“No history departments have yet closed in England,” writes James Vernon in the latest edition of Perspectives on History (a news magazine of the American Historical Association), “but it may just be a matter of time.”

Can’t get any gloomier than that. Oh. Wait.

Seems in England, there is a “repositioning” of the discipline of History, as in “the removal of all public funding for it…” Austerity measures in England (this excludes Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales…for now) demands the exposure of History, as well as “the teaching of arts, humanities, and social sciences”; in a phrase, all of the humanities to “market mechanisms.” If students do not flock to course work in let’s say the History of Ancient Rome, then the university is obliged to remove it, beginning in 2012.

But should the Humanities be exposed to the Invisible Hand of market forces?  Does not the study of humanity hold purpose in the twenty-first century? Is there not “public value” in studying our past? Is there “utility” for endeavoring to understand who we are – this race we call human and all that we have, are, and will produce? Or are we all destined to be robotrons dedicated to the almighty MBA or Computer Science degree?

Nearly a year ago conservative columnist David Brooks made a case for the Humanities in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, “History for Dollars.” He wrote “it is almost inevitable that over the next few years, as labor markets struggle, the humanities will continue their long slide,” thus my vote for Mr. Brooks as the next prophet in the Book of Wall Street.

In actuality, David Brooks merely pointed to clear observable trends: the Humanities have been taking a thrashing over the last generation; for example, liberal arts majors have dropped off by 50 percent since the first years of the Reagan administration. Yet, Brooks charges that a college student steeped in “Thucydides, Herodotus and Gibbon” will be that employee that can “read and write,” discern “meaning,” provide “familiarity with the language of emotion,” “brand” products rather than invent them, wax poetic

What would Thucydides say?

with a “wealth of analogies,” “think more precisely,” and understand “the systems of human behavior: economics, political science, game theory and evolutionary psychology” better than the employee that avoided the Humanities at all costs.

Brooks alluded to the weirdness of human fallibility, the unpredictability of the human spirit. Brooks’ assertion, then, is to allow the humanities to thrive, to allow students to steep themselves in the ancients – or at least a couple of thousand of years of written language, prose, epics, and poetries that deal with just that: the ridiculousness of the human psychosis.

But Brooks relegated the Humanities to a mere understanding of human emotions. I disagree. Studying the humanities allows additional intellectual insights into our past justifications for some fairly brutish ideas: wholesale slavery, genocide, imperialism, and so on. One can argue, that the globalized system of trade – an invention since the latter days of Marco Polo (fourteenth century) – creates more disparities than it does commonalities; that there exists a north/south axis or first world/third world dichotomy that unnecessarily causes hate, discontent, and general all around ill feelings. However, one can argue the other way that the world systemized for economic trade has actually spread wealth; just look at India, China, Russia and Brazil (since 1991) for proof that market forces work. Both arguments, by the way, are promulgated best by the hands of humanists that take the totality of time, man, and history into account.

Meanwhile, back in England, universities are already making decisions as to where they want to “specialize” in their course offerings to students. For example, only twentieth-century history will be taught at Sussex; no offerings of ancient, medieval, or early modern histories to be had, though one leads inextricably to the other and the ghosts of all live with us even unto today.

Yet, under the guise of “emergency” budget cutting sessions, the coalition Tory/Liberal Democrat government has “effectively scrapped public funding for the teaching of degrees in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.” The “Lord Browne Report” has become the blue print by which Prime Minister David Cameron deconstructs – sorry – “repositions” history in the English universities.

All of this does not bode well for me in my pursuit of a doctorate from the University of Bristol. I’ve studies economics – a human system according to Brooks (I concur) – long enough to understand the word “externality,” or something that exist external to a corporate balance sheet but nonetheless exist and has a human cost (think pollution from a smokestack that then rains acid killing a lake destroying a fishing and tourist industry). If there is an all out assault on the humanities, and if this attack is transnational as Berkeley Professor James Vernon insists, then what is the human costs of not studying humans?

Advertisements