Finishing schools for gilded youth?

Arts and humanities after the Browne review.

It is hard to escape the worry that the arts, humanities and, almost certainly, many of the social sciences face a bleaker future in British higher education if Lord Browne's report – "Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education in England" – is implemented. Browne isn't explicit about this but, on page 25 of the report, we find a chilling sentence:

In our proposals, there will be scope for government to withdraw public investment through Hefce [the Higher Education Funding Council for England] from many courses to contribute to wider reductions in public spending; there will remain a vital role for public investment to support priority courses and the wider benefits they create.

The priority courses are listed as medicine, science and engineering. The arts, humanities and social sciences are on their own and will have to support themselves from student-fee income, research grants and so-called "QR funding" – allocated by government on the basis of past research performance.

Insofar as there is public support for higher education in Britain, it is overwhelmingly for teaching. That is the perception of what we do, as many an irritated academic knows from the assumption of friends and relatives that we are "free" for the entire summer. So it is unlikely that government support, once withdrawn from teaching, will continue to back research. We in the humanities may soon depend almost entirely for our living on the number of students prepared to pay full-cost fees of £6,000 or maybe more.

I did some sums on the assumption that my institution (a Russell Group member) would charge at the top end of the scale and that about a third of the income would be available to pay academic staff wages. It looks like we (philosophy) would be OK. But things get much worse if you are at an institution that isn't able to fill its places while charging the maximum or if you work in a subject – one of the performance-based disciplines, say – where there are significant equipment costs.

Even those of us who do survive (and I'm not feeling complacent) are likely to find that the ecology of our subjects will change if students from working-class backgrounds are priced out of degree courses at the most expensive universities and the surviving, cheaper institutions no longer put the humanities on the menu (witness the recent axing of philosophy at Middlesex). Will the remaining humanities departments increasingly function as finishing schools for the gilded youth? Will there continue to be strong demand for courses on distributive justice from our residual well-heeled students? Or will they prefer more aesthetics instead? No doubt there will be bursaries and scholarships to compensate but one worries that these will make more of a cosmetic than a material difference.

On the other hand, I have the sense that some of my colleagues will be somewhat relieved by Lord Browne's report. This is understandable. In the current climate, many academics fear for their jobs and the gradual erosion of state support has been tipping many university managements into cuts, hiring freezes and the threat of compulsory redundancies. There's also a widespread feeling that the status quo involves an unwarranted subsidy to the already advantaged children of the wealthy at a time when the most disadvantaged in society are facing really tough prospects.

On top of this, there is resentment at the Liberal Democrats, whose pledge on tuition fees was little more than an opportunistic pander to a sense of middle-class entitlement (their coming volte-face will, at least, be consistent in its sacrifice of principle to advantage). Not surprisingly, many think that if higher education (at least the elite part of it) is put on a more secure financial basis, we'll be free to concentrate on the things we do best: scholarship, research and teaching. Let politicians worry about social justice.

The assumptions behind Lord Browne's selection of "priority subjects" are, to say the least, open to question. He sees science, engineering and "strategically important" languages as being the residual subjects worthy of taxpayer support. (Presumably, "strategically important language" is code for Chinese or Arabic.) The claim is that, in difficult times, "we" should fund those areas of study important for economic growth: "we" need to produce more physicists, chemists and engineers than our rivals and fewer philosophers, sociologists and historians.

One imagines that Lord Browne, as a senior business executive, would be appalled if the government started "picking winners" in a reversion to old-style industrial policy but, when it comes to education, he's not content to leave it to the market for fear that the consumer might sign up for media studies. The "strategic importance" notion would have more credibility if the current crop of graduates in the Stem subjects were actually finding jobs as production-boosting scientists. But often that doesn't seem to be so. As it is, in recent years, many young physicists and mathematicians – perhaps despairing of employment in the UK's industrial sector – seem to have ended up in the City, where they devised ever more complex financial instruments whose social and economic ramifications they didn't understand and whose consequences we are all having to live with. So much for strategic contribution to growth!

By and large, the response of the humanities to the government's emphasis on relevance, transferable skills and providing what employers need (or think they need) has been a rather desperate and demeaning attempt to show that we also contribute to the global competitiveness of "UK plc" (or whatever ugly term might be in vogue this week). Well, of course we do do our bit and it isn't hard to show that arts graduates can also shine in business and the professions, script clever adverts and make acclaimed cartoons.

Still, none of us really believes that the value of the arts and humanities lies most centrally in their economic usefulness. We can put other instrumental arguments, too, of course, about citizenship, participation and the value to society of critical reflection (not that the coalition government wants much of that at the moment).

But the value of the arts and humanities isn't confined to just one or two dimensions, economic or political. Rather, the study of history, philosophy, music or poetry provides students with an enrichment of experience, a sense of who they are and what the possibilities might be for them as human beings.

Naturally, the humanities aren't unique in this. Science and mathematics, too, are challenging and liberating. Different things interest different people but the study of any subject at a higher level ought to give people both an enhanced sense of their own powers and a glimpse of dimensions of value and achievement other than enhanced consumption.

What people learn at university might not fit them for the modern world and might not make them compliant employees of some corporation. "Aspiration" is a popular word among politicians but perhaps they don't want to awaken too much of it in the sons and daughters of ordinary people.

Chris Bertram is professor of social and political philosophy at Bristol University. He blogs at Crooked Timber.

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.