In the space of a century, give or take, the humanities have transformed from subjects of study that garnered immense respect, to subjects of study looked down upon by the scientists, scorned by post-professional milieus, and even lambasted by those who study them. It’s a tragicomedy of real, serious, and depressing consequences. As someone who took his A-levels in French, maths, and physics before choosing to follow the (humanities’) path of no financial pay-off, I have been durably fascinated by this “choice” of educational route. Unfortunately, however, the humanities are in danger. Be it danger of losing funding, losing respect, or losing seriousness altogether, each of these may be fatal in its own way. Whilst some of the humanities’ most radical detractors may propose that we entirely scrap these “soft” literary subjects, the majority of us will admit that on the contrary, they can and should be worthwhile endeavours. To return to these days of renown, utility and effectiveness, the humanities — particularly their students — must, above all else, become ambitious.
The humanities’ first problem is their relationship to their younger, but perkier, brother: the sciences. For a group of subjects that concern themselves with human relations, language, communication and meaning, the humanities are totally incapable of presenting themselves as an equal to the sciences. The relationship between the two is instead reminiscent of that between the systematic lumberjack and the grand, vintage tree trunk; the pair share a long and intimate history, but each time they meet, you know exactly how it shall proceed. In this case, the humanities will be felled by the chainsaw of the sciences’ attractions: inherent utility, better pay, fewer highfalutin ramblings (i.e., less academic nonsense), novel discoveries, and a far less toxic arena of discourse in which the number of cancellable opinions is relatively negligible.
The argument that the study of science is inherently useful is, to be fair, a strong one. In effect, practically any modern job in STEM should be economically productive. By their very natures, these degrees bring something to the table. The subjects comprising the humanities can no longer boast of this natural clout, hence the need for this very article. With some exceptions, there are very few jobs that can justify demanding a specific humanities’ degree over another. Do you think many employers are going to fall head over heels for an English graduate whilst shunning their history counterpart? I doubt it. Alas, we fall down the slippery slope, moving from the idea that none of the humanities is more special or valuable than any other, to the total folly that, in this case, none of the humanities is special or valuable whatsoever.
For those who dismiss these concerns as insignificant and irrelevant, I would posit that on the contrary, these concerns are at the present moment more pertinent than ever before. We live under a government phasing out before our very eyes the funding for humanities — I stress, the humanities that they themselves studied — whilst encouraging ever more students to go into the sciences (which, on its own, is not a bad thing at all). A cynic might say this is a purposeful strategy. The fewer students who study political sciences, history, language and philosophy, the less we train students to think about important unscientific questions, such as, “How should we be governed?” and, “Why are we governed so poorly?” As a self-confessed cynic, the consideration of such an idea comes naturally to me; I don’t find it unbelievable that those seeking to defund the humanities — I repeat, the politicians who themselves studied humanities — wish to do so because it will make sleazy, corrupt, and incompetent politics an easier ball game in generations to come.
There is, undoubtedly, an apparent logic to their desire to defund. Because of the dysfunctional system they themselves have constructed, the study of humanities has a negative impact on the state’s finances. Huge sums of money are spent sending students to substandard institutions to study subjects that have no obvious economic payoff, and when many of these students come out qualified, albeit with no obvious ambition and little opportunity, they wind up in jobs — and lives — that leave them unsatisfied and their student debts unpaid. I would be inclined to agree that passing this financial burden onto the rest of the population who are excluded from the milieu universitaire is unjust and unreasonable. Yet it is not I who conceived of the extortionate fees, the inefficiency and the hyperinflated grades that now cling to every corner of British universities. Formulated differently, the government may be able to justify its decision to defund humanities, but only because it has already sent these glorious subjects up the creek without a paddle. Perhaps even without a boat.
I persevere. Moving on from the government to matters much more significant than politics, it is vital that we appreciate the necessary direction provided by our ambitions, our visions, and our goals. It is through these lenses that we perceive the world, and without them, the reality that lies before us would be no more than a meaningless blob of walls and people and noises. Equally, these aspirations are what orient us towards greater things; Seneca remarked wisely that “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.” This aphorism also implies that any aspiration is preferable to no aspiration.
The beauty of the humanities is their fluidity and their lack of a clear “goal” (except amongst certain political activists, who employ academic language and tones to disguise what is effectively ideology). Therefore, to find the virtuous medium in the study of humanities — neither participating in ideological indoctrination, nor merely flopping from notion to notion in the grey mass of academic writings — it is imperative that we each pick a path at the end of which we discover genuine, novel and vitalising information from which the human conversation benefits.
How we should pick this path and which path we pick are questions that demand serious thought. I think ultimately, such choices are some of the most fundamental indications of who we are as people. And like people, every ambition is different. Some ambitions are humble: to finish a reading, or to achieve a certain mark on an essay. Other ambitions are, obviously, ambitious: to become the president, or to float through the International Space Station. Some are wide-ranging: never to be cruel and never to be cowardly; to love thy neighbour as thyself. Others are specific: for Pinocchio, to become a real boy; for me, to finally change someone’s opinion.
Thus, to adopt an ambition isn’t restrictive, in the same vein that trousers with an elastic waistband aren’t restrictive; in wearing them, they take your form, and not vice versa. So try on some new ambitions, and see how they feel! Stick with a pair and see how it changes you, your work, your attitude and your life. To continue the analogy, one wouldn’t go out in public trouserless, hence I can’t understand why one would do so ambitionless either. It’s the worst option of all.
Earlier, I mentioned the steady decline of any distinction among humanities students; as interdisciplinarity is now all the rage, students of English and of comparative literature are finding themselves in a perpetual rapprochement, whilst the philosophers and anthropologists are treading incessantly on each other’s toes. This is no bad thing, but it poses a fascinating question. How can those in the humanities reassert their uniqueness, their character, and the goods that they bring to the table? The answer is by their ambition. We may all pay the same amount for our degrees, but they don’t all provide the same value, it must be said. Some will argue that this disparity is an inherent part of the subject that has been studied, and they can say that if they wish. But I believe that the value of a degree is instead found in the person who holds it and the port for which they are headed, and hence in the ambitions that they nourish in the most intimate depths of their psyche. Be ambitious; unfurl your sails!
Illustration: Sarah Knight