Universities humanities provision should never become history

12 May 2021
Posted by Sir Keith Burnett

Universities humanities provision should never become history

I was truly saddened when I heard that some universities facing severe financial pressures are thinking of closing their degrees in the Arts and Humanities. These are hard times for higher education. One institution is considering closing its entire department of History, Languages and Translation, in another History and Human Geography courses will not recruit from this next academic year.

As a former Vice-Chancellor myself, I understand the need to balance a university’s books, of course, or to refocus provision from time to time. Those who lead institutions now though do so in a financial context they did not design and faced with events (a global pandemic and the loss of international student income) they could not have predicted.

But this is different, a trend with consequences. So despite my empathy for those trying to steady an institution in a funding storm, I also see this as a shift with implications which reach far beyond the walls of hard-pressed universities.

In recent years the focus of UK education policy has been on the incentivisation of ‘high value’ STEM courses, along with the expansion of vocational education. As a physicist and former Head of Maths and Physical Sciences at The University of Oxford, and a long-standing advocate for technical and vocational education, you might expect me to agree with that emphasis. But if you think I’d support a move away from the study of subjects like History outside an elite, you’d be wrong.

Let me explain. When I was 16, along with other comprehensive school boys in Wales at the time, I had to make a choice. My best subjects as a pupil were History, French, Physics, Chemistry and Maths. But our system determined I couldn’t keep my interests open, I was faced with a junction in the intellectual road and had to decide.

It was a terrible wrench at the time. I’d become fluent in French after an exchange holiday stay with an exchange family and my love of all things to do with History was already deep, and has stayed with me down the years.

When I look back, I think how artificial a choice that was. How wonderful it would have been if I and others like me had been able to carry on thinking about really important issues for our country and civilisation in the light of what had gone before. I set my own course in the Sciences, but the knowledge that this was only a partial view of our lives remained.

Over the years, I have realised just how incomplete my education was. For me, the 2015 series by historian David Olusoga on Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners brought me face-to-face with an awareness of my ignorance of Britain’s involvement in the economy of slavery, and hit me like a thunderbolt. This absent insight made new sense of our cities, institutions and economies. It challenged assumptions and offered humbling insights about how we became who we are, and whose work and lives made that possible. A hard lesson, but one that matters.

There are other histories we should confront, each of them with insights which have relevance to our own lives and times. It isn’t just the wider history of Empires of of the Great Wars which engulfed our world and in so many ways shaped the economies and geopolitics of our own times. The ancient past has relevance too.

Consider one of the biggest threats to democracy of our day - disinformation and fake news. Think that’s a new problem? Not at all. The great monuments of Ancient Egypt and the carved reliefs tell of enemies conquered and battled won. Evidence of triumph? Well don’t believe all you read.

It is historians who teach us to question and to check the evidence. In the case of Egypt, the Great Ramses’ commissioned his own historical texts and had the story of his triumphs carved onto temples at Abu Simbel, Karnak, Luxor and Abydos. But famous monuments declaring his victories and skills as a warrior it turns out are little more than ancient propaganda. An examination of archaeological evidence and texts not commissioned by the Pharaoh himself shows the ruler portrayed victory despite the reality of defeat.

Piecing together this evidence took years, but it is rich in contemporary resonance with powerful rulers who declare themselves victorious regardless of the facts. We have seen our fair share of that lately.

Historians are the fact-checkers of our accounts of civilisations and power. At their best, they challenge and reveal. They ask how we know what we know, what we can trust and who we should believe. They sort through conflicting narratives, the prominent and the unsung, in the search for understanding. They seek to comprehend and to share what they have learned with us. They are the detectives investigating not only crimes but the rise and fall of powers, and the stories of our lives - the victors and the vanquished.

My predecessor at Sheffield as Vice-Chancellor Bob Boucher was an engineer by education and passion. But he readily praised the skills of historians such as his Registrar David Fletcher which he believed brought to complex tasks the ability to sift information, to form judgments about what mattered and to express this convincingly. To him this was a highly-transferable skill needed in many organisations and fields of endeavour, and he praised it amongst his graduates. To have a superb Department of History as well as Mechanical Engineering was a sign of a whole education in his Steel City.

So why the threat to history and other humanities courses now? And does it really matter?

Some of the blame I believe lies at the choice I and so many others are still forced to make at 16 - a largely British problem. Most countries do not require pupils to make momentous choices about what they need to understand of the world at such an early age. We compound this error with a perception that A levels in History and Languages are especially hard and that it is more difficult to achieve high grades in these subjects, whether this is true or not. Those seeking a higher UCAS score or planning to focus on Sciences like me turn away. Many never go back.

Yet at what cost? There are very few across the political spectrum who think young people know too little history, although they argue about the curriculum. And it’s worse than that.

The threat to subjects like History is not shared across the whole of higher education. History at Oxford and Cambridge will be fine. The risk is that its study will be focused in institutions which are more commonly the preserve of the middle-class student. That its questions and challenges are less accessible to those on the wrong side of History’s tracks.

This would be a terrible loss, as is the separation of disciplines. I welcome the study of manufacturing apprentices on the plains of Orgreave, and fought for this in my time as a Vice-Chancellor. But I have never believed that those who weld or braze should not also have the opportunity to understand the history of their communities and of the world their forebears built.

Today apprentices study on the site of the last stand between the police and miners, what some see as the final battle of an industrial civil war. I am proud of the renewal which has taken place there, and of the reinvigoration of a centuries old tradition of craftsmanship and innovation, but our places and communities have a rich history.

There are reasons we face the challenges we do, and inspiration in the accomplishments of those who went before. History matters and its conclusions have resonances for our own times too important to be the preserve of the few. For as William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” This article was published by the Times Higher Education on May 12 2021. Read the full story here.

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