A collection of seven-minute talks, in which eminent researchers from the arts and humanities explain both why their subjects matter, and how their future is threatened by current higher education reforms, is being released online.

The short presentations were originally given at a conference, “The Arts and Humanities: Endangered Species?” at the University of Cambridge on 25 February. From today, each talk is being released via the University’s YouTube Channel, enabling web users to find out for themselves exactly what was said.

View the presentations

Ten academics from five different English universities, representing subjects including English, history, philosophy, anthropology, theatre studies and modern languages, were invited to speak at the event, which was hosted by Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH).

Each was allocated seven minutes to talk about why the arts and humanities matter and the cultural and social benefits that research and teaching in these fields at British universities bring.

Under the current higher education reforms, teaching budgets across the arts and humanities will be cut and, in many cases, are likely to be compensated for using student fees. Funding for research may also be reduced in real terms. The event at CRASSH was set up to examine the impact that this may have.

Many of the speakers stressed the need to focus on more than the measurable economic benefits of the arts and humanities when making the case for their continued support. They stressed these disciplines’ contribution to self-knowledge, the ability and freedom to question the world around us, and the fact that modern-day values and policy-making often only exist thanks to decades of painstaking research.

Others focused more on the potential dangers of altering the present model of funding for the arts and humanities. The talks variously warn that they might become the preserve of a privileged few, that women’s access to higher education may suffer, and that there is a need for more concerted academic action, both within universities and between them, to protect the future of these subjects.

Below are a few highlights from each of the presentations. The talks can also be viewed in full, along with two summarising presentations given by Professor Mary Jacobus and Professor Georgina Born, at www.youtube.com/cambridgeuniversity, where a playlist dedicated to the conference has been set up.

Selected quotations from the talks:

Peter de Bolla (Professor of Cultural History and Aesthetics, University of Cambridge):

"The sciences can easily be shown to lead to improving our human predicament in all manner of ways. It is abundantly clear, for example, that human well-being and health are directly connected to advances in medical science. But perhaps it is less often remarked that such human well-being also depends on the narratives of the good life, of sociality, and responsibility for our actions and words, that are found in fictions, philosophies, histories and paintings. Even more importantly, a certain freedom for exploring and experimenting with imagined alternatives to the narratives we inherit is a central feature of what in general we think of as the humanities."

Fenella Cannell (Reader in Social Anthropology, London School of Economics):

"One might wish to argue that government had fundamentally misunderstood in what sense academic life has a duty to the public, as certainly it has. That duty is surely not to pursue the policies of this or any other administration through research, but to attempt understand the truth of the subjects of its research, and to communicate that truth as best one can. Without such process, every comparative perspective on the present order of thinking which comes from the humanities or the social sciences, will be truncated and every act of imagination from which future perspectives may emerge, will become impossible."

Stefan Collini (Professor of English Literature and Intellectual History, University of Cambridge):

"Work in the humanities cannot, despite the pressure of bureaucratic categories, be reduced either to the exercise of skills or the discovery of new findings… Just as we should not let what we do be redescribed as a bizarrely roundabout way of increasing the GDP, so we should not let it be described in terms drawn from an industrial model of research… The kinds of understanding and judgement exercised in the humanities are of a piece with the kinds of understanding and judgement involved in living a life. That, in the end, is why they interest us and seem worth doing. Perhaps we, then, need to acknowledge that any subsequent attempts at justification must start from, and build on, that recognition."

Martin Crowley (Reader in Modern French Thought and Culture, University of Cambridge):

"The relation between the humanities and our wellbeing is not to be tacked on at the end of a list of potential social contributions after all conceivable material gain. Nor is it something that concerns only the personal growth of individuals, offered to them as a tradeable good. We make meaning. We exist in our exposure to the movement of meanings. As such, if we want to flourish, both individually and collectively, it’s in our interests that as many of us as possible should be involved in arguing about and celebrating that movement; not to cash it in later, but because the more intensively we are involved in these practices, the better off we are. Better off, that is, in the absolute sense."

Richard Drayton (Professor of Imperial History, King’s College London)

"My own discipline, history, will continue to prosper, for it is valued by the rich and understood by those 18-year-old, perfectly informed consumers of Lord Browne’s imagination. Newer and more experimental approaches to the human experience with small student numbers will shrink or be cut by philistine administrators…. While in theory academic freedom to teach and to learn will survive, scholars will come under visible and invisible pressure to work for the pirate class, or at least to perform for their entertainment, and so academics can sometimes become a kind of intellectual lapdancer, gyrating to excite the attention of the rich and to provoke small tips."

Raymond Geuss (Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge):

"If we do not have a publicly funded and institutionally distinct realm for what I am calling humanistic discussion, we can easily end up in a situation in which the ‘need to know’ of Rupert Murdoch and the US Department of Defense, and also their need to impose ignorance and cognitive and moral conformity on others will be even more seriously in danger of skewing our discussion than it does now. This, I submit, will have disadvantages for us that are too numerous to mention. However, in addition, many of us will not at all like the kinds of people who we and our successors will have become."

Jen Harvie (Professor of Contemporary Theatre and Performance, Queen Mary University of London):

"Theatre and performance practices’ and studies’ values are manifold. They produce social change, they provide pleasure, they facilitate inter and cross-disciplinary understanding as well as cultural understanding and practice in numerous ways and they develop crucial life skills, especially in care, creativity and criticality… Education should have the instrumental aim of developing critical, creative and caring understanding of the human, the world, the self, and what things will make a valuable life - not just an economically rewarding career."

Professor Michael Kenny (University of Sheffield)

"In order to understand the key assumptions of the Browne review and the government's legislation, we need to consider the emergence of new ideas about the un
derlying rationale for Universities which became central from the 1960s. These focused upon these institutions' contribution to economic growth, their role in relation to social mobility and the contention that they should reflect the imperatives and logic of the market. As these ideas advanced, older notions about 'the idea' of the University gave way, in policy and political circles, with surprising rapidity."

Julia Swindells (Professor of English, Anglia Ruskin University)

"The future social and political opportunities of girls and women have often rested on access to the study of arts and humanities. This isn’t to create a division with science, far from it. Despite some efforts to encourage girls and women to apply to study STEM subjects more, these disciplinary zones have often tended to operate more exclusionary processes, not always engaging rigorously with questions of system, infrastructure, and existing cultures. If the arts and humanities is an endangered species, so is the future of girls’ and women’s education in this country."

Simon Szreter (Professor of History and Public Policy, University of Cambridge):

"Painstaking new research conducted over 30 years has given us a much better understanding of the population dynamics of this country between 1540 and 1870 than any other country in the world. We now understand that an awful lot of what we thought of as the consequence of the Industrial Revolution is the other way round… Most importantly, something that was viewed as the great luxury that you get at the end of the process of economic growth, the welfare state, we now realise was there 200 years before the industrial revolution; the poor law operating in every parish keeping the English population uniquely free from famine. Development experts are now working on ideas of social protection for the poor in Africa because they have begun to realise that these institutions are not the product of economic growth – but could well be the source of it."

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