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Hope and fear in the humanities

By Professor Rick Rylance

Are the humanities in crisis? We asked professor Rick Rylance for his thoughts, in relation to our festival theme of 'Hope and Fear'. Here he discusses the intricacies of the current climate around the humanities, laying out the hopes and fears of those working in the field and placing them in context and perspective.

We live in the best of times and the worst of times, as Dickens famously said of the French Revolution. But it’s often difficult to separate hopes from fears when humanists mull over the prospects for our disciplines. Like many I talk to, I’m weary of apparently habitual, rolling discontent about our futures. And I have long pondered why it is that a set of disciplines such as my own in English Literature appear to be so glum. It is something that puzzled and often exasperated the people I worked with in government for six and a half years while I was CEO of the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council and Chair of Research Councils UK.

Other disciplines do seem bracingly free of instinctive gloom. Everybody thinks they need more money (and they do); everybody thinks government doesn’t understand them; everyone is anxious to be appreciated; most disciplinary domains have ‘crisis’ subjects from time to time (economics, physics until recently, chemistry, for example; while it seems to be the national anthem for engineering). But fears among humanists seem to have sharper and more recurrent edges.

The origins of these may be constitutional (humanists often consider themselves critical outsiders and expect reprisals); they may be historical (despite enormous growth in subjects like English, the humanities no longer enjoy the centrality of yore). There may be psychological insecurities (perhaps we are no longer legitimate as a mode of knowledge?). There are plausible concerns about – and a distaste for – the drift in mainstream policy debate about higher education as currently constituted (employability, quantification, social engagement, marketisation, etc.). But we are not alone in this. It may just be lab-envy.

There are real issues in the supposedly general ‘crisis of the humanities’. Modern languages have the best-evidenced case of serial weakening about which policy-makers seem slow or indifferent. Other subjects too, such as archaeology, are buffeted by decline in student interest. Classics too, though admirably in recovery, has had alarmed moments. But there is a bit of a contrast between sentiments of gloom and some structural facts about the humanities in the UK just now. In aggregate, there are more students studying these subjects than ever before in British history; there are more staff; more postgraduates; more research money; and in fact more money through teaching albeit from a mechanism – increasing fees – to which it is more than possible to object.

More widely there are more books read in the UK than ever; more museums visited; more concerts attended; more galleries browsed. According to the UK Office of National Statistics, average household expenditure on the arts and culture rose by an astonishing 60% between 1997 and 2011. The post-Olympics report Britain in 2012: Who do we think we are? was much more cheering than otherwise for humanists.

The ‘humanities crisis’ looks different across the world. Everyone feels under-appreciated of course, but signals from different countries are far from consistent. From what I have read, and from personal acquaintance, in Spain, or Israel, or Japan, for example, there is real depreciation in the humanities’ material base. Enrolment trends in the United States, though still a gigantic system, are not encouraging. Nor does France carry its historic humanist confidence. French research seems less weighty than previously, and data on levels of reading and publishing nationally show worrying deterioration – in interesting contrast to the UK.

On the other hand, one hears more optimistic analyses from, for instance, Canada or Germany as well as the UK. In China, where a system based on STEM and business studies sky-rocketed over recent decades, the rate of increase of student enrolment in the arts now exceeds that in STEM. The 200+ pages of the Swedish-led Humanities World Report 2015 offers little evidence for structurally-conditioned melancholy. It concludes that ‘the humanities are not in a crisis. Although funding is an issue, we did not find general evidence of disproportionate decline.’ The report is not confined to matters of money.

It is an interesting question as to why there are so many long faces and why we seem so reluctant to tell our best stories about our importance and our value. For there is hope as well as concern in our times, and negative public prognostication and private passion and commitment seem often to be at odds. As for my own discipline, English literature, I’ve tried in a recent book from Oxford University Press Literature and the Public Good to set out a few reasons to be more cheerful. Evolutionarily, fear can be good. But hope is better.

Professor Rick Rylance is the Director of the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. His recent book Literature and the Public Good is available from Oxford University Press and offers a new justification of the importance of humanities to our education and lives.