How Britain abandoned its classical education - by Simon Heffer for the Telegraph - 06.08.22

““We need the humanities because its subjects – history, literature, philosophy and the like – provide us with an essential understanding of what it is to be human: where we have come from, who we are, and what we might become.


Without the humanities, we are not only impoverished as individuals and as a society; we are also infantilised, for like a child we are even unaware of what we lack.”


So says Professor John Adamson, director of the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Buckingham.


In a thoughtful piece for the Telegraph, Simon Heffer puts the case for the Humanities as a central pillar in our education system, arguing that they provide a depth of understanding about the world which extends beyond the empirical data which underpins the STEM subjects.


The debate has become increasingly polarised between STEM subjects on the one hand and the Arts on the other, yet the distinction is a false one argues Heffer:


“It doesn’t need to be either/or, but that has become the nature of the debate as politicians respond to the fear of our being left behind by developing industrial economies, notably China."


The evidence of the change away from the arts to STEM began under Gavin Williamson in 2011 and has gathered pace ever since:


“He proclaimed that an increase in those studying STEM showed students were “starting to pivot away from dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt”. He cut funding for courses such as music and art. Sir Gavin, as he now is, was regarded in higher education as possibly the most ignorant education secretary in living memory, and statements such as this suggest why.


The fall in the numbers studying humanities at university is startling:


“Between 1961/62 and 2019/20, the proportion of UK students studying humanities fell from 28 per cent to 8 per cent. In recent years there has also been an absolute fall in enrolments. The total number of humanities students at UK universities has fallen by around 40,000 in the past decade.”


This decline is merely a reflection of what is happening further down in the schools:


“Since 2016, almost all humanities subjects recorded a fall in A-level entries larger than the decline in the population of 18-year-olds. Some subjects have been hit especially hard: there has been a 28.5 per cent drop in the past decade in history of art – despite its vocational use for those wishing to work in galleries, museums or auction houses. But even more mainstream subjects are suffering: according to UCAS, the universities admissions service, acceptances for English studies, including English literature, fell from 9,480 in 2012 to 6,435 in 2021.”


And here we come to the conflict between education for its own sake and the return-on-investment models that are so often applied to it:


“The onus is on teachers to “monetise” their activities – something far easier if you are at the cutting edge of developing artificial intelligence than if investigating and translating newly-discovered ancient papyri or medieval manuscripts. They are asked to establish financial values for their “outputs” and to justify their existence according to the logic of the markets. In a free society there is much to be said for this logic – but it simply does not, and cannot, apply to teaching in the humanities.”


Gratifyingly, the reality in the workplace is that those with humanities degrees often possess skills which employers most value, not least the ability to manage:


“In 2019 research by LinkedIn found that the three most wanted “soft skills” were creativity, persuasion and collaboration. One of the top five “hard skills” was people management, which an empathetic humanities graduate taught to think for him or herself should find straightforward.


Two senior Microsoft executives recently wrote: “As computers become more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important … [they] can teach critical philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of all solutions.” A 2015 study of 1,700 people from 30 countries found that most in leadership roles had a social sciences or humanities degree.”


In summary, concludes the author


“A good humanities degree, rigorously taught according to a syllabus of breadth and depth, is an excellent training for life. Such graduates bring enormous talents to society in terms of their creativity, intelligence and ability to think.”


The full article can be read below with a link to the original here:


Article for the Telegraph by Simon Heffer - How Britain abandoned its classical education
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