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25 October 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 4:05am

Where next for our universities?

Join NS contributors at the opening debate of the Inside Out Festival.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

In this week’s New Statesman, A C Grayling, writer, broadcaster and professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, assesses the threat posed by public spending cuts and Lord Browne’s recent report on higher education to the study of the humanities in this country. But to understand that threat properly, Grayling argues, we need first to have clear sense of what universities in general, and the humanities in particular, are actually for:

Universities are hybrid entities that, since the adoption of the Humboldtian model of combined teaching-and-research institutions, have served a number of different purposes, many of them extremely important. But at least two kinds of confusion have got in the way of a clear grasp of some of those purposes. One is the mistake of trying to model the academic life of the humanities on that of the sciences. The other is a distorted view of what society stands to gain from advanced study.

The first confusion is one that practitioners in the humanities themselves have been guilty of. Grayling thinks many philosophers and literary theorists (he exempts historians from his strictures) have been suffering from a severe case of physics envy:

Most of what is published [by philosophers and literary theoreists] is inconsequential trivia: jargon-laden, narrow and speaking to a handful of other specialists. The problem is not that it is remote from practical utility – that is not an argument against it – but that it has scarcely any impact on enlarging and enriching the public mind and, too often, scarcely any more impact on the minds of students (save for the relatively few with scholarly or intellectual instincts). In the humanities, it is not the research published in journals but the teaching and learning of the subjects at an advanced level that are the truly valuable enterprise.

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The second problem, in Grayling’s view, is that the value of that teaching and learning isn’t properly understood – either by university adminstrators or politicians (Peter Mandelson’s sublimely utilitarian vision of higher education being a case in point):

Society certainly needs engineers, physicists, doctors, computer specialists, biochemists and geologists. But it also needs its lawyers, journalists, politicians, civil servants, writers, artists and teachers – and it needs everyone on both sides of the science-humanities divide to be a thoughtful voter, good neighbour, loving parent, responsible citizen. In short, society needs to have a civilised conversation with itself about its values and about what is to be learned from the experience of mankind. Informed
and reflective minds, educated by contact with the great traditions of thought and literature in civilisation, are a priceless asset: and this is what the humanities are about. To diminish this aspect of our social self-education is to do ourselves a great injury.

Grayling will be developing this argument in tonight’s opening debate of the Inside Out Festival, “Should the University Survive in Its Current Form?“, tickets for which ccan be bought at the door at Senate House in central London. The debate, which will be chaired by NS contributor Anne McElvoy and will include a contribution from David Willetts, Minister of State for the Universities and Science, begins at 7.30pm.