“So,” said the East Asia director of the multinational commodities giant. “What is your degree actually good for?”
I blinked. That’s a really, really good question. I had spent four years reading Latin, Greek and Classical Arabic. If he had asked me about causation in the Oresteia or the structure of Qur’anic suras, I would have been all over him.
But here was the million-dollar question. Imagine 100,000 bottles of Smirnoff Ice sat there in a warehouse, smouldering with that weird inner light they have, like alien birthing tanks.
Somewhere out there is an emerging middle class tens of times the size of Britain. Nightclubs everywhere from Phnom Penh to the Ginza are packed with people who have only just discovered credit cards (and, in many cases, alcohol). But how are you going to persuade them to buy Smirnoff instead of WKD?
These are the kind of problems that matter in the 21st century. Here’s another one, framed by the new Provost of Worcester College, Oxford. He went to ten Oxford professors of the humanities and asked them this:
Imagine a civil servant responsible for the distribution of the research budget. Imagine them saying: ‘I don’t lose any sleep at night over the spending of taxpayers’ money on medical research, but I do lose sleep over the spending of it on humanities research; I like riding my horse, but I don’t expect the taxpayer to pay for me to do so.’ Imagine, then, that you have the ear of that civil servant. What will you say?
Luckily for the academics, their answers were printed anonymously. I say luckily, because they were almost uniformly crap. Here are a few of them, chosen at random:
Without British humanities academics, there would be no Oxford English Dictionary, no Macmillan Dictionary of Art, no Grove Dictionary of Music, not Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, no Oxford Classical Texts, all of which are sold on to the world. We abandon this at our peril.
There’s that telltale phrase “at our peril”, which usually means it’s probably quite safe to do whatever the writer is warning against. I don’t have the exact statistics for sales receipts from the Oxford Classical Texts library, but I wouldn’t imagine they’re in the UK’s top 10 exports. Or the top 10,000, for that matter. If he’s making an economic argument, it’s a poor one. If it’s a cultural argument, then how many heads of state or chief executives make regular recourse to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy when Wikipedia is so comprehensive and, er, free?
Let’s try another one:
Your analogy with horse riding is fallacious since it implies that humanities research is recreational. However, the slightest acquaintance with the history of ideas supplies numerous examples of curiosity driven enquiry in the humanities having great social consequences. For example, Bertrand Russell’s philosophical investigations into logic and language paved the way for the artificial languages essential to computer science.
Face it: the civil servant has switched off by the time he gets to “fallacious”. He probably thinks there’s something a bit dirty about the word. Even the example the academic gives is no good: Bertrand Russell was born into an aristocratic family of massive means (thanks Wikipedia), and would have had the leisure to snooze his way through an unlimited number of philosophy books regardless of state funding. Computer language would probably have developed out of the higher realms of mathematics in any case: David Hilbert’s thesis on the Entscheidungsproblem did far more for programming than Russell’s work on logic.
There was only one really good answer to Bate’s question, and it was put with the directness and wit of a newspaper leader:
If you believe knowledge is too expensive, try ignorance.
There is a very serious point to all this. When public finances are tight, spending money on theses on The Impact of the Pumpernickel in Medieval Westphalia or Some Problems of Being and Perception in the Later Novels of Yasunari Kawabata when people are dying of cold in their meagre flats seems perverse.
I exaggerate. Yep. Because the point needs to be driven home. Right now. Unless somebody can stand up and put a compelling defence of the humanities – the kind of argument that a frostbitten pensioner in the Wirral could understand and accept – then the humanities will die.
I’d like an answer myself. I spent four years and £27,000 learning three dead languages. Right now, as a trainee journalist, I would almost literally kill for the chance to turn back time and take a three-year degree in Economics with maybe two or three major world languages, and a year in industry.
I wish somebody had told me in sixth form that nobody – literally nobody – in the professional world gives a Yingluck Shinawatra for your culture. They regard it like your parents regarded masturbation when you were a teenager: If that’s what you want to do with your Friday evening, fine. Just don’t do it at work.
What graduate employers want are experienced, motivated young people with a full set of practical and personal skills and a clear vision of where they want to be in 10 years’ time. Spanish or Russian is a bonus. You are more likely to get a job the closer you are to the finished article.
What a humanities degree gives you is vague, grandiose aspirations and a phenomenally detailed knowledge of the Shift+F7 function on Microsoft Word.
I spent my last year at uni managing a graduate employment survey of final year students. Generally, arts students fell into two camps. There were those who were tightly focused on their future, had already taken two or three internships, and applied for a dozen grad schemes.
Then there were those who hadn’t. They took their degrees seriously, dabbled a bit in sport and acting and maybe a bit of writing, and did all the things young people are supposed to do at university. As for the next few years, they either planned to drift along until the perfect job – offering challenging, creative work, world travel and a bumper salary to boot – or to put off the future by ploughing yet more debt into a master’s.
It’s not that the first approach makes people any happier or better as individuals. Probably the opposite. But it does mean you’re far more likely to have a job when you leave university, and more likely to be making a useful contribution to public life and the economy.
And here’s the crux of it all. As far as that horse-riding civil servant is concerned, the humanities are doing little or nothing for Britain. They are a poor preparation for the real world, and they keep many of the country’s best minds sequestered in medieval libraries. Sure, they’re cheap. But every little saving helps.
The government has a gun to the head of every arts professor in the country. And I am perfectly happy for them to pull the trigger. Let Latin die. Let Greek die. Let the whole of medieval literature go up in flames. Fling open the dusty windows, and let the raging storm of the free markets gambol through the libraries.
It’s useless now to pretend that there is any objective reality beyond the harsh, liquid-crystal light of economic necessity. The notion that some intangible but invaluable public truth will emerge from the contemplation of literature and philosophy is an unfortunate hangover from the 19th century. It has no place in our logical-positivist today. Drop it.
Butbutbut you splutter. Critical thinking. Quality of life. You’d make us a nation of philistines. Well, the Philistines got stuff done. They may have been driven out of southern Canaan by the Egyptians – who themselves had a pretty utilitarian attitude to culture – but they captured the Ark of the Covenant, and lasted a good four centuries before they were absorbed by the no more sentimental Assyrians. I’d be pretty happy with that.
By the way, I never got that job.