Nov 222011

From the Mail:

Some universities, such as London Metropolitan, have slashed more than 60 per cent of their courses, including philosophy, performing arts and history.

Much as I’m not in favour of direct state funding of university degrees, nor am I remotely in favour of the apparent belief, held by just about everyone in the western world, that the purpose of learning is to make one an economically viable unit.

‘Go to university so you can get a job and… pay taxes, god damn it!’

No, I’m sorry. That is not the purpose of knowledge, learning, or education, as far as I am concerned. It’s important to be ‘economically useful’ solely so that one can support oneself; whether this requires learning is a matter of circumstance.

It is particularly dreadful that the welfare state and the state funding of tertiary education, and the cost that involves to the taxpayer, has resulted in this pathetic narrative about education—learning how to think, process information, and make independent analyses—being reduced to the question of whether or not what you learn helps you get a job.

To the point where universities are axing degrees that accomplish precisely the goals a university degree should accomplish.

When the taxpayer doesn’t have to subsidise ‘economically non-viable units,’ one doesn’t have to be over-concerned with how people enlarge their brains and their understanding of humanity.

I would be interested to know what degree courses London Metropolitan University will be retaining. Presumably, given the jobs possessed by people I know, courses like ‘Working in the Public Sector’ and ‘How to Add No Value in Human Resources’?

But perhaps that’s uncharitable. I do know people doing productive work, who all seem to have degrees in, y’know, philosophy and history.

Or no degree at all—and have become complete humans all on their own, without the subsidy of the state, or the help of London Metropolitan ‘University.’


UPDATE: Okay, so I’m told that wasn’t the clearest post I’ve ever produced.

Here’s my deal.

Knowing various stuff and supporting oneself independently are separate things. State subsidy of knowing stuff, and state subsidy of those who can’t support themselves, have conflated these concepts.

You don’t always need to know some stuff in order to support yourself. Likewise, lots of people who do know some stuff can’t support themselves. (Cf. OccupyLSX.) The two do not need to be linked.

Axing history and philosophy degrees does not mean that university graduates will, therefore, be able to support themselves, even if they are paying £6k more for the privilege of studying. All it means is that a significant contingent of people will no longer know stuff to do with history or philosophy. Whether this assists in their economic viability is neither here nor there; what it does mean is that particular knowledge will be systematically lost.

Now, you can choose to assess the value of that knowledge economically, as everyone seems to be doing currently.

On the other hand, you can say, ‘Hey, people should be able to support themselves. Quite apart from that, at least some people should know some stuff about what it’s meant to be a human being up to this point. But being able to support oneself doesn’t mean one has to be completely focused on being able to support oneself.’

One of the greatest things about our society becoming ever wealthier is the growth of leisure (Cf. just about every blog post by Tim Worstall). Leisure is, essentially, the opportunity to think about what it means to be a human being. If we’ve reached the point where thinking about being a human is so devalued that we’re not even providing the opportunity to people willing to spend their money (i.e. leisure) on it, then we might as well all work ourselves into the grave right now.

Honestly, what good is having wealth and leisure time otherwise?

Disclaimer: I have two degrees in history. And yes, I work and pay taxes. The reason I got my job in the first place was, incidentally, due to blogging. Maybe universities should be offering that as a degree course.

  3 Responses to “History came to a .”

  1. Dear Lord, I never thought that I would need to explain this to you but:

    That a good is no longer provided by the State does not mean it is no longer provided!

    That London Met. have removed their courses in various fine and academic subjects is not anything like the Burning of the Library of Alexandria that you imply it to be.

    Assuming that the motivation behind the removal of these courses is economic, and not to make a political statement (ooh! those nasty conservatives and their cuts!), all it reflects is decline in demand for a very specific product: “degrees in history from London Met.”

    This is not a cause of concern; nor evidence of rising anti-rationalism, for several reasons:
    1. It has never been easier for anyone desiring an education in any subject to educate themselves for free. Wikipedia, for all it’s faults, Google Books, the Gutenberg Project provide the autodidact with far more raw materiel than she can possibly devour. Then you have individual efforts like Joseph Hogarty’s Europe from it’s Origins.
    2. Demand for courses in academic subjects; history, literature, art and hard science has never been higher — for-profit company “The Great Courses,” which tape professors giving college-level lectures and sell them to the adult education market, report record profits.
    3. In my, my sisters’ and my wife’s very recent experience of University, it’s become for many students a lifestyle choice rather than an educational decision. For many of my course-mates, University didn’t really fit into a life-plan or fulfill an ambition, it was just a socially acceptable way for middle-class kids to piss around and put off getting a job for three years.
    4. Come on, London Met. ? When a Russell Group University announces a similar policy, then I’ll start worrying… 😉

  2. Nobody actually goes to university to learn stuff these days, do they? As sconzey points out, that’s what the internet is for. You go to university in order to have fun and ‘signal’ to future employers that you can knuckle down and apply yourself. It’s 90% economic signalling as far as I can work out. It may even be one of those rare occasions where it’s worth taxing it in order to stop people from showing off.

    If you wanted to go to University for the education then there’s very little to stop you just turning up to the lectures.

  3. Interesting post. It’s only recently that I learned that the original meaning of the term “liberal arts” was that it was the opposite of “servile arts.” That is, the liberal arts comprised those subjects appropriate to the education of a free man, and the servile arts (what we would now call “trades”) were the arts that slaves learned. So much has been occulted from us. The person acquiring a liberal education works on himself, making a better self, learning how to think, basically. The person acquiring a servile education learns what to think.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.