Friday 17 June 2011

In the academy and beyond

The too-tempered humanities and the NCH controversy

The New College of the Humanities (NCH) has attracted critical fire from a number of directions over the past week or so. For many, following the general line of argument laid out by leftist critic Terry Eagleton in the Guardian, the real problem lies with the fact the venture is backed by ‘private’ money – large investments from well-endowed individuals – aims to charge students an annual £18k, and thus represents a departure from a ‘public’ education system funded through taxation, a key element of the post-war welfare state consolidated through the progressivism of the 1960s.

At best, then, the NCH is seen as damaging the public sector ethos, while barring the poorest from the opportunity of receiving the best in university education. As such, it’s seen as signalling a return to a 1950s-style elitism. At worst, the NCH is seen as leading a trend towards ‘privatisation’ in higher education, akin to what so many remember as others fighting against – and significantly losing - in the 1980s. The issue therefore touches a number of nerves peculiar to British politics.

Yet a palpable reluctance to look clearly at present realities rather than cherished ideas, and the resultant confusion over public and private, is not peculiar to higher education: it permeates contemporary life and responses to it. In particular, what the charge of ‘privatisation’ misses is that universities already function nothing like even the reality of the nominally autonomous public institutions of yore, but more like clipped and commercial businesses, while state management of them is far from benign. So of course, today’s publicly-funded universities aren’t private in the traditional sense, but neither are they public in that way either; they are rather some sort of hybrid, an amalgam, and seemingly the worst of both worlds.

Shorn of any broader meaning or coherence in the world, ‘public’ and ‘private’ become terms denoting something purely technical to do with funding – yes, they mean something, but they speak little of any broader affiliations with particular or divergent ideologies, political orientations or methods for assigning moral value. In truth, what both nominal ‘public’ and ‘private’ educational institutions lack is any more genuine inspiration for a thriving and rigorous approach to teaching the humanities, or the sort of graduates such courses should shape and seek to create. They also display a particular dearth of public spiritedness.

It is on this note that with the furore over fees, some of the more interesting aspects of the NCH have got lost. For one, few seem to acknowledge that its most prominent founder and defender – AC Grayling – is a well-established academic philosopher first, and so-called ‘media don’ second. Likewise, Simon Blackburn, who currently teaches at the faculty at Cambridge, is well respected by peers in his field. Both men are well into their careers, and have spent the best part of their lives teaching, researching and philosophising – not something done to bring in the bucks. And yet, few seem to have wanted to consider that either of these two figures, and Grayling in particular, have actually thought about what they’re doing, made any particular judgment about it or considered the possible consequences. Still worse, the idea that either might actually and sincerely think it’s right to ‘jump ship’ and sail out on their own seems almost impossible to their detractors.

Yet for a long time, AC Grayling has defended the Enlightenment spirit that animated the men of the French Revolution, located himself quite firmly as a ‘secular humanist’ and proceeded to engage in particular with issues of morality, rationality and the flourishing of the individual in society. He obviously cares about public life, and has made more effort than most meaningfully to bridge the seeming chasm between academic philosophy and the broader public, without being patronising or self-obsessed. How far he has been successful is a matter of opinion, along with the question of whether you adopt his wider approach or find it wanting. But his new move is very consistent with his ideas.

Yet rather than engaging with these ideas, it seems to have become the done thing to dismiss them – and increasingly, him - entirely out of hand. What this knee-jerk response often reveals is the absence of any broader understanding of the humanities. It misses the fact that it’s precisely a humanistic spirit of critical independence that has led a philosopher of all people to see some value in backing the NCH, and as a philosophy graduate that makes me rather proud. The more pressing problem on this metric, however, is that the NCH doesn’t seem nearly as critical, independent or its own beast enough. It should do more to rethink and reshape humanities courses, and shake free of the straitjacket that confines even the best that are around already.

And because of this issue, there has been little focus on the better points Grayling has made. In particular, and despite seeming to defend the humanities on the grounds that they staff the ‘service economy’, Grayling rightly pointed out in a BBC Radio 3 Night Waves discussion with Eagleton that humanities subjects have become increasingly over-specialised in recent years. Like many academic degrees, humanities subjects such as philosophy, history, literature and classics have become somewhat narrowed. Few if any universities offer a more well-rounded education in the humanities, or particularly concern themselves with the better flourishing of the independent mind – or soul – with a wider conversance with classical authors alongside Romantic poets and the writings of Renaissance humanists alongside an appreciation of geometry, Latin, ethics and so on and so forth. And as Eagleton himself began to point out on the same programme, the humanities have a chequered history and are no neutral or straightforward field.

Today, however, it is perfectly possible, for example, to receive an undergraduate education in philosophy without any appreciation whatsoever of history. That’s Kant without the French Revolution and Hume outside of the Scottish Enlightenment, Plato shorn of the world in which he lived and breathed. This is a severe loss to an appreciation of these men and the ideas they developed. Likewise, it is normal to study particularly esoteric areas at undergraduate level, which take precedence over fostering an appreciation of the historical sweep of ideas from the classical world onwards. Laid out across the various subjects, this sounds the death knell of the humanities, and reflects a genuine limpness in historical thinking, which impedes the articulation of a more rooted approach to humanities teaching.

The causes of this state of affairs are many and complex. One less remarked is the demise of vibrant intellectual culture on campuses. But it is not through lack of either knowledge or understanding of the humanities, history or culture that universities have become distanced from a full-blooded project for the humanities. The great irony is that all these things are there – that many lecturers no doubt know all about them – but that this does not seem to translate into decent, generous humanities courses. Neither will this state of affairs be solved by simply splicing ‘critical thinking’ or ‘practical ethics’ courses onto the standard subjects, such as attempted by the NCH - but it should be added this is at least a nod in the right direction.

The truth is that the crisis in the humanities is as deep as it is profound. The NCH was never going to solve all that. But it is right and good to defend a more open-ended approach in higher education, regardless of the funding source, while still mustering the strength to be critical of individual experiments when they fall short of the mark. After all, it is only through going out and doing the things we think about in the world – actually trying them out and seeing if and how they work – that we get the experience to do better next time. Of course, ‘good’ experiments are better than ‘bad’ ones, and it is right to point out that the NCH reproduces many of the problems that already stifle the humanities in already-existing institutions. The more useful response would be to engage with those things that do make sense, such as the drive for a more filled-out and coherent approach to the humanities, and challenge ourselves with those more difficult questions.

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