In defence of the humanities: Why this Government is wrong to scorn an arts education

Our next generation of artists and film-makers will suffer from these cuts

Share

Back in 2005, David Cameron said something that made me consider, quite out of character, voting Conservative. “Education that inspires and instils a love of books, of knowledge and of learning,” he declared, “is one route to a happy and fulfilling life.” For someone invested in the arts, particularly in the role of humanities education in producing a thriving arts sector, that was quite an arresting sentiment.

But, eight years down the line, the Conservative-led coalition has pioneered an arts policy that, in the words of a recent article by Sir Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, “adds up to little more than a reduction in investment”. As if that were not enough, Maria Miller, the secretary of state responsible for culture, recently gave a speech suggesting that she sees culture as a cash cow whose survival will depend on the economic case that it can moo for its own viability.

In much subsequent debate about the relationship between culture and a thriving economy, an equally important relationship has been neglected: the one between the arts and education. Many voices have rightly been raised against the closure of libraries and cuts to the Arts Council budget. We also need to question what is going on in the field of humanities education, and how this will impact the arts sector.

Under the coalition government, humanities education in Britain has been ruthlessly downgraded and dismissed. Even as Michael Gove’s “EBacc” – a disjointed league table measure – encourages schools to ditch arts subjects,  cuts to funding councils have meant that taught masters courses are longer publicly funded, and funding for research masters degrees and doctorates in the humanities will be slashed by about 47 per cent and 20 per cent respectively from 2013-14 .

The cuts that have been made to humanities education at postgraduate level deserve particular attention, precisely because the average member of the public with no interest in academia will probably not be that bothered about them. There is, however, an intrinsic though largely invisible link between humanities research and artistic production. Is it really possible to think that artistic achievements - unlike scientific advances, businesses built up from the ground or vocational skills - come out of nowhere?

Underlying every book or film, each piece of music or drama or visual art, is the invisible weight of generations of humanities research. Art overlaps. Humanities research is seldom acknowledged, but is nonetheless an indispensable part of the development of ideas.

It is no coincidence that Iris Murdoch spent much of her writing life as a fellow in Philosophy at Oxford, and her novels were heavily influenced by Plato, Julian of Norwich and Simone Weil.  It was integral to J.R.R. Tolkien’s fiction that he was a professor in Anglo-Saxon literature. Zadie Smith’s third novel, On Beauty, takes a humanities department as its setting, and its title is borrowed from the critic Elaine Scarry’s philosophical critique ‘On Beauty and Being Just’.

But the importance of research is not confined to writers with a foot in academia. Julian Barnes’s fascination with the literature of Flaubert, which has shaped his oeuvre in such important ways, derives partly from a special paper that he took as an undergraduate. Hilary Mantel’s magnificent record-busters are built upon a formidable body of historical research (she has cited cutting edge research on Henry VIII’s fertility troubles).

Literature doesn’t hold a monopoly on this phenomenon. Film-makers Ethan and Joel Cohen are majors from NYU film school and Princeton’s philosophy department. Steve Bell’s political cartoons are rooted deep in the artistic tradition of James Gillray. The music of Béla Bartók and Vaughan Williams was influenced by research into folksong; the music of Kraftwerk, which spawned electronica, was inspired by the composer Stockhaussen. Stewart Lee and Josie Long, among others, are humanities graduates who have emphasised the importance of their arts educations to their comedy. Numerous films, TV series and theatrical productions depend on the largely invisible but essential presence of historical consultants.

Even when a piece of art seems to come out of nowhere, it doesn’t. It can’t. Every single one of these artists encountered our canon either through a university degree or through independent research, understanding and absorbing it with the help of academics. They took their slice of our intellectual culture, passed it through their own creative filter, and put it out into the world for others to enjoy.

I know how this works because I’ve done it myself. I have published one novel, which was influenced by Barnes, Murdoch and Philip Pullman, and also drew heavily on narratological theory encountered during my undergraduate degree. I’m writing my second, which is influenced by the fiction of Hilary Mantel and Andrew Miller, but most heavily by the interdisciplinary environment of the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York.

Our current cultural scene is the work of diligent learners – many of them university graduates - whose learning was previously informed by the learning of others, sponsored by the state in a happier time to enrich our culture and ignite young minds.

But the Murdochs and Tolkiens and Lees and Coen Brothers of tomorrow are being forced to incur huge amounts of personal debt to qualify in their subjects. The academics whose work will buffer the art of tomorrow’s Barneses and Mantels are having their funding snatched away and being forced to compete for ever-dwindling pots of money to carry out their research.

David Cameron was right when he said in 2005 that learning is necessary for happiness. It fortifies our society like a subliminal layer of muscle and tendon. We seldom see it but by god, we will miss it when it’s gone.

As May 2015 creeps closer, as political parties start to construct manifestos, anybody who views a vibrant cultural, intellectual and emotional life as a desirable thing – for themselves, their friends and neighbours, their children – must struggle to articulate the value of humanities research, and to fight for it as a funding priority.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
More From
Sophie Coulombeau
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Science teachers needed in Norwich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teachers requ...

Semi Senior Accountant - Music

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

English teachers required in Lowestoft

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified English tea...

Business Development Director - Interior Design

£80000 - £100000 per annum + competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Strikes were carried out by manned air force and navy aircraft (File photo)  

Syria air strikes: President Assad now has the enemy he always wanted – Islamist terrorism

Kim Sengupta
 

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits