The government’s post-18 review has sparked yet another debate about the value of arts and humanities degrees.
One proposal is that these supposedly less useful and cheaper subjects should cost less. The idea won’t survive the illogicality of lowering the price of something the government wants to discourage. But, it draws on the long-standing devaluation of the humanities in public discourse.
Too often, our political leaders speak of subjects like history, philosophy, and modern languages as irrelevant luxuries, nice to have but certainly not worth public support when put against the hard case for medicine and engineering. Also too often, universities are reticent to acknowledge the vocational character of humanities disciplines, so end up corroborating this glib political analysis. We in higher education – as much as those in politics – need to get real about the value of humanities degrees.
The humanities are vocational. They are vocational in a way that isn’t so very different from traditional vocational subjects. It’s only the tech-fetishism of our public culture (sustained most of all by self-hating humanities graduates in government and the media) which stops us from seeing their real value.
Humanities and seemingly more vocational disciplines like engineering or computing each offer mastery of particular areas of life in our complex world. All teach students to engage with the real world, imparting knowledge and skills of practical use. None, not even the most ostensibly practical, exactly maps onto any single career. The only difference is that the job title of “vocational” subjects is more likely to be reflected in the title of the degree.
So for example, engineering teaches how to analyse and design machines and machine-like systems; medicine, the working of the human body with the aim of preventing and curing disease. But there’s a lot to being an engineer or doctor which isn’t part of the discipline as traditionally conceived. Pitching projects, managing colleagues, and negotiating the NHS’s bureaucracy are important too. Increasingly “vocational” subjects draw on other parts of the university to give students are more rounded educational experience.
There’s no essential difference with the humanities. Philosophy teaches its students to analyse people as thinking beings, offering a variety of methods for challenging and improving the rationality of what we think; the ability to reason critically from first principles at such an advanced level is important in a range of careers, the law for example. History teaches us to construct truthful stories about the contexts of human action, explaining how institutions and societies change; financial analysis, policy research, and journalism all require their practitioners to research and write historical narratives which draw from a complex range of sources. English and modern languages analyse how we construct systems of meaning, not so different from the way work is done in media and cultural industries – and so on.
Humanities disciplines are vocational in a broad sense, giving humanities students a particular way of seeing the world that stays with them for life. History graduates carry on reading history books. My university administrator colleague has a distinctly philosophical approach, even though it’s a long while since she finished a philosophy degree. Given the chance, former undergraduates relish opportunities to return to their university to keep track of the field they studied.
But the practical, real-world, value of the humanities is also reflected in the demand for the skills they offer from employers, in students’ post-university career trajectories, and their pay packets. Medics and economists are top of the earnings table; but the average graduate in maths, computer science, or engineering doesn’t earn substantially more than a historian or philosopher. A computer scientist graduating in 2008/9 earned a median of £27,500 five years later, compared to £25,000 for a historian, philosopher or linguist. That’s only the case because humanities knowledge and the skills it develops are seen as a productive asset by employers.
The point I want to emphasise is that there is far more of practical use to humanities subjects than generic “transferrable” or “soft” skills. Of course, university degrees teach time management, information processing, and succinct writing. But, the specific knowledge and intellectual practices which each discipline offers has practical use too. Employers recognise that; it’s time politicians and university leaders did as well.
Knowing your history
Of course this is how the humanities began. As university subjects, the humanities were initially intended as practical disciplines. From the Renaissance, the study of ancient societies was encouraged to give elite men models for living. Knowledge of ancient rhetoric was meant to assist public speaking. History, when it became a university discipline in the mid nineteenth-century, offered lessons in exercising power for contemporary statesmen.
The humanities were founded to support forms of leadership inappropriate to our democratic, multicultural society. But, the best humanities teaching now emphasises practical connection with the world beyond the university, updated for today.
But, as many humanities scholars are doing, we should also build our subjects’ practical connection with the real world into our teaching. Only by making that direct particular link to life and work after university can humanities subjects stem the current decline in applications.
Those links are being made in different ways in universities now. They might involve creating communities of practice, where alumni in related fields discuss and help shape the curriculum and career choices of current students. We can place students with firms and institutions where they learn to put their knowledge to practical use. Sometimes, we also need to change what we teach to better connect with the world we live in now.
At King’s College London, we’re hoping to develop new courses which enrich traditional disciplines with the techniques of digital analysis needed to engage with a world of mass, online, social media. Sometimes though, it’s simply being more explicit and telling a clear story about the practical use of what we do.
Humanities academics should stop cringing when conversation turns to the purpose of the our disciplines – we have as good a story to tell about the practical use of our disciplines as anyone else.