Oh, the humanities


“What does the Chemistry graduate say to the English graduate?” goes the joke. “I’ll have a cheeseburger please.” Ha-ha, a throwaway gag, but it works because there’s a sad truth there. Compare this with something a friend of mine said to me recently. If you’re chatting with friends, she’d noticed, and you don’t recognise a quote from a Shakespeare play then you could be mocked, but if you overlook the theories of nature that result in our existence, that’s okay. In other words, people don’t find it embarrassing if they don’t know science, but if you don’t recognise “Is this a dagger I see before me?” then your head better hang. The same applies to historical dates or famous artists. Fair enough, but what does this mean? On the one hand, it shows that for those in the humanities their job prospects are laughably sparser compared to those of STEM subjects (sciences, maths, engineering, and technology). But on the other hand, it shows that the humanities are vital to our culture, shaping our everyday references and thinking.

It may seem surprising then, when education secretary Nicky Morgan, herself graduating with a Bachelor of Arts, told students that choosing an art subject could hold them back “for the rest of their lives”. Though the irony here is lost on no one, her statement isn’t entirely based on falsehoods. The latest poll from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that eight out of the top 10 degrees for employment opportunities are STEM subjects. This no doubt contributes to the government’s recent decision to inject £67 million to improve maths and science teacher training, coupled with their offer of money for school-leavers toward university fees in return for taking up teaching once they graduate in maths or physics. This is not a soon-to-be division, with STEM students already being allocated more contact hours than those in the humanities. It doesn’t make myself, an English Literature and Creative Writing student, feel particularly motivated when David Cameron declares maths and science a priority, with whopping funding to prove it. He and his government ought to recognise the contribution of humanities to people’s lives and wellbeing (never mind the £71.4 billion annual flow into the economy from just the creative industries).

I can’t blame him entirely, though. Nor can I blame the government, the hypocritical Nicky Morgan, or STEM subject friends who tease me for my overpriced library membership. One reason for this is because aside from STEM subjects’ laudability, their helpfulness is more obvious. Look at the comet we’ve just landed on, or the fact medical research now means that one in two people survive cancer. These things are incredible and should not be understated, not least because they are clearer. Switch to the humanities, however, and it’s hazier to judge how the study of the rule of Genghis Khan or Saddam Hussein has helped us now. There is no concrete line that can show how the analysis of Marcel Proust or Van Gogh has improved one’s life, compared to how engineering has improved buildings.

Another reason I can’t fully blame our skewed politicians is the fault of those in the humanities themselves. Literature lecturers, art teachers, distinguished historians, or students such as myself have not adequately defended ourselves: we ought to explain why what we do matters and not be offended when asked. Because the truth is that the us-and-them divide of STEM v Humanities is a fallacy. The synthesis is of the humanities explaining experiences or feelings, and science stepping in with empirical explanations; then together we move forward. The humanities help to console and enlighten us in our everyday lives and STEMs can tell us why this is, and vice versa, as the arts can help communicate the importance and detail of scientific breakthroughs to the masses. Bluntly: sciences help us to live, humanities helps us to enjoy it – we (and the government) should recognise we need both. To summarise far clearer than I could is the 19th century philosopher, economist, and politician John Stuart Mill: “The object of universities is not to make skilful lawyers, physicians or engineers. It is to make capable and cultivated human beings.”

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