Thursday 2 December 2010

'The Humanities and the Idea of the University’

Poster from Save Middlesex Philosophy Campaign

A workshop on the Humanities will take place on Tuesday 7 December 2010, 11am-6pm, Saloon (M004), Ground Floor, Mansion Building, Middlesex University, Trent Park campus, Bramley Road, London N14 4YZ.

Do current government plans for cuts in funding in higher education signal the end of Humanities education as we know it? The proposal to increase student fees threefold (so that a degree will cost over £21,000 for three years tuition), if carried through, will hit Humanities subjects particularly hard. There is every chance that subjects like Philosophy, History and Literature could rapidly disappear from the UK university system as a whole. Working-class students are likely to be deterred by the new level of debt from applying to university to study the Humanities, and the market will eliminate programmes and departments unable to recruit students prepared to enter the new system.
     Two years after the banking crisis convulsed the economy and revealed deep flaws in the global financial system, the Coalition government has dismissed demands for economic reform, opted to cut public services, and now ventures the hope that young people will miraculously agree to a debt three times larger than the one pledged by current students. Could such demands, made so soon after the crisis of 2008, betray symptoms of what Slavoj Žižek calls the ‘perverse’ underside of politics as it is now carried out in capitalist societies? Or is it just that there is a new division between the debtless and the endebted, with those who do not know debt ceasing to understand those who do? How can students, parents and teachers combine to reverse the plan to enchain students in a system of debt founded on an irrational economy? If the Humanities are at the sharp end of the cuts, how can they in particular be defended?
     In the light of the current threat, an urgent re-think is required to review the bases, principles and values of Humanities education. What are the Humanities, and what are they for? What is a university, and what is it for? Is it possible to stipulate that Humanities education is an essential component of what a university does, or should be doing? How can the links be reinforced between Humanities education and principles of universality and equality?
     In her recent book Not for Profit: Why Democracy needs the Humanities (Princeton, 2010), Martha Nussbaum argues that “thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves”. She presents a case that Humanities education is essential to the cultivation of critical thinking, reflection and empathy with others. How, then, to effectively defend Humanities education? At this current juncture, is it possible to effectively defend the Humanities and higher education without also calling for an overall reform of the economy?
How deep do the cuts have to go for the demand for systematic economic reform to make itself felt at the collective level? What can History, Philosophy and Literature do to help awaken these demands? Could student politics become a new flashpoint in this changed atmosphere? Thinking ahead, what would happen if the study of Philosophy and History were gradually excluded from the university system as a whole, becoming concentrated in a few elite institutions? Would the Humanities be forced into a counter-cultural position, having to exist outside the academic system?
     In the past five years Middlesex University has abandoned teaching and research in two key Humanities subjects, History (closed in 2006) and Philosophy (admissions stopped in 2010). It appears to be on course to reduce all of its Humanities provision. This workshop will be a forum for lecturers and students to discuss the future of Humanities at Middlesex and in the UK in general. Speakers are: Matthew Charles, Andrew Goffey, Dave Hill, Johann Hoiby, Mark Kelly, Christian Kerslake, Andrew McGettigan, Alfie Meadows, Marie-Louise Rosbech and Marina Vishmidt.

The workshop is co-organised by Andrew Goffey ( and Christian Kerslake ( Attendance is free, but please register at

11.00  Christian Kerslake: Introduction: Philosophy, the Humanities and the University
11.30  Andrew McGettigan: How will Willetts’s ‘New Providers’ affect the Arts and Humanities? Independents, For-Profits and External Degrees in the Proposals for Higher Education
12.00  Dave Hill: Education and Resistance in/under Capitalism
12.30  Discussion
1.00   Break for Lunch
2.00   Johann Hoiby, Alfie Meadows, Maria-Louise Rosbech: Student Reflections
2.45   Andrew Goffey: Stupidity in the University
3.15   Matthew Charles: Philanthropy and the Image of the University
3.45   Discussion & Coffee
4.30   Mark Kelly: Resisting the Bureaucratisation of the University
5.00   Marina Vishmidt: The Humanities and the Location of Value in the University
5.30   Discussion

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