UK Secretary of State for the Department of Education, made a formidable attempt to cut funding and enrollment to the nation’s humanities programs after the pandemic. He told The Guardian that the hey-day of the humanities was over.
“We need a future [higher education] sector which delivers the skills the country needs”, he said. “Universities should ensure courses are consistently high quality and focus more heavily upon subjects which deliver strong graduate employment outcomes in areas of economic and societal importance, such as STEM.”
Around the world, government and university officials like Williamson are actively working to promote STEM programs and push out humanities curriculums. But that effort may be exposing the potentially warped idea of what some deem to be of ‘societal importance’, overlooking the very subjects that help us make sense of our world, critically reason, and understand the past and future. As a relatively impactful classical literature student (I think his name was Oscar Wilde?) once wrote: “art persists, it timelessly continues”.
I have a naive understanding of the economy, I remember about five of the elements on the periodic table, and my knowledge of basic maths is at best, embarrassing. Yet, day after day I attend my lectures and do my work, grateful to be a humanities student. It is no secret that the arts have been on a steady decline across higher education for the last half century. The programs are continuously underfunded, admissions rates are falling off, and the respect from the almighty STEM student is rapidly disappearing. But the research and interviews I conducted for this article suggest that Wilde’s comment still holds true.
As John Gallagher, an Associate Lecturer in The School of English, notes, there are broad societal forces working against the growth of the humanities programs. “Capitalist, political and social mechanisms are not always the friends of the arts and humanities”, he says.
Over the past 50 years student enrollment across the UK in humanities subjects has fallen from 28 per cent to a measly eight. The decrease in enrollment has evidently coincided with the evolution of STEM departments. Government and administrators in the UK and Scotland, specifically, have acquiesced to the willing neglect of humanities departments nationwide. In Scotland, the funding for such programs is 40 per cent less than that of English schools and universities. The importance of STEM in an age of scientific advancement and exponential technological development is nearly self-evident, but does the advancement of STEM programs need to come at the expense of the humanities?
Julia Prest, a professor of Modern Languages at the university, does not think that it does. “Recent moves on the part of the UK government to prioritise STEM subjects and, more worryingly, actively to penalise Humanities subjects seem dangerous and short-sighted to me”, she says. “Yes, we need more doctors and scientists, but this does not have to be at the expense of arts graduates who also have important contributions to make to our local and global societies”.
I will not attempt to compose a rationale for my decision to study philosophy, for the same reason I leave texts from my parents asking me if I have found any job openings for “philosopher” on read. Luckily for STEM students, the basis of their studies can be rooted in a quest for employability, higher pay checks after graduation, and a desire to remain cosy within the confines of empirical data. They can also relish the relief of not having to attend three lectures a week that attempt to push them to the conclusion that they know nothing (or be haunted by what Descartes so merrily puts as, “inextricable darkness”).
But the notion that those who pursue a degree in STEM are more employable seems, in part, to be false. A Higher Education Policy Institute study on the postgraduate careers of humanities students, which specifically measures student return on investments (ROI) after finishing university, seems to show that while higher paying jobs are initially offered to STEM students, general employability opportunities remain the same across the two disciplines.
The skills learned through a degree in humanities are also far more transferable across different fields, which often-times makes humanities students less susceptible to unemployment through times of economic downturn. Although the Higher Education study found that initial ROI is higher for that of STEM students, the lifetime earnings gap has significantly shrunk between the two alumni. That is a finding that seems to contradict the educational revamp that the likes of Williamson are hoping to push.
The conception that a humanities degree leaves students ineptly prepared for the professional world, nevertheless, persists. That may explain the recent increase in students enrolling in STEM programs in a shift that may pose problems for everyone –– not just for university humanities departments and sceptical philosophy students like me.
The existence of STEM, and its viability in academia, is in a way reliant on the humanities. As the renowned physicist Steven Weingberg has plainly said: “nothing in science can tell us what we ought to value” . The facts and figures imparted by a STEM education would seem to be fruitless without analytical and linguistic skills imparted by humanities.
Humanities students are also still qualified to hold lucrative positions beyond their specific field of study, even in those careers that are, in Williamson’s eyes, not of “societal importance”. Indeed, humanities students are often equally or more qualified than their STEM counterparts to pursue careers in law, public health, the arts, and general entrepreneurship. Believe it or not, my philosophy peers and I do not plan on moving to a cave to speculate on the nature of the world following graduation (as enticing as that sounds).
Of course, once university rolls around, most people feel as though they have satisfied the compulsory aspects of language, history, philosophy, and the like. That is certainly how I felt when it came to maths and sciences. But many seem to agree that a well-rounded education is a transformative experience that imparts values and wisdom upon students –– not simply a stepping stone to a career.
The humanities are not only important in the professional world but in the personal and academic. I wonder if because the merits of a humanities’ education are less quantifiable or empirical than that of a STEM degree they have been taken for granted. But just imagine what a complete neglect of the humanities could cause – a loss of culture, arts, reason, logic, judgement, and understanding of national political and global interests.
James Engall, in his piece published in The Harvard Magazine, echoes why the potential for that loss makes it more important than ever to engage with the humanities. “The arts and humanities are not sufficient for a decent, civilised society. But they are necessary”, he says.
Luckily for Engall, there is budding hope that a renaissance may overcome the dark ages that stalk the humanities. Certain universities in the United States, like the University of California, Berkeley, report a 121 per cent uptick in first year students enrolling in the humanities last year. While this is a very confined case, it does stir up some hope. Maybe it can be explained by young people turning back to the humanities to better understand the major events occurring in their society. It is not hard to see why an American teenager applying to universities during a global pandemic and insurrection on their nation’s capital may be seeking to gain a better understanding of how people ought to be governed and live their lives. So maybe the solution was in front of us this whole time. If the UK wants to restore faith in the humanities they need to throw a bit more gas on the dumpster fire that is British politics, if only to increase enrolment in more humanities subjects.
The St Andrews community may also be more impervious to the general decline than other UK universities. Priest points out that since her arrival in 2009, the School of Modern Languages has undergone an expansion, adding Comparative Literature, Persian, and Chinese Studies. The new addition of these courses indicates a growing emphasis on cultural and linguistics studies in the community – not the beginnings of the scourge that Williamson has advocated for.
To be clear, this article is not a feigned attempt to eulogise the humanities. I am not applying my education in ‘soft subjects’ to rant about the state of a field which is increasingly being cast off as a relic of a bygone era in academia. But my research shines a light on the misconceptions surrounding the humanities. Although they are suffering now, it would seem they are not, and will never be, dead. The balance of STEM and humanities is greatly important. But many agree that the two forces should not be working against each other but in harmony.
Renaissances have saved the intellectual downturn of the dark ages before. Perhaps they will again now. The hey-dey of the humanities, it would seem, may be here to stay.
Illustration: Jordan Anderson