Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Universities, Cuts and the GFC

Back in February I blogged about the end of paleography at KCL and generally about how when things are tough it's humanities and the creative arts that suffer. Since then I've posted news links about protests about university cuts as far apart as California and Sussex, not to mention the possible end of classics at Leeds and plans to reduce the humanities at ANU.

All very lamentable.

However one also needs a degree of perspective:
  • Universities are expensive to run, no matter how tatty they may look
  • Arts faculties while cheaper to run than the sciences still consume resource
  • It is genuinely difficult to measure "impact" or "value" while financial benefits of research and its applications can be calculated
  • in a financially limited world teaching sanskrit for example does not look like the best use of resources
  • saying "it's disgraceful" has never fixed anything however true it may be
And the arts faculty do not always sell themselves. Too posh, too useless.

So let's look at classics. Why should we study them? After all it seems to be mostly about dead, mostly male, people who either fought interminable wars, created unstable undemocratic hegemonies, or walked around wearing bedsheets and engaged in sexual practices that would make Aunt Hermione blush.

Well yes, but they're conveniently dead, wrote a lot about what they did and so form a convenient test bed for thought experiments about politics and power. And they have had a powerful hold on our imaginations since the Renaissance.

And if we don't understand them we can't really teach ourselves Latin and Greek, because learning a language is really about learning a culture - something that the experience of learning
Russian during the cold war has shown me. Twenty years on, knowing what UniverMag and Gastronom were, and why they were different is irrelevant. They don't exist, but then that knowledge encompasses knowledge about a particular form of social and economic organisation, and its plusses and minuses.

So with Latin. It helps us get inside the minds of the cultural ancestors of the west, and incidentally helps you learn Portugese or Spanish (it has always fascinated me that I can speak what is actually bad Spanish with some Italian vocabulary and be understood anywhere from Lisbon to Barcelona, and from Milan to Bari.) or Italian, or Catalan, which given the importance of the European Union, plus the rise of Brazil, Chile and Argentina as economically important must be worth something.

It'll also get you a decent cup of coffee at the cafe at the end of P street in Washington.

And so with History, English, Drama and whatever. It lets us look at ourselves. Or indeed Fine Art. Completely useless. Except where do graphic designers get their ideas of light and shade from? And advertising executives their design ideas?

So, the arts need to make their case. In hard times they need to demonstrate that they are not without value. And yes, Paleography is always going to be a difficult sell - but languages, or classics, surely not that difficult?

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