In not one but two Spectator op-eds this week, Douglas Murray laid waste to the Guardian's claim that "more than forty senior academics write to condemn what they see as an anti-Corbyn bias in media coverage of the antisemitism debate." And in so doing, he eviscerated the sorry state of humanities education in the U.K. with an acid wit. "The list of fourth-rate figures named as ‘senior academics’ by the Guardian," Murray wrote, "includes a saxophonist, a zombie expert, an expert in video games, [and] someone whose listed university has never heard of her." He was especially hard on Becky Gardiner, who once wrote for the Guardian but is now "teaching ‘media and communications’ at Goldsmiths, where she is guiding a new generation of students into unemployment." Ouch.
Here in Canada, venerable Globe columnist John Ibbitson last week wrote an earnest lament about the continuing decline of the humanities and social sciences on our own university campuses. STEM is where it's at these days, he noted correctly. "Everyone knows that if you want a job in the real word, you should avoid majoring in anything that ends in 'ology' or 'Studies.' And yet, more than ever, we need graduates who are steeped in the humanities and social sciences. Our future depends on it."
Does it, does it really?
What Murray, Ibbitson and well-meaning professors everywhere fret about is the declining relevance of humanities education. They're right—this is the issue, and it has been for decades. But there are two ways to be irrelevant, and they are too often conflated.
The first falls under the rubric of the "barista myth," which holds that a humanities education no longer promises socio-economic upward mobility. There are good data challenging this stereotype, and eloquent spokespersons like Gabriel Miller, executive director of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, to give them voice. "Humanities and social sciences graduates (excluding fine-arts graduates, who truly were born to suffer) typically find work right after graduating, start out with decent salaries, and see their income rise robustly, reaching an average of between $57,000 and $62,000 a year after eight years, which isn’t bad at all," says Miller. This comes as excellent news.
But what about the relevance to students of what is actually being taught in our classrooms? This is a matter of no small consequence, distorted as it has been for a generation or more by the relentlessly polarizing culture wars. As Ibbitson points out, "universities seem helpless to prevent clashes between opposing and repugnant ideologies. Alt-right chauvinists flirt with hate speech, while antifa extremists blame straight white men for all the ills of the world." He's right, of course, as we have learned this year from the Lindsay Shepherd débacle and other causes célèbres. Conservative academics complain that universities are today "typiﬁed by an ideological monoculture" that has transformed humanities departments into incubators of political correctness and social-justice activism. Their left-leaning adversaries, on the other hand, claim that "even seemingly so-called progressive forces are constrained and moulded by the pressures and limits of capitalist enterprise." Each camp accuses the other of facilitating the self-destruction of arts education. And through it all students continue to vote with their feet—and with their hard-earned tuition dollars. Universities have become more and more creative in the techniques of selling the humanities and social sciences, yet the kids (and their parents) aren't buying.
So here's a modest thought experiment, particularly if you're a prospective high-school graduate or her parent. Peruse the website of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, whose annual congress will be getting underway in Regina in a little over a month. Look carefully at the programs of the 70 or so scholarly associations that will be meeting there. Ask whether the cutting-edge research and teaching interests of the country's top scholars "have the power to transform Canada’s future," as advertised, or whether “education is the new buffalo," or, indeed, whether, as Mr. Miller puts it, the humanities and social sciences are capable of doing "the nuts-and-bolts work of creating an enlightened, open-minded, curiosity-driven country."
Don't take Murray's or Ibbitson's word for it. Draw your own conclusions.