities for multiple career and job opportunities in ways that training in single disciplines with discrete contents often don’t.
In a Guardian article last year (‘How a half-educated tech elite delivered us into chaos’) reflecting on fake news and the political manipulation of social media, John Naughton considered the educational backgrounds of the founders of Google and Facebook:
‘Take the Google co-founders. Sergey Brin studied mathematics and computer science. His partner, Larry Page, studied engineering and computer science. Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, where he was studying psychology and computer science, but seems to have been more interested in the latter. Now mathematics, engineering and computer science are wonderful disciplines – intellectually demanding and fulfilling. And they are economically vital for any advanced society. But mastering them teaches students very little about society or history – or indeed about human nature. As a consequence, the new masters of our universe are people who are essentially only half-educated. They have had no exposure to the humanities or the social sciences, the academic disciplines that aim to provide some understanding of how society works, of history and of the roles that beliefs, philosophies, laws, norms, religion and customs play in the evolution of human culture.’
An argument – that we need an understanding of humanities alongside new technologies – is emerging. Many tech companies increasingly speak about the importance of employing arts or humanities graduates in addition to those from engineering and computer science. They seek to employ people who can learn new technical skills but who can also think creatively about the social consequences of these new technologies.
Thus when girls, for example, study History at BHHS they are are trained to treat what they read critically – questioning whether there are any underlying assumptions; checking whether arguments are consistent and that the conclusions follow from the premises; comparing arguments with the relevant available evidence –and to evaluate what they read by asking whose interests are served by what is being said? whose interests are not served by what is said? what are the political, cultural, social, religious and psychological effects of the ‘truths being claimed’? and so on. In a world where fake news can influence elections, the approach of humanities study is needed more than ever.