The assault on the humanities

Philosophy at Middlesex University under threat.

This week the Dean of the School of Arts and Education at Middlesex University announced, point blank, that the University is to close all of its philosophy programmes. In an email sent to staff, the reason given was "simply financial". The decision -- described by one academic blogger as "venal idiocy" -- has generated a growing online campaign, as did earlier efforts to cut into the intellectual fabric of UK universities at Kings College London and at Liverpool.

Given that this election campaign has been notable for a dearth of meaningful ideas, the timing of these latest cuts is as ironic as the act itself is cynical. British universities and our world-renowned arts and humanities departments in particular, are fundamental to a vibrant polity and society, and to the quality of debate within them. And yet they are increasingly under threat.

The philosophy department at Middlesex is a case in point. This is one of the leading lights of continental philosophy in this country, with an international reputation for furthering our understanding of the classics of European thought -- be it Kant or Hegel, Sartre or Badiou -- alongside a concern to re-appraise those works in light of present day political and ethical dilemmas.

It is, moreover, the highest Research Assessment Exercise-rated subject at Middlesex. Which means that even by the increasingly ridiculous standards used to measure and to monitor academic work in this country, the department is about as "relevant" as you could want philosophy to be. And as a former polytechnic that was holding its own alongside the Russell group of top twenty universities, one wonders quite what else such a department might have been expected to do.

There are some, of course, who think that academic departments ought primarily to be income-generating cash cows. I see no reason why this should be the case. But even so, Middlesex's philosophy department could hardly be said to have been slacking: of late, it appears to have been handing over more than half its own income, generated through teaching and research activity, to the university. Perhaps this is why the university's website trumpets the department's "lively and active research culture, with staff producing important and groundbreaking research, much of which features in the undergraduate course".

Was this just doublespeak? If Middlesex University really stands by what it says on their website, then they have no business closing such a department at all. They are strongly advised to reconsider.

As they do so, the rest of us have something to think about too: is such narrow-mindedness what the future holds for academic life in this country?

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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia