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(Yet Another) Crisis of the Humanities

  • 28 September 2021
  • By Peter Mandler

This blog was contributed by Peter Mandler, Professor of Modern Cultural History at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and the author of The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War (Oxford University Press). Peter is on Twitter @PeterMandler1.

This is the second in a series of blogs reflecting on the Humanities this week, following HEPI Director Nick Hillman’s blog yesterday which you can read here.

Gabriel Roberts begins his recent report for HEPI on the humanities in modern Britain with the gloomy statistic that since the 1960s ‘the proportion of UK students studying Humanities subjects fell from around 28 to around 8 per cent of all students’. That sounds pretty bad. But over the same period the proportion of UK students studying conventional science subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, Medicine) also fell sharply, from 55 to around 25 per cent of all students. Both statistics are easily explicable by reference to the widely expanding menu of subjects available to students and the much more diverse intake as the proportion of all young people entering higher education grew from under 10 per cent to over 50 per cent.

If we privilege the older subjects inordinately, we will find them always in crisis … and we will be missing out on the changing map of knowledge.

The report acknowledges this context but does not give it any weight or consider what it means. Of course, there has been a falling off in the study of ‘traditional’ subjects. Both the sciences and the humanities play a smaller role in the higher education world. The sciences have in some ways been hit harder by this development. Most of the new subjects – apart from the ‘subjects allied to medicine’, such as Pharmacy or Nursing – are either ‘social studies’ like Law, Business, Communications and the social sciences (Psychology the fastest growing of all), or indeed closer to the humanities, such as a wide range of Creative Arts subjects, now 10 per cent of the total. The report is not right to suggest that Creative Arts degrees amount to narrow professional training in conservatoires and the like: they can be broad, multidisciplinary degrees with much overlap with ‘traditional’ humanities. Some of the ‘social studies’ subjects also occupy ground that might easily be classed with the humanities – Media Studies and Cultural Studies, for example. If we privilege the older subjects inordinately, we will find them always in crisis – this is by the way what STEM advocates also always do – and we will be missing out on the changing map of knowledge.

The report is right to highlight, however, some shorter-term tendencies. STEM enrolments have been rising for the first time in decades since 2009. Arts and humanities enrolments, which had remained relatively stable across the whole of the period since the 1960s, have been in gentle decline in the same period and have now dipped below 20 per cent for the first time. In a few cases, the decline has been longer-term and less gentle. Modern foreign languages, for example, have been in spectacular decline for at least 20 years: the absolute number of French and German GCSE and A-level candidates peaked around 2000 or before. (Physics hit its peak in absolute numbers of A-level entries in 1980, when relatively few students took any A-levels at all, though it has recovered well from a long slump since 2007; Chemistry and Biology have done much better over the long haul.) As the report acknowledges, among the ‘traditional’ humanities the decline has been only very gradual, from 9 per cent to 8 per cent total share in the period since 2009.

As an historian, I am not inclined to predict the future. The report’s prognostications about the growing significance of digital and quantitative skills may or may not be correct. In any case, some of the sources it relies on do not specify digital and quantitative but conflate them with ‘complex analytical and cognitive skills’, the latter certainly conveyed by humanities subjects. Most employers do not make clear distinctions between degree subjects – 80 per cent of graduate jobs are advertised without reference to them – although they may use certain subjects to ‘screen’ for likely candidates at first employment. (The most recent IFS report based on LEO data suggests that employers are even more likely to be ‘screening’ for certain elite institutions, with less attention to subject.) It should be added that ‘complex analytical and cognitive skills’ can be developed by deep study of pretty much any subject. The best arguments for early specialization in the British system are in my view precisely these arguments: deep study of one or two related disciplines allows students to play to their strengths, follow their interests and at the same time develop qualities (behavioural as well as cognitive) highly valued in the labour market.

Laudable concerns that all students should persist with Maths until they achieve a meaningful result at GCSE have led to a dismal sequence of retakes, which the report seems to wish to aggravate by prescribing Maths for all to 18.

There are countervailing arguments, many of which are suggested in the report, for reversing early specialization. But recent experience does not bode well for these arguments. The recent reform of A-level went in the exact opposite direction, towards more specialization, by eliminating AS. Laudable concerns that all students should persist with Maths until they achieve a meaningful result at GCSE have led to a dismal sequence of retakes, which the report seems to wish to aggravate by prescribing Maths for all to 18. The International Baccalaureate has never proved popular and there is no evidence that the somewhat less specialized Scottish system leads to better results on any of the indices considered in the report.

Let me conclude with one plea. Can we have some deep ethnographic studies of why students actually make the choices they do, with what consequences in their lives (beyond pecuniary returns), and why employers make the choices they do, without assuming as economists insist we must that employers are always making accurate estimates of the future value of degrees and institutions and that those estimates always pay off over decades of lifetime employment? The idea too that wiser ‘investment in human capital’ at ages 18 to 21, with a market mechanism steering students to the ‘right’ subject choices, can have a dramatic impact on economic growth, such that under the current funding mechanism all graduates can be lifted above the bar where they repay all their loans, seems also overdue for closer scrutiny. (It has not worked so far.) So many of these reports go round and round, citing the same data and predicated on the same economists’ assumptions about the mechanisms that govern subject choice and labour-market behaviour.

Their machinery gets more complicated and the results more elaborate, but rarely are they subjected to the searching criticism on conceptual grounds that they deserve.

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  1. albert wright says:

    A very helpful addition to the debate which leaves me thinking there is no clear solution on what might be the best model for HE and Universities when there are so many aspects to consider and balance.

    We have an amazing range of institutions where students are offered an ever increasing choice of subjects which can be studied to different degrees of intensity. The choice is wide enough to meet the needs of most students who come from a variety of backgrounds with different talents and ambitions.

    Evolution seems to be working well.

  2. I would have appreciated a comment or two on the situation in the EU, or the US. Brexit or no Brexit, the UK is part of the wider world – even if a degree from a top UK university still represents hitting the Jackpot, in HE terms. (I myself have taught in South Africa, Germany and Australia – with a couple of congress papers in the UK and US.) I have no doubt at all that the question of the ‘massification’ of HE, together with the new digital media, have fundamentally changed HE globally, and for good. It’s quite possible that the outcome of the next US Presidential election will depend on the % of the population with at least a College education. (And *that* is going to have global repercussions.) I particularly appreciate this sentence: “complex analytical and cognitive skills can be developed by deep study of pretty much any subject.”
    Frederik van Gelder

  3. David Manning says:

    Thanks Peter. I need to think more about the points you raise. But as an immediate response, what can I say.

    Roberts’ report is underwhelming. For sure it displays valuable industry, and we are all the better for the material he brings together; but the concluding proposals are not especially insightful or useful. Reform A-Levels: oh, again?! If only?! In what way is this plausible before the end of the next parliament, c.2030. And as you say the limited popularity of the IB tells its story. Embedding digital and quantitative skills further into degree programmes seems a stereotypical response befitting of a thinktank: eager to please its target audience but with a limit interest in the needs of students or teaching practitioners. That said the even the Royal Historical Society is happy to hitch aboard this train and award teaching prizes for turning learning history into some crowd-pleasing exercise in computer-based workshops. In some quarters “engagement” has usurped learning as the most fundamental enterprise of a degree programme. Desperate to justify itself in terms of employability the humanities now sell themselves as the gateway to technology enabled heritage and the creative industries as if this is a never-ending wellspring of opportunity in a post-Brexit, post-Covid economy.

    Your own plea is suggestive. If memory serves me right: the BBC Radio 4 “Rethink Education” series (Jul. 2021) showed how the gap between education and employers is invariable filled by well-meaning by questionable recourse to platitudes about transferable skills, critical thinking etc. As for student choices: a mixture of the serious and the frivolous – as every teacher knows.

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