Finishing schools for gilded youth?

by Chris Bertram on October 13, 2010

Cross-posted from the New Statesman Culture blog (original)

It is hard to escape the worry that the arts, humanities and, almost certainly, many of the social sciences face a bleaker future in British higher education if Lord Browne’s report – “Securing a sustainable future for higher education in England” – is implemented. Browne isn’t explicit about this, but on page 25 of the report we find a chilling sentence: “In our proposals, there will be scope for Government to withdraw public investment through HEFCE from many courses to contribute to wider reductions in public spending; there will remain a vital role for public investment to support priority courses and the wider benefits they create.” The priority courses are listed as medicine, science and engineering. The arts, humanities and social sciences are on their own, and will have to support themselves from student fee income, from research grants and from so-called “QR funding” – allocated by government on the basis of past research performance.

Insofar as there is public support for higher education in Britain, it is overwhelmingly for teaching. That is the perception of what we do, as many an irritated academic knows from the assumption of friends and relatives that we are “free” for the entire summer. So it is unlikely that government support, once withdrawn from teaching, will continue to back research. We in the humanities may soon depend almost entirely for our living on the number of students prepared to pay full-cost fees of £6000, or maybe more.

I did some sums on the assumption that my institution (a Russell Group member) would charge at the top of the scale and that around a third of it would be available to pay academic staff wages. It looks like we (philosophy) would be ok. But things get much worse if you are at an institution that isn’t able to fill its places whilst charging the maximum or if you work in a subject – one of the performance-based disciplines – where there are significant equipment costs. Even those of us who do survive (and I’m not feeling complacent) are likely to find that the ecology of our subjects will change if students from working-class backgrounds are priced out of degree courses at the most expensive universities, and if the surviving cheaper institutions no longer put the humanities on the menu (witness the recent axing of philosophy at Middlesex). Will the remaining humanities departments increasingly function as finishing schools for the gilded youth? Will there continue to be strong demand for courses on distributive justice from our residual well-heeled students? Or will they prefer more aesthetics instead? No doubt there will be bursaries and scholarships to compensate, but one worries that these will make more of a cosmetic than a material difference.

On the other hand, I have the sense that some of my colleagues will be somewhat relieved by Lord Browne’s report . This is understandable. In the current climate many academics fear for their jobs and the gradual erosion of state support has been tipping many university managements into cuts, hiring freezes and the threat of compulsory redundancies. There’s also a widespread feeling that the status quo involved an unwarranted subsidy to already advantaged children of the wealthy at a time when the most disadvantaged in society are facing some really tough prospects. On top of this there is resentment at the Liberal Democrats, whose pledge on tuition fees was little more than an opportunistic pander to a sense of middle-class entitlement (their coming volte face will at least be consistent in its sacrifice of principle to advantage). Not surprisingly, many think that if higher education (at least the elite part of it) is put on a more secure financial basis, then we’ll be free to concentrate on the things we do best:scholarship, research and teaching. Let politicians worry about social justice.

The assumptions behind Browne’s selection of “priority subjects” are, to say the least, open to question. Browne sees science, engineering and “strategically important” languages as being the residual subjects worthy of taxpayer support. (Presumably, “strategically important language” is code for Chinese or Arabic.) The claim is that in difficult times “we” should fund those areas of study important for economic growth: “we” need to produce more physicists, chemists and engineers than our rivals and fewer philosophers, sociologists and historians. One imagines that Browne, as a senior business executive, would be appalled if the government started “picking winners” in a reversion to old-style industrial policy, but when it comes to education, he’s not content to leave it to the market for fear that the consumer might sign up for media studies. The “strategic importance” notion would have more credibility if the current crop of graduates in the STEM subjects were actually finding jobs as production-boosting scientists. But often that doesn’t seem to be so. As it is, in recent years, many young physicists and mathematicians – perhaps despairing of employment in the UK’s industrial sector – seem to have ended up in the City, devising ever more complex financial instruments whose social and economic ramifications they didn’t understand and whose consequences we are all having to live with. So much for strategic contribution to growth!

By and large the response of the humanities to government emphasis on relevance, transferable skills and providing what employers need (or think they need) has been a rather desperate and demeaning attempt to show that we also contribute to the global competitiveness of “UK plc” (or whatever ugly term is in vogue this week). Well of course we do do our bit, and it isn’t hard to show that arts graduates can also shine in business and the professions, can script clever adverts and acclaimed cartoons. Still, none of us really believe that the value of the arts and humanities lies most centrally in their economic usefulness. We can put other instrumental arguments too, of course, about citizenship, participation and the value to society of critical reflection (not that the coalition government wants much of that at the moment).

But the value of the arts and humanities isn’t confined to just one or two dimensions, economic or political. Rather the study of history, philosophy, music or poetry provides students with an enrichment of experience, a sense of who they are and what the possibilities might be for them as human beings. Of course the humanities aren’t unique in this. Science and mathematics too are challenging and liberating. Different things interest different people, but the study of any subject at a higher level ought to give people both an enhanced sense of their own powers and a glimpse of dimensions of value and achievement other than enhanced consumption. What people learn at university might not fit them for the modern world and might not make them compliant employees of some corporation. “Aspiration” is a popular word among politicians, but perhaps they don’t want to awaken too much of it in the sons and daughters of ordinary people.

{ 89 comments }

1

Steve LaBonne 10.13.10 at 12:17 pm

Somehow I never thought Britain would be forging ahead of even the US in philistinism. Perhaps that’s naive of me.

2

Jim Demintia 10.13.10 at 12:35 pm

‘NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

3

ah 10.13.10 at 12:44 pm

What worried me is this quote from the Guardian

However, universities would lose money under the benchmark scenario of a £6,000 fee, the IFS said. The thinktank said: “While their fee income would nearly double in this case, buried in the detail of the review’s recommendations are proposed cuts to the teaching budget that would see some courses become entirely self-funded.”

The loss of teaching grants – roughly £9,900 per student over the course of a degree – outweighs the increase in fee income, and universities would have to charge fees of £7,000 a year or more to make up for this reduction in funding, the IFS said. Universities that do not have the scope to raise fees above the fee cap would have to sustain a loss.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/oct/12/tuition-fees-debts-students-university-browne

So I think we are going to be losing money and having to do more teaching however they implement the review. But nobody seems to be paying attention to that problem.

4

ah 10.13.10 at 12:45 pm

sorry, couldn’t work out the right formatting for the quote.

5

paul hebden 10.13.10 at 12:57 pm

Chris,
I think your analysis is spot on and well put. I’m particularly reassured that you can still feel a sense of solidarity with those engaged with schools/courses that might not be viable without subsidy.
If decision makers have decided that ‘aspiration’ ought to be limited then where do we go from here? Universities are a soft target in the state’s post credit-crunch efforts to accommodate financial capitalism. But the government seems to think it needs to put more effort into raising the level of hate towards its other targets (witness last week’s propaganda against the reproducing poor).
Each week throws up a fresh justification for the state’s latest retreat from a particular area of life. Everyone I speak to, mostly from different public service backgrounds, talks about the same thing: the spending review due next week.
Are there options for some general form of resistance? Or do we retreat into stoicism?
I’m not asking for an answer. I certainly don’t know.

Paul H

6

dsquared 10.13.10 at 1:04 pm

I can’t help but note that one of the things that the humanities might be able to teach you, and which isn’t mentioned in the Browne report, is that it’s a terrible idea to be in the closet for forty years and then destroy your career and reputation in a pointless scandal.

7

Manta1976 10.13.10 at 1:33 pm

“Still, none of us really believe that the value of the arts and humanities lies most centrally in their economic usefulness”.
The same is true, I think, for most academic disciplines: the great British mathematician Hardy developed exactly this theme in his “A Mathematician’s Apology”.

A science is said to be useful if its development tends to accentuate the existing inequalities in the distribution of wealth, or more directly promotes the destruction of human life.

8

Tim Worstall 10.13.10 at 1:43 pm

“One imagines that Browne, as a senior business executive, would be appalled if the government started “picking winners” in a reversion to old-style industrial policy,”

Don’t see why. Business executives are only too happy as long as it is their business chosen as the “winner” to be policy supported. As BP’s history shows all too well.

“So it is unlikely that government support, once withdrawn from teaching, will continue to back research.”

Would be a strange reaction if they did. Research is a (strictly defined) public good in a way that teaching isn’t.

9

burritoboy 10.13.10 at 2:48 pm

No, Chris,

Let’s be even more blunt. It is precisely through philosophy, and only through philosophy, that Britain has any chance of economic success.

We now know that the economic policy of Britain has been made by applying deeply flawed economic theories over the past three decades. We now realize that all the vocational apparatuses that relied on those theories were, let’s be frank, sophists. They didn’t really understand the theories they were using, and didn’t themselves have the tools to criticize or analyze the theories in any sort of critical way. They were fools arguing from authority.

The same applies for the priority fields above. We have seen that, without the ability to understand themselves critically, these fields too might contain large possibilities that they are sophists as well. They may not have made as many errors as the economists, but if they haven’t, it’s largely through luck.

The only way forward for Britain is to re-think everything you thought you knew. We have seen that the vocational studies, by themselves, are either of no assistance or a hindrance to this. Only those studies which teach thinking on the highest possible level are a priority.

10

Salient 10.13.10 at 2:57 pm

Trivia. How many significant business innovations over the last 20 years or so were introduced or disseminated by individuals with a liberal arts education?

[Short answer: a heck of a lot more than anyone seems to acknowledge when they enact policies like this.]

What we really need, of course, is more financiers.

11

Mr_ Punch 10.13.10 at 3:00 pm

There are two ways of looking at these developments which are, though simplistic, not actually wrong. One is that British higher education is moving (further) towards the American model; the other is that it is moving back towards its old structure of Oxbridge, universities and polytechnics, with a different vocabulary.

The American model, not without its advantages, is tricky, because its success in achieving the stability necessary to sustained quality in higher education depends to a considerable extent on an institutional as opposed to a disciplinary perspective — that is, on the right balance between the two. And this, in turn, is possible in the US (insert qualifiers here) because of the prevalence of liberal arts general education in the undergraduate programs of universities. If Britain is heading further in the direction of the American model, the metrics for institutional (as opposed to research) support must be quite different from what we’ve seen.

12

AcademicLurker 10.13.10 at 3:13 pm

One issue re: the US vs Britain is that the US simply has a much larger number of universities operating on a wider variety of institutional models. In that environment, the “unfashionable” disciplines are pretty sure to survive somewhere.

In Britain, though, it seems the government could enact policies to drive certain disciplines virtually to extinction if they were really serious about doing so.

13

Seeds 10.13.10 at 3:51 pm

The same applies for the priority fields above. We have seen that, without the ability to understand themselves critically, these fields too might contain large possibilities that they are sophists as well. They may not have made as many errors as the economists, but if they haven’t, it’s largely through luck.

This is some kind of meta-comment on sophistry, right?

14

Brussel Sprout 10.13.10 at 3:56 pm

Isn’t it a classic British fudge – appearing to go for a more free market model pace the US, but actually keeping in place all the brakes to growth and top-down mechanisms of state interference.

But since I take the Paul Krugman anti-austerity line, I probably would think that.

15

Clay Shirky 10.13.10 at 4:05 pm

I’m trying to think what a counter-proposal, rather than just a complaint, would look like.

It surely can’t be that all subjects should be funded at all colleges and universities. Britain surely needs people versed in the history of Mesopotamia, or who can offer a convincing account of what happened during the battle of Roncevaux Pass, but surely not every school needs to host scholars doing that work.

Yet here it is clear — indeed, so axiomatic it is unspoken — that Middlesex made a mistake in canceling its philosophy department. I wonder, though, why that was a mistake? This post assumes it, yet a principle like…

“the study of any subject at a higher level ought to give people both an enhanced sense of their own powers and a glimpse of dimensions of value and achievement”

…doesn’t much help in disambiguating between a course on what Charlemagne was up to and why it matters and what Peter Abelard was up to and why it matters.

And if we’re going to throw Abelard under the bus, and say we’re really just doing Plato and Kant and Hume, well isn’t that doing within philosophy what Lord Browne is up to within the academy as a whole?

And so on.

Even as I’m sympathetic to the idea that higher education shouldn’t be reduced to late-model trade schools for Hydrogen Fusion Engineers and Gene-splicing Pharmaceutical Researchers (with an opt-out for the idle rich who want to study Pound and Eliot), I can’t shake the feeling that this particular brand of complaint is so deeply conservative about preserving the status quo that it reads like special pleading.

16

Barry 10.13.10 at 4:10 pm

Tim Worstall “Research is a (strictly defined) public good in a way that teaching isn’t.”

Incorrect – *some* research is, if the fruits are widely available (i.e., public intellectual property). Otherwise, research can be a very private good.

Please note that this applies to teaching, as well – producing graduates who have broad knowledge of the world and who know how to think is clearly a public good (which also helps the graduates themselves).

17

Seeds 10.13.10 at 4:22 pm

Of the eight British PMs since 1970, one had a background in a “priority subject” (Thatcher: chemistry) and two didn’t attend university (Callaghan and Major).

The other five studied liberal arts (Blair: jurisprudence, Brown: history, Wilson: history / PPE, Heath: PPE, Cameron: PPE).

I’m only mentioning it because I bothered to look it up, but at least it shows that we’re not ruled by a society of technocratic philistines. And the liberal arts tend to produce successful politicians, if nothing else – though I’m still unsure whether this counts as a public good.

18

Father Mazo 10.13.10 at 4:41 pm

BurritoBoy:

Let’s be even more blunt. It is precisely through philosophy, and only through philosophy, that Britain has any chance of economic success…..
Only those studies which teach thinking on the highest possible level are a priority.

Mmm. Is this a troll? Philosophy teaches thinking on the highest level? I don’t think you’d find many outside the field of philosophy who think that! Us non-philosophers think too… and some of us can design and build things too.

19

ajay 10.13.10 at 4:51 pm

I’m only mentioning it because I bothered to look it up, but at least it shows that we’re not ruled by a society of technocratic philistines.

Or the fact that all these very bright people decided to abandon the liberal arts subjects they had studied at university and go into politics instead might indicate that they didn’t think much of the liberal arts. If Brown had really valued history, wouldn’t he have stayed as a historian?

20

grackle 10.13.10 at 5:03 pm

As it happens, the illustrious Dr. Fish is bemoaning a similar development in the colonies:
http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/11/the-crisis-of-the-humanities-officially-arrives/?ref=opinion

21

Bill Gardner 10.13.10 at 5:07 pm

Chris, or anyone: Clay asked a good question. What’s the competing proposal?

22

dsquared 10.13.10 at 5:13 pm

The competing proposal (or at least, mine) would be that departments should get funding on the basis of excellence (as measured by a straw poll of international peers) in their field, and basically no other criterion. In other words, backing successes and letting failures wither. Any other metric would mean that (for example), you’re cutting excellent drama courses to fund mediocre chemical engineering courses, or vice versa if we have different “strategic” subjects one day. Since to a first approximation there’s an invariant lump of funding, this would seem to me to be the most parsimonious way of allocating it in terms of information requirement.

This also allows me to explain why, specifically, people regretted the decision to shut down the Middlesex philosophy dept – it was by all accounts very good; it was the best Continental philosophy department in the UK.

(but – what if there are no electronic engineering departments in Britain which are as good as the worst music department? Then let us send our budding electronic engineers to America or the Netherlands!)

23

Clay Shirky 10.13.10 at 5:16 pm

Bill, the competing proposal may be that no one should ask for competing proposals, so that we can regard the humanities as axiomatically worth funding, and complain about alternative formulations, without having to get down to cases.

24

Clay Shirky 10.13.10 at 5:19 pm

@dsquared, that is essentially the Jack Welch notion — get out of any market where you can
‘t be #1 or #2 (or in this case #10 or #20.) That makes sense for graduate schools, though it is a bit harder to support for undergrads, as even middle-of-the-road exposure to stats or sculpture could send them looking for those good graduate programs.

And given Middlesex’s quality, what led them to shut it down? (Not a rhetorical question — I really don’t know.)

25

Seeds 10.13.10 at 5:27 pm

Clay, there’s more about the closure of Middlesex University’s Philosophy Dept here.

26

Tim Worstall 10.13.10 at 5:40 pm

@20….why is the letting failures wither only for departments? Why not entire institutions? (Or at least the management of them?)

27

g 10.13.10 at 5:40 pm

dsquared, I see three objections to your counterproposal as stated.

1. Your justification — anything else would mean taking money from excellent X departments to fund less-good Y departments — presupposes the correctness of your answer. (Why shouldn’t it sometimes be a good idea to take money from an excellent underwater-basket-weaving department and us it to fund an excellent cancer-curing department?)

2. Using departments’ excellence in their field as the criterion — which is essential for avoiding taking money from excellent X departments to fund less-good Y departments — produces results that are sensitive to exactly how one chooses to delineate fields. For very fine subdivisions, this produces absurd results (“yeah, we’re a rotten philosophy department, but we’re the best in the world at studying the influences of Plato’s Theaetetus on Marx’s theory of value, because no one else is looking at that”) and for very coarse subdivisions it seems like it could justify taking money from (what we generally think of as) one discipline to fund another that’s viewed as more important. Where should the lines be drawn?

3. The proposal seems to mean that the present distribution of money among disciplines is never to be changed; at any rate it gives no indication of how any change in the distribution might be decided on. Is there any reason to assume either that the present distribution is optimal or that the optimal distribution won’t change substantially over time?

28

dsquared 10.13.10 at 5:43 pm

Perfectly happy for undergraduate programmes to be funded or otherwise simply on the basis of consumer demand, as measured by applications. (But what if nobody chooses biotechnology? Then we shall trade with the world! I often think that something like 20% of all broadsheet newspaper higher education journalism is motivated by the fear that someone, somewhere, might be doing Media Studies).

29

dsquared 10.13.10 at 5:49 pm

why is the letting failures wither only for departments? Why not entire institutions?

Because, as far as I can see, the current geographical arrangement of universities is reasonably well-balanced with respect to the undergraduates they’re going to teach. Obviously, if somewhere couldn’t get even one of its research faculties up to the standard of the worst course being funded elsewhere, then it would either close down or become an undergraduate teaching-only institution.

30

Gaspard 10.13.10 at 5:57 pm

“Even as I’m sympathetic to the idea that higher education shouldn’t be reduced to late-model trade schools for Hydrogen Fusion Engineers and Gene-splicing Pharmaceutical Researchers”

This is unlikely. Philosophy at Bristol could most likely pay for itself and for a good number of the existing students it would represent half of what their parents paid for their yearly school fees. So the main change would be in the composition of his students, from largely upper-middle-class, to overwhelmingly upper-middle class.

So an interesting question is whether the science-driven university “trade school” (which is how Bristol started out) is actually of greater ultimate benefit to non-gilded youth than studying philosophy (especially that nasty *aesthetics*, as Chris points out).

31

Gaspard 10.13.10 at 6:14 pm

Also, it’s interesting to see “finishing school” as derogatory term for wealthy people studying aesthetics, and then “trade school” as a derogatory term for people of humanistically-limited orientation studying nuclear fusion.

32

Phil 10.13.10 at 6:22 pm

I think before we start proposing solutions we need a clear and agreed statement of the problem. As far as I can tell there isn’t any agreement, either among economists or across the political spectrum, on whether public expenditure even needs to be cut right now – let alone whether HE funding needs to be cut.

The answer to “well, what would *you* do?” can legitimately be “right now, nothing” – and sometimes should be. As Daniel said in another context, the great advantage of the status quo is that it isn’t any worse than the status quo.

33

Bill Gardner 10.13.10 at 6:32 pm

d^2 @20:

The competing proposal (or at least, mine) would be that departments should get funding on the basis of excellence (as measured by a straw poll of international peers) in their field, and basically no other criterion. In other words, backing successes and letting failures wither.

I can see how this would work to allocate funding among departments within a field, assuming you have already set a budget for a field. It’s more daunting to imagine using this process to allocate funding across a space spanning both departments and fields. You would need a poll that would ask peers to, in effect, compare “Princeton in philosophy” to “Carnegie Mellon in statistics”, etc. That would generate interesting data, but it doesn’t seem feasible.

34

Clay Shirky 10.13.10 at 6:59 pm

@Phil, I buy the argument that sometimes a proposed austerity is unnecessary, but the original case Chris made wasn’t economic but cultural — that the priorities of the Browne report are simply wrong.

What is striking is that there is a lot of argument about the negative consequences of the report (e.g. treating Arabic and Chinese as better languages for the public to support than French or Russian) but there is almost no affirmative defense of the status quo (here’s why we should continue to allocate more to Russian studies than Arabic studies, despite the relative real-world importance of those two languages.)

It’s hard, given Chris’s original post, to imagine the circumstances under which he believes that departments should ever be cancelled. More generally, I think the Burkean conservatism of “the status quo is at least no worse than the status quo” is little more than a way of avoiding spelling out an alternate set of priorities that would describe why the academy should be asked to adapt only through growth, never through shrinking.

35

LFC 10.13.10 at 7:04 pm

ajay @17: if Brown had valued history “wouldn’t he have stayed as a historian”? Not necessarily. I would think that even in an educational system like Britain’s where specialization usually comes somewhat earlier than in, e.g., the US, the point of a liberal arts education is not to turn everyone into professors, and what CB says in the post tends to support that view.

36

burritoboy 10.13.10 at 7:23 pm

Clay,

The counterproposal is simply this:

How do we know which area of study produces the most gain?

37

Seeds 10.13.10 at 7:32 pm

I buy the argument that sometimes a proposed austerity is unnecessary, but the original case Chris made wasn’t economic but cultural—that the priorities of the Browne report are simply wrong.

Well, as Phil points out in the original post, there isn’t actually a clear economic rationale for the cuts.

Assuming then that we’re dealing with a cultural argument for it doesn’t seem unreasonable to respond with a cultural argument against.

38

Chris Bertram 10.13.10 at 7:32 pm

Since it cropped up in the other thread, I might as well say, that I nowhere wrote that aesthetics was “nasty”. I asked a rhetorical question about whether well-heeled students paying full-cost fees would make the same choices of areas within philosophy to study as students do now. It is plausible both that a different social mix of students would make different choices and that I’m wrong about the particulars. However, anyone familiar with the social backgrounds of sociology students and art history students might share my guess about the probable shift in interest.

39

Chris Bertram 10.13.10 at 7:38 pm

I’m bemused by Clay Shirky’s response. The worry isn’t about individual departments closing as such (sometimes they do) but about whole areas of study becoming unavailable to the non-rich because of the priorities of a philistine BP executive playing the role of adviser to the central planner. But maybe Mr Shirky is unfamiliar with the British context.

40

Clay Shirky 10.13.10 at 8:02 pm

@Seeds, it seems unreasonable in that arguing that the proposed motion is wrong, you’d want to show that the counter-proposal is right (or at least less wrong), and you’d especially want to do this in a system where the funds are coming from the taxpayer. Simply saying “We’ve always done it this way” seems unlikely to produce much of the needed support.

@burritoboy, I’d say that in questions like this, adjudicating as between the good and the great is rarely the actual issue. Instead, you’d like to know how to determine the difference between the mediocre and the bad, and I don’t see anything in Chris’s formulation that would allow an administrator to know when to cut a department.

41

Jo 10.13.10 at 8:03 pm

“It surely can’t be that all subjects should be funded at all colleges and universities.”

I tend to agree with this and it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing that departments, or subjects within departments, might be called upon to justify themselves. The difficulty, of course, is figuring out what a good justification would look like, and although I have seen some research and teaching in philosophy departments that I think nobody would be worse off for losing, what would a successful justification be? Of course being the best at whatever you’re teaching is not enough, and I’m not convinced that it shouldn’t have to be an argument for instrumentality, but then the value of good philosophy (to take what is perhaps the hardest case) might not be so easy to gauge. Isn’t the problem perhaps that we who do and love philosophy have a particular vision of the world and its future in which what we do is indispensable, even fundamental, but visions of the world that do not see the value of philosophy will have a much easier time making their arguments, because their world is much more concrete and commodifiable. We do have to ‘sell’ this vision of the world – funding issue or no funding issue – because if we don’t we will soon be speaking a private language that has no currency.

42

jon livesey 10.13.10 at 8:37 pm

“One imagines that Browne, as a senior business executive, would be appalled if the government started “picking winners” in a reversion to old-style industrial policy,”

Government started “picking winners” the day it started funding higher education. For government to say today – if it does – that it will fund some disciplines more generously than others is no more startling than for it to fund some medical treatments more generously, or even some industries. For example, you would not be startled to hear of government promoting high-tech industry with research money, but you would probably be a bit dismayed to hear that they had decided to promote porn.

And I think if you did hear that you would probably object that high-tech industry has a better chance of benefitting the economy and therefore the taxpayer who ultimately pays the bills than does porn. And the same is true for Physics or engineering versus the social sciences.

You don’t have to show there is anything “wrong” with the social sciences; only that if the taxpayer is footing the bill, the taxpayer is entitled to have a preference. You can’t tell the taxpayer “You are not entitled to have an opinion”. And I’m afraid that’s true, even if you practice – snork – “thinking on the highest possible level”.

43

Seeds 10.13.10 at 8:57 pm

Clay:

Well, the counter proposal is the status quo, and rather than “we’ve always done it this way” we could more charitably express the objection as “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

In an ideal world, it would fall to the government – any government – to prove that their changes – any changes – are necessary and/or to explain why their changes are a net improvement on the status quo. Obviously the government isn’t obliged to do this at present, and can simply assert both as true. It doesn’t follow that everyone writing about the issues has to accept the same premises.

44

Clay Shirky 10.13.10 at 9:01 pm

@Chris, yes, fair enough.

Being in the US system, and having been employed by 3 institutions with different economic bases — state support, tuition, and endowment (Hunter, NYU, Harvard) — I may have overestimated the ability of the British system to produce overall diversity even as individual schools adjust their programs (something I take dsquared’s idea as supporting as well.)

I’m just now getting around to reading Scott’s “Seeing Like A State” (largely on Henry’s repeated recommendation), and am struck by the destruction of local metis within Universities as to the fitness of their current program to their students.

That having been said, I’m still uncomfortable with gainsaying attempts at describing the circumstances under which a department should go away, not least because, as Jon Livesey notes, the choice is not ultimately going to be taken inside the academy. It may be that I’m odd man out in this discussion, as I don’t understand the hold the government has on UK colleges, but I do think that the ‘overall diversity of subjects for all kinds of pupils’ argument you raise here is stronger than your original formulation.

45

Salient 10.13.10 at 9:12 pm

And I’m afraid that’s true, even if you practice – snork – “thinking on the highest possible level”.

Well, someone’s got to do it; you just [1] took a rather facetious comment from burritoboy to be utterly sincere, and therefore took snork-musement from the literal meaning of a line that was pretty obviously intended to be tongue-in-cheek, and [2] suggested physics majors are contributing more per person to economic productivity than humanities majors, which is, to put it mildly, not in evidence, and subject to dispute.

‘To which victors go which spoils?’
‘Smugness, to the engineers,
and profits to the financiers.’

46

Salient 10.13.10 at 9:20 pm

How do we know which area of study produces the most gain?

Let’s also acknowledge that ‘producing the most gain’ [in market terms]^1^ is not, and ought not be, the goal of a government which subsidizes education.^2^ There’s social value in ensuring a citizenry has broad and diverse familiarity with the various knowledges and cultures that we have cultivated so far as a species. It’s not at all clear to me why we should expect this social value to be reflected in market mechanisms.

I didn’t learn how to read, critically and thoughtfully and with engagement, until college liberal arts courses. Possibly I still haven’t learned how to write, but my ability to communicate vastly improved: it’s easier to talk with someone about a topic I’m unfamiliar with and understand what the heck they’re saying. Easier to learn. Easier to follow long arguments and catch seeming problems midway, remember them, and formulate a way to discuss them with the other person. Also, I remember a lot of what I learned, and can relate day-to-day social experiences to, for example, insightful comments from discussions of gender and identity, or Prof. Eric Rothstein’s helpful commentary on precisely what we mean (or ought to mean) when we say someone ‘intended’ something, which springs to mind whenever I see someone slam on their brakes.

I don’t know if that communication skill helps me innovate new technology, since that’s not in my life plan at the moment. (Some would say yes it does, emphatically.) But I am viciously sore at the thought that we’re going to divide society into “innovators who design new technology” and “the rubes” and even sorer at the thought that my field of study’s getting lumped under the “innovators who design new technology” camp. That’s just not what a lot of us do, and not what most of our students will do. But they’ll go on to contribute value to society! Is their contribution worth less than a technical innovator’s? Only if you decide, like an Ayn Randian, that 99% of the population is worth dismissing out of hand.

Having lots of people in a society whose life experiences are enriched by a broad, coordinated program of study is itself a social good. From the market’s perspective, it’s all merely a positive externality.

^1^’market’ because [a] how else would we quantify/measure gain, and [b] because that’s what people really mean when they say these things: how much profit will this person generate for financiers?

^2^I refuse to narrowly say higher education here. No point in separating higher education at this level of generality: an argument that the government should not subsidize art majors, works equally well to say the government should not subsidize high school art classes. It’s not like the core funding justifications for education ought to drastically change from high school to college. Or if they should, why they should ought to be made explicit.

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Phil 10.13.10 at 9:43 pm

I think the Burkean conservatism of “the status quo is at least no worse than the status quo” is little more than a way of avoiding spelling out an alternate set of priorities that would describe why the academy should be asked to adapt only through growth, never through shrinking.

But we haven’t yet seen the first set of priorities in any coherent form – or for that matter reached any agreement on what it is HE is supposed to adapt *to*. All I’m seeing is a destructive attack on the status quo in HE, and I think it’s quite reasonable to respond with a defence of the status quo as Not Too Bad, Could Easily Be A Lot Worse. (If that’s Burkean conservatism, so be it.)

I also don’t see anything intrinsically wrong or absurd in the idea of an HE sector that never shrinks. There’s more stuff to know about with every passing decade, after all, and I don’t think university libraries should be in the business of chucking out stock that hasn’t been used recently.

48

Chris Bertram 10.13.10 at 10:29 pm

Jon Livesy:

“You can’t tell the taxpayer “You are not entitled to have an opinion”.”

Perhaps not. But then I don’t recall the taxpayer being asked for an opinion on this at the recent general election.

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sg 10.13.10 at 11:45 pm

I’m staggered by the stupidity of the Tory party’s deficit terrorism. I don’t think anyone should have to suggest counter proposals to policies like this. The counter-proposal to insanity is sanity, isn’t it?

50

nick s 10.14.10 at 2:24 am

Clay: I may have overestimated the ability of the British system to produce overall diversity even as individual schools adjust their programs

I think you may have overestimated the capacity of the British governing class to be an adequate judge of academic diversity. At which point I’m reminded of George Walden’s pissing in the wind, and the payoff to dsquared’s recent post at his own gaff.

While the Gradgrindery came in early, I get the whiff of something slightly different, which is a reactionary yen for an Edwardian collegiate environment in which Oxbridge educates the “deserving”, a few redbricks accommodate the nonconformists. LSE provides a touch of innovation and foreign glamour, and The Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine keeps a good stock of slide rules.

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burritoboy 10.14.10 at 3:47 am

“producing the most gain’ [in market terms]“

No, I really actually meant the most gain. Of course, my touchstone for gain is Plato’s Hipparchus. As we now know, many of the people who pretended to know things (economists) didn’t in fact know them and caused loss, not gain.

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burritoboy 10.14.10 at 3:52 am

“Isn’t the problem perhaps that we who do and love philosophy have a particular vision of the world and its future in which what we do is indispensable, even fundamental, but visions of the world that do not see the value of philosophy will have a much easier time making their arguments, because their world is much more concrete and commodifiable.”

No, it’s the converse. The people who pretended to be the most concrete and commodifiable were in fact the most theoretical and nonsubstantial – and often were the most reliant on unstated philosophic assumptions. Real business cycle theory, anyone?

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burritoboy 10.14.10 at 3:56 am

Clay,

How about answering the question? We need to know what the best area of study is, the one that will create the best citizens. How do we approach this problem?

54

burritoboy 10.14.10 at 4:04 am

“And the same is true for Physics or engineering versus the social sciences.”

Please identify the gain produced by physics as opposed to philosophy. How do we compare these respective gains?

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burritoboy 10.14.10 at 4:13 am

“You can’t tell the taxpayer “You are not entitled to have an opinion”. And I’m afraid that’s true, even if you practice – snork – “thinking on the highest possible level”.”

What if the taxpayer is, as is the case here, relying on an economic model that we know to be false to determine her opinion?

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john c. halasz 10.14.10 at 5:04 am

“Will there continue to be strong demand for courses on distributive justice from our residual well-heeled students? Or will they prefer more aesthetics instead? “

O.K. Maybe this is a bit snarky, (since I’m neither an academic, nor a Brit), but why should an interest in justice be played off against an interest in “aesthetics”? Isn’t aesthetics an axiological discipline? Couldn’t it be a way of sensing and articulating various competing “goods”, which contribute to a sense of “justice”? Is this a matter of a rigid academic division-of-labor, of compulsory specialization? Is it because art is inherently unserious and tells us nothing about the world, whereas “justice” is a calculable matter? Or that the latter is somehow more efficacious than the former?

Isn’t there something of a contradiction here of advocating for a non-instrumentalist account of the “value” of the humanities, while assuming some implicit hierarchy of “utility”?

More generally, I blame the modern theoristic, “logical” compulsions of academia. A much older sense of the humanities would have understood them to be rooted in a rhetorical conception of knowledge, as organized around “commonplaces” or topoi, in a general understanding of the world. Since rhetorical, and, more broadly, communicative, operations are pervasive, not to mention anthropologically basic, the “will” to suppress their understanding and analysis might be a good deal more determined and sinister than mere economism would allow.

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Bruce Baugh 10.14.10 at 5:39 am

Clay, there’s a context here. I recently read a great description of the challenge of describing life on the receiving end of homophobia and other deeply ingrained prejudice to someone who hasn’t been there and is resisting clues: it’s like trying to describe a bird cage, but being allowed to only describe one wire at a time.

The US and Britain are suffering at the hands of gangs of vandals whose vision of the good society breaks down into three major slots: mansions and endless prosperity for the chosen few, Dickensian-nice modest quarters and humble lives for their designated lackeys, and burned-out streets, squalor, and starvation for the rest of us. They’re out to destroy everything they see as either irrelevant to their continuing enrichment or an impediment to the process.

We could have a sensible (inter-)national discussion of national budgeting priorities, including education. It’d start with the question “How much do we actually have that we can spend?”, and questions about how we get that much, and the desirability of placing extra financial burdens on the sectors of business proven to repeatedly destroy trillions of dollars of value, thrive on war crimes, and the like. But that’s not even in the same time zone as the kind of “debate” that Browne and his American counterparts are talking about. Sensible response begins with “We’ll deal with the rest once we get you to stop burning down houses.”

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Chris Bertram 10.14.10 at 6:21 am

halasz – I answered the point about aethetics in comments at #36.

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Keir 10.14.10 at 7:41 am

However, anyone familiar with the social backgrounds of sociology students and art history students might share my guess about the probable shift in interest.

Look, come out and say it: art historians are rich layabouts, unlike those morally upstanding folks studying such ethical subjects like sociology and distributive justice. It’d be a lot more attractive than this nudge and a wink crap.

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dsquared 10.14.10 at 12:54 pm

You would need a poll that would ask peers to, in effect, compare “Princeton in philosophy” to “Carnegie Mellon in statistics”, etc

I don’t think so; I’m prepared to tolerate whatever distribution of departments comes out of the rule-of-thumb “Fund any department that is in the top x%ile worldwide”. And, I think, to tolerate really quite skewed distributions of resources as a result – I would probably choke on the purity of it all if it turned out that my rule didn’t deliver even one single physics or economics department in the whole of the UK, but if 90% of British-born engineers had to do their degrees in France or Germany, versus 90% of the EU’s Media Studies graduates having done their training in the UK, I think I would probably call that a gain from trade.

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Clay Shirky 10.14.10 at 1:16 pm

@burritoboy, to be more explicit, my answer is “That’s the wrong question.” I am a Rortyian (Rortarian?) in believing that there is no universal measure against which one could even begin to define the best area of study, so I think the question is a) content-free and b) an obfuscated version of Burkean regard for the status quo, where the inability to propose a single Platonic metric for the good life is regarded as evidence that change is unneeded and uncalled for.

What I think there can be is a way to define the _worst_ areas of study, which is to say areas of study that don’t help people do the kinds of things people want to do (again with a pragamtist’s bias that knowing is for doing.) These can be local (“The physics department at Little Wotting is bad on every conceivable measure”) or global (“We can safely dismantle the Alchemy Department, despite their having tenured faculty.”)

To make this practical, I think that money should flow out of Russian and French and into Arabic and Chinese, because of the relative chance in importance of those cultures. This change is already happening in many places, driven by students voting with their feet; neither your requested utilitarian metric nor Chris’s original formulation help me understand when, _if ever_, money should be taken from one department and put into another.

Now, reading @Bruce at #57, I think Chris’s answer might be “Of course I have an idea for when a particular subject at a particular school should be shut down, but I’m not going to articulate it while the vultures are circling, as they’ll pervert it to further their philistine ends.”

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Clay Shirky 10.14.10 at 1:18 pm

and of course chance == change, as in ‘relative change in importance of those cultures’

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Substance McGravitas 10.14.10 at 3:09 pm

Now, reading @Bruce at #57, I think Chris’s answer might be “Of course I have an idea for when a particular subject at a particular school should be shut down, but I’m not going to articulate it while the vultures are circling, as they’ll pervert it to further their philistine ends.”

When of course the proper way to handle the philistine argument is to achieve its ends by means that are more satisfactory.

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burritoboy 10.14.10 at 4:04 pm

Clay,

The question is not change. The question is what change?

“areas of study that don’t help people do the kinds of things people want to do”

But that’s precisely begging the question. In the Renaissance, alchemy studies would be (and indeed were) very popular – because alchemy was viewed as a possible way to turn lead into gold. We don’t fund alchemy studies now, not because people don’t still want to change lead into gold but because we believe that alchemy does not lead to knowledge (in particular, knowledge about turning lead into gold). We’re not particularly interested in whether Christine O’Donnell or the general population believes that alchemy is a form of knowing – we simply don’t fund alchemy studies because it’s not a form of knowledge.

Further, what people want to do is more than a bit vague. We (generally) don’t educate students on how to find the best pornography sites on the Internet, even though it’s clear that many (male) students spend (very large) amounts of their time doing precisely that. Why don’t we teach Pornography Studies?

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bjk 10.14.10 at 4:07 pm

“I am a Rortyian (Rortarian?) in believing that there is no universal measure against which one could even begin to define the best area of study, so I think the question is a) content-free and b) an obfuscated version of Burkean regard for the status quo, where the inability to propose a single Platonic metric for the good life is regarded as evidence that change is unneeded and uncalled for.”

Wow, Rorty, Burke, and Plato in one blog comment . . . “Obfuscated version of Burkean regard”? NO PLATONIC METRIC? OMG!!! MUST CONSULT WIKIPEDIA!!!!

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Phil 10.14.10 at 5:00 pm

To make this practical, I think that money should flow out of Russian and French and into Arabic and Chinese, because of the relative chance in importance of those cultures

Why ‘should’ money flow out of Russian and French? To make this even more practical, Hypothetical University has four expensive senior lecturers specialising (and publishing) in Russian and French, and reporting to two even more expensive (but highly research-active and eminent) professors. Who benefits directly from these people being sacked?

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Shelley 10.14.10 at 5:16 pm

Education is not a business. There ought to be a third path that is not forcing competitive “free” (never free) market “values” but not allowing indolent self-satisfaction.

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bianca steele 10.14.10 at 6:18 pm

Clay Shirky @ 61
I don’t think Rorty necessarily supports the idea that the lack of a timeless measure of value means we can’t dispute value in good faith. Maybe it will turn out we can’t dispute value in good faith, but the lack of a “universal” standard of value might only be a fact of interest to practitioners of a historically specific form of philosophy (which was already in decline when Rorty began his career). We shouldn’t confuse the decline of a specific standard with a paralyzing lack of any standard.

That said, I don’t quite see the point of burritoboy’s question either. Also, I doubt the alchemy department was dismantled. The faculty were probably distributed to other departments. Not necessarily the tenured faculty, who might not have stood for being demoted.

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roger 10.15.10 at 7:47 am

It is interesting to see affluent societies – much more affluent than, say, they were in the sixties, when the great college and university funding system started – engaging in these kinds of cuts for one reason: to preserve the power and wealth of those at the top. Habsburg Spain and Louis XIV’s France both went bankrupt pursuing wars that made no kind of sense for the vast majority of the population, but that fed into the vanity of the court. Similarly, the Anglosphere seems intent on bankrupting economies and destroying the middle class in order to preserve a financial sector and its well paid upper management crewe – this, in order to provide ever more efficient means of extracting rents from moving money aroud for a very tiny portion of the population, no more than half of one percent.

The counterproposal to cuts in higher education should be cuts in preserving the lifestyles of the rich and the famous – I’m sure, for instance, the 37 billion dollars spent on saving the RBS would have been better spent on French and Russian departments, if spent at all. The counterproposal should be shooting for a regime that strives for equality – viz the recent dustup about New Labour – and that rejects the failed trickle down economics of neo-liberalism. The counterproposal would be that affluent societies should be about affluence for all, with the fruit of that being, for instance, a period in the life of all humans when, from 18 to 22, they have plenty of leisure to read, draw, do engineering or chemistry, paint, write, make films, etc. Which of course they can make use of in lives in which less hours are devoted to work – 30 at the most. Because of course a society like the UK has generated the wealth that would make that easily doable, if the distribution of wealth weren’t so wildly and unhealthily skewed to the wealthiest.

Back in the dark Cold War age, we were told that Stalin destroyed Russian culture and we all admired dissidents writing their novels and poetry to denounce the infamy of the system. Now, in the bright post-Cold War era, we are managing to purge the rotten habit of teaching novels and poetry (substituting courses in management writing that promote The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People and other shining gems) without any blood being shed at all – showing the Communists how the destruction of culture can be done right, and in a humane spirit!

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novakant 10.15.10 at 8:33 am

I’m prepared to tolerate whatever distribution of departments comes out of the rule-of-thumb “Fund any department that is in the top x%ile worldwide”.

How about we would have applied this rule to the financial sector: since the raison d’etre for banks is to turn a profit, those that were incurring losses by definition cannot be very good at what they’re doing and thus were not eligible for public funding. But hey, nobody would ever even dare to think that way nowadays and it’s of course much easier to take on soft, defenseless targets like the “underperforming” department of Comparative Literature in some provincial backwater.

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maidhc 10.15.10 at 8:56 am

At least one American university system is adapting to British models. The California State University system has retained Sir Michael Barber to bring “Deliverology” to America.

http://defendthecsu.blogspot.com/2010/01/deliver-us-from-deliverology.html
http://blog.newsystemsthinking.com/deliverology-rears-its-ugly-head-in-the-united-states/
http://www.calfac.org/resource/deliverology-etc-resources

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Mike Otsuka 10.15.10 at 9:34 am

“Will the remaining humanities departments increasingly function as finishing schools for the gilded youth? Will there continue to be strong demand for courses on distributive justice from our residual well-heeled students? Or will they prefer more aesthetics instead? No doubt there will be bursaries and scholarships to compensate, but one worries that these will make more of a cosmetic than a material difference.”

Ivy League and other comparably expensive and selective universities in the US provide actual examples of what might be described as finishing schools for the gilded youth. Yet there’s strong demand for courses on distributive justice in these universities (e.g., Michael Sandel’s course on justice is able to fill Harvard’s largest lecture hall to the rafters). In my somewhat dated and limited experience as a student and teacher in an Ivy League university, the demand would remain high if non-gilded students on financial aid were removed from the equation.

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Chris Bertram 10.15.10 at 10:43 am

Mike Otsuka – I can well believe that’s true of Harvard, but I wonder if that has to do with contingent features of American identity and recent history (the importance of citizenship, civics, the constitution etc) which don’t translate well into a British context. Naturally, I want to be wrong about this one.

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BenSix 10.15.10 at 11:25 am

…if the surviving cheaper institutions no longer put the humanities on the menu (witness the recent axing of philosophy at Middlesex)…

Not sure that’s the best example. Middlesex has more humanities students than we’ve hairs on our heads: journalism, theatre, creative writing, dance, music. Why philosophy got the chop is anyone’s guess.

…the value of the arts and humanities isn’t confined to just one or two dimensions, economic or political. Rather the study of history, philosophy, music or poetry provides students with an enrichment of experience, a sense of who they are and what the possibilities might be for them as human beings.

Absolutely. I agree. A problem, though, is that if University becomes a “basic requirement” humanities courses will be packed with folks who aren’t that keen study but feel obliged to. They needn’t be of lesser value to a person than, say, medicine or architecture but they are less challenging!

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engels 10.15.10 at 1:00 pm

Anyone who has listened to David Cameron or people like him talking recently knows that many well off people in Britain are _very_ interested in fairness and justice right at the moment.

I do think that if working class people’s perspectives were to be more effectively excluded from ‘high quality’ discussions of political philosophy than they already are it seems very plausible this would have some effect on the character of the field.

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Norwegian Guy 10.15.10 at 1:44 pm

One imagines that Browne, as a senior business executive, would be appalled if the government started “picking winners” in a reversion to old-style industrial policy, but when it comes to education, he’s not content to leave it to the market for fear that the consumer might sign up for media studies.

But an industrial policy is a good thing, and Britain could surely need one, instead of a deindustrialisation policy. And, similarly, the government also ought to have a strategic education policy. If there is a need for more teachers and less business administrators, there should be a policy to educate more teachers and less business administrators. There’s nothing particularly “right-wing” about such a policy – prioritising social needs over individual choice and letting the government steer resources in beneficial directions are left-wing in my book. And the left has been (or at least should be) fond of vocational educations. There is no point in educating too many philosophers – there is only a fairly limited amount jobs to be filled, and people who have studied philosophy and are unemployed or working as cashiers etc. would probably have been better of studied something else.

And than there is something especially foolish about cutting higher education during a recession. When unemployment increasing, more people want to go to colleges and university, so the sector should be expanded instead. This way it can act as a counter-cyclical reducer of unemployment. This way it can act as a countercyclical reducer of unemployment.

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Norwegian Guy 10.15.10 at 1:48 pm

(but – what if there are no electronic engineering departments in Britain which are as good as the worst music department? Then let us send our budding electronic engineers to America or the Netherlands!)

It has been raised as a problem in this thread, that certain fields of study, like philosophy, could be closed to working class people. It’s no better if electrical engineering is closed to the working class. Working class people are probably less likely to study abroad than the upper middle class. And this argument works both ways – it’s not like you can’t study philosophy abroad.

A country needs both philosophers and electrical engineers, and a the UK is surely capable of education both. But most people don’t want to travel abroad to study, they want to go somewhere closer to home. Instead, many of those who would have studied electrical engineering will study something else instead. And this something else might less beneficial to both the individual and to society.

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Alison P 10.15.10 at 2:04 pm

I’m a working class person and I think a degree in philosophy was a great investment. It was three-way good: life-enriching, gave me actual skills that I’ve used all my working life, and made it easier to get a job. I wouldn’t have guessed all that in advance though.

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novakant 10.15.10 at 3:38 pm

If there is a need for more teachers and less business administrators, there should be a policy to educate more teachers and less business administrators. There’s nothing particularly “right-wing” about such a policy – prioritising social needs over individual choice and letting the government steer resources in beneficial directions are left-wing in my book.

I really don’t care if it’s right or left wing – it’s wrong and it doesn’t work. It’s wrong because individual choice should be respected and encouraged instead of steered by bureaucrats. It doesn’t work because there a way too many fluctuating factors determining the situation on the job market for anyone to tell people what the situation will be like in the time it takes to get a degree.

Btw, students of philosophy are generally aware of the fact that they won’t become philosophers but will work in other fields and they do.

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bianca steele 10.15.10 at 4:42 pm

@59 I actually remember noticing that a good number of staff members at Boston’s art museum had graduated from the fairly low-tier state college just up the hill from me, though on reflection I don’t remember whether they were curators or art instructors at the attached school. In any case, I actually have no idea how people are taught in universities at different tiers than my own–only bits and pieces of information–at that school you can apparently get a pretty good education, and multiple-choice exams are pretty standard–at this school, an intro to “thought in our time” included a critique of “Darwinism” as needing to be supplemented with Teilhard de Chardin, as is well-known.

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ajay 10.15.10 at 4:46 pm

To make this practical, I think that money should flow out of Russian and French and into Arabic and Chinese, because of the relative change in importance of those cultures

If you’re one of those dodgy European types, then Russian and French are, respectively, the language of the country that is both your biggest military threat and your biggest energy supplier, and the language of the country that is both one of your biggest military allies and one of the largest economies in your region. They’re still kind of important.

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burritoboy 10.15.10 at 5:14 pm

“There is no point in educating too many philosophers – there is only a fairly limited amount jobs to be filled”

There cannot be enough philosophers. The greatest possible benefit to the population of Great Britain (and most other countries) would be a philosophic training that gave them the ability to challenge their oligarchy’s trivial and largely false economic thinking. Once you look at Hayek’s epistemology, philosophers start laughing. Once you look at Friedman’s philosophy of science, philosophers start laughing. Browne is a fool since he believes in Hayek’s and Friedman’s nonsense.

Of course, positions as philosophy professors at the university level are limited in number. But there’s comparatively little that necessarily ties philosophy to the modern university’s understanding of disciplines. Historically, most of the well-known philosophers did not teach in philosophy departments. Many were not academics at all (Xenophon, Cicero, Leibniz, Maimonides, Spinoza, Hume, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau for just a few examples), taught in a wild variety of academic disciplines outside of philosophy (Aquinas was a theology professor, Machiavelli was a professor of rhetoric, Frege a professor of mathematics, for just a few examples), or were technically philosophy professors for comparatively short amounts of time (Hegel, Wittgenstein for just a few examples).

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Steve Poling 10.15.10 at 5:47 pm

Grand Rapids, MI has an annual contest called Art Prize that awards a popularly selected $250k. It has simultaneously raised the awareness of the local populace of art, and it has also blurred the lines between “art” and “technology” since many of the pieces required some serious engineering to pull off. Arts vs sciences is not a zero-sum game for this reason.

However, turn the perspective to “makers” vs “takers.” Both artists and engineers are “makers” while both lawyers and community activists (e.g. Mr. Obama) are “takers.” Any society that cultivates a lot of “makers” will have more wealth for “takers” to spread around, than a competing society that subsidizes “takers” instead.

Are philosophers makers or takers? That is an interesting question.

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Barry 10.15.10 at 7:31 pm

Seconding burritoboy here – the more people who are trained to think, and have the liberal arts background to raise their hackles at people saying “it’s Different Now”, the better off we are.

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TallDave 10.16.10 at 12:06 am

This is hilarously reminiscent of “You’ll have a national Philosopher’s strike on your hands!”

There cannot be enough philosophers.

Really? Who’s going to feed the philosophers, if everyone is a philosopher? And then there’s clothing, housing, transport, etc. Well, at least they’ll be able to congratulate each other on not being oligarchs before they die of cold and starvation, and laugh at those warm, well-fed free-market fools.

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john c. halasz 10.16.10 at 1:11 am

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engels 10.16.10 at 2:51 pm

With just 11.5% of its intake coming from working-class families, Oxford is bottom in this particular table. Cambridge is next, with 12.6%, and Bristol, another member of the Russell Group, comes in third at 14.2%. Just two of the universities in the bottom 10 – Durham and Bath – come from outside the Russell Group (both are members of the 1994 Group).

The figures, based on the occupation of students’ parents, compares with an average working-class intake of 32.3% across all universities in the country. In total, 37% of the UK’s population is estimated to come from routine and manual occupations. The figures – from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) – of students entering full-time education in 2008-09 (the latest data available) may not even show the true extent of the underrepresentation because students from long-term unemployed families are not included.

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, defends her members’ record, insisting that the “underlying cause” of the problem was occurring long before university. [...]

Education Guardian’s analysis finds that the subjects students choose are also heavily weighted by socio-economic background. Medicine, dentistry and veterinary science are the subjects least often chosen, with just 18.2% of the students on these courses coming from working-class families. Figures for historical and philosophical studies are also low, at 24.2%, and languages, at 25.9%.

But experts outside the Russell Group argue that the problem isn’t just at school level, and that universities must share some responsibility. “Elite universities have always valued traditional subjects taught by particular schools,” says Miriam David, professor of education at the Institute of Education, who has carried out research projects on class and inclusion.

[...]

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engels 10.16.10 at 2:56 pm

Full list by subject and institution here.

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engels 10.19.10 at 11:15 pm

Furthermore, I do have to strongly disagree with the ‘understandable’ self-serving views of Chris’ unnamed professional colleagues. As I have previously pointed out on more than a few occasions here, tuition fees were always a horribly regressive idea which may have been of moderate financial benefit to a small number of already relatively advantaged academics and managers, at a huge cost to social progress in this country. To the extent that they had a ‘moral’ justification, it was the individualist one of ‘pay for what you use’ public services, and they meant extending the rotten ethos of British private schools into HE.

Anyone who thinks that ‘middle class entitlement’ motivated free higher education is sociologically naive at best. What middle class entitlement demands is secure access for the offspring of wealthy parents, more or less regardless of effort or ability, to career paths that enable them to reproduce their privileges. Is there any more effective way of achieving this than restricting access to Britain’s ‘best’ universities to those who can afford £12 000+ / year in fees? Britain may soon have the most expensive system of higher education in the world and wealthy people, at least those who ‘want the best for their children’, will be the winners from this state of affairs, even if some of them are too stupid to realise this. The losers will be the rest of us, but especially bright working class students, who will soon find places like Oxford, UCL or Bristol even more of a no-go area than they already are.

UCU also has a very good statement on this here:

http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=5058

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