Sunday, 9 January 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

"I sometimes feel indulgent doing what I'm doing". It's not often that I hear my wife expressing an opinion so laden with self-doubt. After all, she is a pretty confident woman who deserves the success she's earned in her chosen field: the performing arts. But her comment came on the back of a discussion we had around the dinner table that touched on her master's degree, the current financial situation and the bleak future that arts and humanities courses face in years to come.

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.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts’, to be published on Wednesday 12th January at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Welcome back, brother. I'm drinking coffee and listening to jazz on WRTI, Temple University's radio station at 5:08 EST. Reading your post, and thinking; the hermeneutic circle...all thought leads to the next question. And I know that when Maria gets up and looks in the refrigerator and sees the spaces, I will be heading to the grocery store to answer her question.

  2. I'm saddened yet again, reading this Cuban, to think of the way in which our arts, our humanities as so often relegated to the corner, the poor relative of the economy, and yet without it, who would we be?

    All power to your wife, a brave woman who needs all the support she can muster. Hers is for the greater good. And in the end hers will triumph.

  3. Resist! Keep pushing that boulder to the top of the mountain and give a loud Dionysian laugh when it falls back down. As Camus says we must imagine Sisyphus happy. That's the universal, now for the specific. Love her. Take her out today and buy her something nice that neither of you need. Make her laugh and be silly like she was when she was seventeen.

  4. When my children first told me about Humanities as a stream of education I wondered what it was. During the time I was in school we only had Science and Arts. Humanities didn't make sense to me. If there was to be Humanities then all subjects should be under it.

    Anyways, when a wife says something to her husband, she is really not looking for a solution. A confirmation that what she is saying is not true is all she needs.

  5. Many thanks for your kind comments. Theodore, I loved all your references. It does feel sometimes like a Sisyphean task, especially for her. I am so proud of what she's doing. Today when she comes back from work (she teaches dance on Sundays to adults), she will be welcomed to a sumptuous lunch made by our - almost- 13-year-old son (where did time go? :-D) and later we'll relax watching a film: 'Blame it on Fidel'.

    Elisabeth, I hope your words become reality. I often think that nobody values the arts and humanities as they should. And yet, where would we be as a civilisation without them?

    I hope you all had a wonderful Sunday.

    Greetings from London.

  6. You are posing a question about wholeness, whether in the body politic or in the body physical and emotional. Wholeness is always a good thing, in my opinion. And as a writer of fiction, one would expect me to uphold sacrosanct the, arguably, intrinsic need to foster the humanities. Here’s another question, though. Is it ever appropriate to temporarily focus on one to the exclusion or at least diminution of the other? Example: if a house is burning, do you focus on the poetic quality of that fire or do you grab your family and belongings and run for your life? Whatever the reason for the current parlous economic circumstances—and yes, greedy bankers were among the culpable but so were greedy consumers—we are faced with an historic set of circumstances necessitating unprecedented and unpalatable measures to enable survival. Are all the decisions being made good ones? Probably not. Is the pain of the remedy being felt uniformly? Again, probably not. Still, I’d like to believe that we are somehow plodding along toward a world in which we are all better off eventually. It is my hope that posts such as this one will keep policymakers honest. But I also hope that a post like this also engages each one of us in an internal dialogue about how one can best be a citizen of a greater whole, be it family, city or nation. I hesitated to post this, expecting this might not be a popular position to take, but it’s one that, in my quest for embracing the wholeness of a question, I have to state.

  7. Realmente las humanidades siempre pierden en los tiempos de "vacas flacas"
    Algo está cambiando en todo el planeta. Yo no sé lo que es, pero intuyo que es un cambio drástico.

    Me ha alegrado leerte de nuevo.


  8. On the contrary, Judith, answers such as yours are amongst the reasons why I blog.

    I wrote a post a few weeks ago about why I thought that certain cuts were necessary (at the time, I mentioned the so-called bonfire of the quangos, which turned out to be quite insignificant as the latest financial figures show). You're right in that the economic problems we faced in 2008 were generated by a combination of greedy bankers and careless consumers. At the same time, the UK is, whether we care to admit it or not, a hotbed of intellectual activity. And I've been lucky to see the benefits of it up close. My wife's course is amongst many others whose future is uncertain, yet its benefits are hard to estimate. Just because we cannot put a mathematical value to a particular course, doesn't mean that it should be scrapped. I would, for instance, vote to end all so-called Mickey Mouse courses, knowing beforehand that I would be criticised. But many higher education courses exist more for their popularity than for their reach. Again, look at the impact.

    As always, I appreaciate your contribution. You might think your view not very popular, but you might be surprised to see how many people share your opinion, including yours truly. Up to a certain point, por supuesto. :-)

    Many thanks to you all for your kind feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  9. Good to read you again and to find you in full flow. As an arts graduate, I bemoan the constant derision of any non science subjects as somehow less than worthy.

  10. It's the same in the States; when educational cuts are in order, the arts take the first and deepest cuts.

  11. Without the humanities I'd starve-soul-starve, and I believe many others would as well.

    Indulgent? Never!

    Warm regards from South Beach

  12. I imagine that your children will grow to appreciate as adults, even more than they do now, the contributions that their parents have made to society.

    I was raised in an art gallery in Nairobi, Kenya, founded by my parents soon after Kenya's independence from British rule. They founded the gallery during a time when their peers were pursuing other 'nation-building' careers, i.e. becoming doctors, engineers, politicians, etc. I deeply appreciate their commitment to preserving indigenous forms of the expression of African art. I need that history, our children need that history.

    Thanks for the glimpse into your wife's important work.

  13. I always wonder why those who do work from the heart are made to feel that they don't contribute to the world. The soul needs food - music, art, dance, poetry, theater. Every culture creates this but our modern culture denigrates the creators - if it can't be seen to make money for some lord high muckey much, then it's extravagant and useless. But they are the ones who are useless, a dead weight on society, taking up more than their share of resources and creating nothing. WE (and your wife and you) are the life givers, the lantern bearers, the ones who bring light into dark times and dark places. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis!

  14. I do understand the prioity that some place on the 'practical' disciplines, which are essentially science-based. It's a bit of a chieck-and-egg thing, simplistically put. The arts will not put a literal roof over our heads, nor feed us. While they contribute - sometimes significantly - to the economy, they are not primary in terms of economic development.

    In a practical, economic sense, the arts do not make the world go round. I'm not saying that they should not have a place, and that it should be a significant one. Funding for cultural and creative endavours is essential and should be made available, but if the financial sistuation is dire enough, these things will lose out. Understandably so. If you had only enough money to provide your child with a warm coat/good meal or dance lessons, but not both, which would you spend your money on?

    This wasn't really the point of your post, Cuban, and I do agree wholeheartedly that the humanities are essential if we are to be a truly well-educated and cultured people. I stressed to my children that their university education should be principally a mind-broadening, educative experience, not wholly a career-making one, but if it is possible to find the right mix of these not-incompatible aims, so much the better.
    Just the other day I heard a young woman say that she would love to major in music at univeristy, but that she'd 'never make a living at it' so was going into commerce. I disagree completely with the view of many about the dim prospects of arts and humanities majors. Music paid my bills quite nicely for many years and would do so again if I so wished. People who majored in the humanities tend to be critical thinkers, have a deeper understanding of how society has evolved, and therefore how it will continue to evolve, and, well, I could go on and on but I'd be preaching to the converted.

    And if our financial systems were more ethical, healthier and fairer, then perhaps we'd find equilbrium again between the demand for hard science and the need for beauty, creative expression and knowledge for its own sake.

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  16. A wonderful post, Cuban; one that makes the reader stop and think what her stance is...

    I grew up in India watching this mindset very clearly: sciences are the only means of making a good living, and arts is clearly for recreation, if even that. Given the economic conditions, and being a parent myself, I now understand this stance stems from self-preservation and life's experiences...

    Having said all that, let me tell you that I have a degree in sciences, but am actively pursuing writing :). If only we didn't have to choose between the two, because like you mentioned, where would civilization be without the long-enduring influence of humanities?

  17. Even as I began reading about your wife feeling indulgent, Cuban, I was thinking that the truly indulgent ones are the few bankers who take money from millions of innocent downtrodden people and award it to themselves. And this too after putting everyone in the poor house. We live in a disgusting world where such people go unpunished for their thievery.

    Art is priceless to our human civilisation. It's through art and literature that we understand ourselves and the world. Your wife is doing a job that's value cannot be quantified.

    I hear you on how the humanities are underfunded and underappreciated. It's truly appalling that these subjects are considered less necessary in the world when in fact they are the only thing that make the realities of our world (where thief bankers get massive bonuses) bearable.


  18. You are spot on in all that you say, both about the value, indeed necessity, of the humanities and on the bleakness of their future, not just in higher education, but in all education and in the wider community. it may be that the future will be less bleak than it now appears. Let's hope so. In the meantime your wife should not be considering herself self indulgent.

  19. Many thanks for your feedback.

    One of the proposed schemes by the government to alleviate the effect of cuts on the humanities and arts is to create a system of philanthropy similar to the one existing in the US. At best this is an easy cop-out, at worst it will create the kind of elitism that New Labour was trying (successfully, most of the time) to eradicate.

    What will the future of the humanities in the country be? I've no idea, but I can't see that it will affect those who are well-off already.

    Thanks for your comments. They're always welcome.

    Greetings from London.

  20. I think it’s wonderful what your wife is doing, especially in this economy where the arts are the first to be cut. The arts are not provided by a free market but they benefit all, they are what we call a public good, and thus needs to be subsidized by the state or charities.

    I’m all for public education, but the benefits need to be made available to all. The British system of selecting university candidates mostly by standard test scores results in an under representation of students of lower socio-economic-status, especially at elite universities. That inequity must be addressed. I don’t think it’s right to give a free ride to children of the wealthy, but scholarship aid is a must for the less privileged.

    I also get your wife’s feelings, having similar pangs of guilt myself as an artist/novelist. I went to college intending to be a wildlife vet or field biologist and then to graduate school to become a professor/activist on environmental policy. Then the arts called. I combined the fields of literary art and science in my novel SAD, which is about the battle of Evolution vs. Intelligent Design/Creationism. It hasn’t sold yet. Market failure or mine?

    Nice music too.

  21. Thanks for your comment, Sarah. We need people like you! :-) No, you're not a failure. Persevere. Maybe I am just under the influence of The Boss's 'The River'. :-)

    Greetings from London.

  22. I think dance is probably the most important subject in the world right now!! Our society needs to dance, and I wish your wife all the best in the beautiful pursuit of her career. I wish for her that the motto, do what you love the money will follow, will come thru. I believe as artists we have to re-invent the figures, and maybe see them as almost `tricks` or illusions put out in all the media to make sure we believe enough in ourselves to keep on expressing. I

    BTW,I`m happy to be here on a Sunday morning (really its afternoon) with a coffee.

    greetings from Japan



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