June 8, 2016
So says the Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University in Belfast, in response to how they are managing budget cuts by amalgamating courses such as anthropology and sociology into wider subjects of study, so that instead of 21-year-olds passionate about their specialism, we have instead:
Now, I’m not saying that supporting 21-year-olds to understand the job market and how they can take their place within it is a bad thing. I could have probably done with some of that.
But what I am saying is that when you have the head of a university basically denigrating the joy and wonder that humanities research can offer an undergraduate student, encouraging them to take on post-grad study, potentially becoming a world specialist in their field and inspiring others behind them – well, something has gone very, very wrong in the way we think about the value of education and specifically university education.
This is a subject close to my BA Hons heart. I studied English Literature – a degree that does not really give you any marketable skills or an understanding of the ‘tenets in leadership.’ At. All.
What it gave me was joy.
For me, university was a space where I could discover. I spent three years reading fairly-but-not-very obscure modernist women writers – Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, Katherine Mansfield… as well as the women writers on my courses, such as Woolf and Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot. At UCL, where I studied, English Literature students had one-to-one tutorial sessions and I was lucky enough that in the second and final year mine were feminists who encouraged me to scooter off syllabus and read as much about Djuna Barnes as I wanted.
Today, confused guests arrive at my flat and look at my anthology of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, a relic from the time when I wandered off on to a study project about the spectacle of lesbianism in 20th century literature. My special subject essay was on Plath, who I loved then and love more now. And although I had a mild panic when I got to my exams and realised I probably should have read the Yeats and Hemingway set texts instead of just Virginia Woolf and a whole load of off-syllabus women, I’ll never regret that university was, for me, a space where I discovered the women writers I’d always longed for – women writing about female experience, sorrow, joy, bodies… And today I’m still writing about them and reading them and being inspired by them.
I didn’t learn about the tenets of leadership. What university provided for me was three years of intense joy in a subject I love; an opportunity to learn about culture and history and feminism; three years in which to immerse myself in books and reading and thinking. I might never have secured funding for all my postgraduate study dreams of Jean Rhys. But those years reading and writing and discovering still serve me today – writing my book about modernist Parisian women, setting up the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, and generally banging on wherever I can about feminism and women’s liberation.
As my friend at university said to me, many, many years ago: ‘why study physics to be an investment banker? Surely study it because you love it?’
What happens when we decide that arts and humanities within universities are no longer valuable? What happens when we tell people that studying 6th century history is no longer valuable – that becoming a specialist in something obscure yet fascinating is no longer a way to contribute to society?
The views expressed in that interview reflect a wider capitalist and Conservative approach to what we as a society value. And currently, our thinking is that value = making money.
It’s true that it’s unlikely the UK can make much money from studying 6th century history, or that a PhD thesis on Jean Rhys’ use of clothes and make-up to construct identity is going to add much to the Bank of England’s coffers. (let it go, Sian. No one wants that PhD written!)
But why should that be how we measure value?
Surely studying 6th century history can illuminate things about the human condition and the evolution of society that we can learn from today? Surely exploring the intricacies of history and literature and art and language can tell us how we have developed as people, as groups, how we told our stories then and tell our stories now?
The obscure doesn’t have to be meaningless. The specialist doesn’t have to be an island.
We’re living in dark times. To me, we need the spirit of creativity and discovery more than ever. Artists, writers, makers and readers can help us unravel the ugly period we’re living through – can help us to construct meaning, reflect on what’s happening, create a new story, a new narrative. The arts and humanities can change the way we think about things; creative work can change the world!
I don’t want young people coming out of university to be perfect little capitalist automatons, conforming to what we think society values right now. University is a time to push your boundaries, to think creatively, to discover the unknown and the specialised and be excited by knowledge. I want 21-year-olds to come out of university fired up by the secrets of 6th century history, not humbly trading in today’s political currency. Education should be about questioning the status quo, not conforming to it.
Britain bangs on a lot about its creative heritage. Right now we’re living through 400 years of Shakespeare, 200 years of the Brontes. James Bond was a big hit again, everyone swooned at Hiddleston in the Night Manager and Hilary Mantel is the best selling Booker winner of all time.
And yet… funding for the UK Film Council is gone. Schools are cutting their creative writing A-level courses because there’s no money. Theatre groups struggle to get funding, publishing is taking fewer risks and acting is dominated by public school educated men and women who have access to theatrical facilities on site as well as family financial support.
If we start treating universities as businesses, if we start denigrating the arts and humanities as having little value, if we start squashing creativity and dismissing exploratory creative thinking, then what will our future as a creative society hold?
If we start acting that creative work has little value, then who will be the Shakespeare, Mantel, or Jean Rhys of the future?