By Niamh Cullen
I think most humanities students are asked at least once – and realistically, probably a lot more than that – why they chose to do an ‘arts’ degree. After all, what does history, English, Spanish or film studies actually qualify you for? I’d say most students probably wonder it themselves at some point. I know I certainly have. Now more than ever though, the value of the humanities is being called into question. In our current recessionary climate – to repeat the stock phrase – we are being encouraged to examine the value of everything that public money is being spent on, and because the value of humanities scholarship isn’t tangible, easy to quantify or to translate into a direct economic return, we are having a hard time justifying what we do.
In the last few weeks in particular, there have been much more direct challenges both to our academic integrity as researchers and to our value as university teachers. Brian Mooney, writing in the Irish Times on March 22, addressed the concern that more and more Leaving Certificate students were turning away from traditional humanities degrees and looking at more vocational options; swayed by a recession-obsessed culture and perhaps parental pressures to consider courses that will ‘get them a job at the end of it’.
Last weekend an academic furore erupted in the UK after it emerged that continued funding for humanities research was only granted to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) on condition that all future research projects addressed the theme of the ‘Big Society’, funding research into active citizenship and civil society.
Humanities scholarship – both research and teaching – is clearly under great threat and more than ever needs to justify its contribution to society, both to students who are deciding what to study at third level and those who hold the public purse strings. While the UK government’s diktat that academic research should be channelled towards the justification of what is essentially a party political slogan is both dangerous and reprehensible, I do think that the controversy highlights a very real need to communicate the benefits of what we do and explain the ongoing contribution of humanities teaching and research to civil society. Perhaps we should even treat the current scepticism about the value of the humanities as an opportunity to reconsider what it is we actually do contribute to society and how we can better communicate that to a wider public. Unfortunately the evidence shows that we do seem to be failing at that. This is a dauntingly huge task, and I’m going to approach it primarily from my own experience as a historian, and hope that what follows will be just the beginning of a broader debate.
The question of what history we teach and how we teach it is one that was recently addressed at length by Richard Evans in the London Review of Books. The current UK government is planning to overhaul the history syllabus at secondary school level, putting the emphasis back onto narrative and national history, at a time when we as historians are moving more and more towards a transnational understanding of history which addresses the past in all its complexities. I know the curriculum has since changed, but the history that I learned right up to Leaving Certificate level was certainly a fairly narrow, national and Euro-centric one, with a distinct emphasis on ‘national’ struggles and heroes. Why should students study history at university level, and have to come to terms with a much more complex, multifaceted vision of the past, and one where the ‘national’ is a much more fragile concept that they might previously believed? Teaching students the divisions, fragmentations and complications that lie behind the easy narrative of history will teach them that there is always more than one point of view, that there is rarely an easy answer to any question or one true version of ‘what happened’, or indeed what is happening.
In recent decades the increasing turn towards social and cultural history and the history of everyday life among academic historians is revealing the rich multiplicity of experiences of the past. While a good television documentary or popular history book might well address some of these issues, raising questions about previous interpretations of the past and narrating history ‘from below’ as well as from the traditional perspective of high politics, it is only really when studying history at university level, with historians who are grappling with these questions in their own research every day, that students can really get a sense of the discipline. Very often students are introduced to primary historical documents and given the chance to interpret and discuss them themselves, thus forming their own opinions and asking their own questions; coming face to face with the messy, tangled underside of history rather than the simple, clean narrative we are often presented with outside the academy.
As citizens of a young nation whose sense of national pride has arguably never quite matched up to the achievements of our nation, perhaps we should use the current crisis as an opportunity to revisit our past, and to question how some of the divisions, structures and assumptions we live with today came into being. As well as studying how things came to be the way they are, we can also explore how and why they might have turned out differently. History can open us up to new imaginative possibilities as much as it teaches us to be sceptical about received truths. Studying the vastly different ways in which experiences, attitudes and world-views of people in the past – whether the diplomat, maid, peasant or migrant; the nationalist, trade-unionist or political apathetic – can also prompt historians and students alike to empathise and to seek to understand vastly differing world views to our own; surely a crucial asset in a modern, global society.
None of these are tangible skills that relate directly to the ‘smart economy’; they won’t in themselves help students to get jobs at the end of their studies, and there is no possibility of commercialising or patenting them. Neither will they, in themselves, make ‘active citizens’ as David Cameron hopes the humanities will do in the UK. They will however make more reflective citizens; more thoughtful, imaginative and conscientious ones. These surely are the kinds of qualities that Ireland needs its graduates to have in the coming years and decades, and they are the attributes that make for a vibrant and conscientious civil society. Since these graduates are Ireland’s future workers and tax payers as well as citizens, they will very likely have an economic impact too, although there is no real way that this can be measured. However, just because these benefits are intangible, doesn’t mean they aren’t there.