Last September my wife began a very challenging course on dance. Although she'd been a performer for many years and has taught creative dance extensively in primary schools at local and regional level, she'd never had the opportunity to delve deeper into the subject that had brought her so many plaudits in her professional career. Having majored in English at university years ago, she realised that it was hightime she devoted her time to conduct a comprehensive study of an art form that still eludes many people. She was also bolstered by a strong desire to teach dance at secondary school level. Enough reasons, you'd believe, to pursue her goals. Yet, reality has a way of encroaching on people's ambitions, making them doubt decisions that will be, in the longer term, beneficial to society.
The current funding landscape in the UK is confusing, to say the least. At the time of writing (early December) the government has just won the battle to hike up university tuition fees in England to up to nine thousand pounds per year. However with a majority of 323 votes in favour against 302 opposing the measure, you could argue that this is a Pyrrhic victory for Cameron and co.
At the heart of this run-in between students and university staff on one side and government policy-makers on the other one, is the question of who should pay for higher education: the state or the pupil? Yet, there is another, subtler argument that is also worth having, even if it doesn't capture people's imagination as much as the battle over tuition fees has. Are some degrees more important than others? More specifically, do exact and applied sciences bring more benefit to society than humanities and arts?
First, a disclaimer. I'm not being argumentative for the sake of it, nor am I advocating for a schism - alive and kicking as it happens - between sciences and arts/humanities. It'd be counterproductive and downright dumb to belittle the role that physics, engineering and chemistry, for instance, play in a nation's economic development. But it seems to me that whenever the need for a financial rethink about higher education arises the first subjects to be put in the firing line are those that fall squarely within the confines of the humanities and/or social sciences (with the exception of economics, then again, how did we get into this mess if it wasn't lack of acumen into our economic situation?).
I think it's easy to snipe at humanities in times of penury. Whereas with sciences the investment made is almost immediately recouped, in the case of subjects that are more abstract, the payback takes longer. One of the areas with which my wife has dealt in her master's is philosophy within dance, a relationship that is closer than one might think, acoording to her comments. However, if a government economist is expecting my spouse's exposé to this alliance to affect the UK's GDP at once, he or she might be in for an unpleasant surprise. It doesn't work like that. Saying that, though, I should point out that in the last decade the impact of the creative and cultural sector on the UK economy has been very noticeable (£57.3 billion contribution in 2006).
The beauty of the humanities is that they touch on and develop parts of one's brain of which one is not even aware. The effect is holistic, broadly speaking, as opposed to immediate. The transformation is wholesome in that it unites the psychological with the physical. As I told my wife after she made her comment, her contribution to society is as important as the person (or persons) who built our house. My consort works with primary schoolchildren, not only teaching them dance, but also using curriculum hours to instruct them on numeracy and literacy through the medium of dance. That the children she coaches are also evolving into confident, self-assertive beings should not be downplayed either. It's one of the many benefits the arts and humanities have to offer. For example, whether you have studied fine arts, work as a professional painter, or have chosen to join the ranks of amateur painters up and down the country, you've probably noticed the manifold positive effects exposure to drawing or painting have had on you as an individual. Is the government so myopic that it doesn't realise that by pulling the plug on several social sciences and humanities under- and post-graduate courses, it is shooting itself in the foot?
Science works on the basis of two-plus-two-equals-four (albeit with plenty of space for trial and error). Philosophy, for instance, is far from that approach. This is a discipline where the (practical) investigation of the (abstract) principles of being, knowledge and behaviour don't lead to a conclusion, or at least, not a definite one. The arts (both visual and performing) engage the human brain both at an emotional and rational level.
When and where there have been collaboration between sciences and the humanities, the resulting studies have benefited from the former's pragmatic approach and the latter's wide-ranging, creative contributions. The outcomes, as the recent experiment between the University of Edinburgh's Institute for Music in Human and Social Development and the London-based chamber group Nash Ensemble showed, indicate that there's only one winner in this modus operandi: the public.
Indulgence should not be what my other half should be blaming herself for. After all, the same bankers who botched up the economy a couple of years ago, are already salivating at the prospect of laying their dirty hands on yet more bonuses. Contrast that attitude with that of a person who has pledged a year of her life to gaining more knowledge about a subject whose long-term effects reap more social benefits and I ask you, fellow blogger/reader, who is contributing more to our general well-being?
Knowledge of what a hypotenuse is today will probably translate into tomorrow's bridge. In the same way, a student leaping across an empty stage somewhere in the UK right now and the philosophical analysis as to the whys and wherefores of that jump, might just metamorphose into a CEO having second thoughts before wrecking our economy a few years hence.
Next Post: ‘Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts’, to be published on Wednesday 12th January at 11:59pm (GMT)