The "two cultures", again

Around April 27th, news broke on the Internet that, at the recommendation of Ed Esche, the Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, the administration at Middlesex University in London had decided to close all philosophy programs. International protests began immediately and within a day over a thousand people had joined the Facebook page for the campaign to reverse the decision (at the time of writing this piece, the group had over eleven thousand members and live student protests had begun across the UK).

Philosophy is the highest research-rated subject at Middlesex, according to the UK’s national standard for evaluating the quality of research undertaken at higher education institutions (the RAE), with 65% of its research activity judged “world-leading” or “internationally excellent”. The department is recognized in the international philosophical community as one of the most important centers for the study of modern European (also known as “Continental”) philosophy in the English-speaking world and also boasts the largest MA program in philosophy in the UK in addition to its exceptional doctoral program.

In light of these facts, the decision has seemed ludicrous and has been routinely condemned as an “assault on the humanities”. This analysis, however, is as obvious as it is facile. The lessons to be learned here consist, rather, in those questions that are not being asked and the demands that are not being posed. Among these demands should not only be simply the reinstatement of the department and an acknowledgement of the “value” of the humanities but, rather, the rejection of any educational policy that prioritizes any value of education over others. Such a demand requires a serious public discussion of what the idea of a university consists given the plurality of values of education.

Articulating such a demand, however, requires a community of voices throughout the university and not simply from the humanities. It seems that reaction in the US has been marginal and largely confined to the blogs of Continental philosophy (and related areas of theory) for at least two reasons. On the one hand, it is easy to dismiss this news because the affected program is in the UK and, on the other, the decision affects a discipline that has often prided itself on its disinterestedness and autonomy from the exigencies of anything outside of itself (including, disastrously in this case, its material conditions). The current situation at Middlesex, moreover, seems to be simply a more extreme version of the problem the humanities have faced for at least the last forty years, i.e., the need continuously to justify their existence in the face of budget cuts that usually target them first. Many have been reminded, for example, of the razing of fine arts programs in both the US and UK in the 1980s.

Yet what Middlesex illustrates in a stark and dramatic way is a tension—perhaps a contradiction—that can no longer be happily ignored as we have been content to do for almost half a century under the ideal of “liberal education” that is anything but liberal (in the classical and not the political sense of the word). All involved in education hide behind an apparently universal agreement over the value of education while pretending merely to disagree about the means to realize it. But while no one seriously disputes the value of education, there are actually many values of education that, instead of cooperating, are currently rendered incompatible by the fact they are obliged to compete with each other on account of the privileging (either covert or explicit) of some over others by those responsible for managing educational institutions.

Yet the fault does not rest with university administrations alone. We are told that financial concerns were ostensibly the justification offered by administration at Middlesex: given an undergraduate enrollment rate lower than other disciplines, particularly in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the university has been pressured by its funding bodies to promote programs in business, vocational, and STEM subjects, which have higher enrollment. Initially, it seems that the university administration is merely responding to market demands, the way the management of a business would respond to its market demand. Of course, such a disposition toward university management indicates broader failures of morality and courage that cannot be explained away by mere complicity, which requires active, if unacknowledged, decisions of what really matters to us (which are revealed in times of crisis).

It is true that the economic situation in the UK is at least as bad, if not worse than, the US. Public funding has been cut across the board; last year, for example, the Science and Technology Funding Council—one of the UK’s largest funding councils—cut 25% of its research studentships and fellowships (which has contributed to the UK’s phased withdrawal from the international Cassini mission, for example).

It is also true that, historically, the fortunes of various academic disciplines have risen and fallen with the various cultural and political pressures that bear on education. A year after the Soviets launched Sputnik, in 1958 the National Defense Education Act declared that the federal government was required “to give assistance to education for programs which are important to our national defense” (in a political climate that naturally prioritized the sciences). Later, in 1965, President Johnson declared that every American had a right to as much education as possible and he signed the Higher Education Act to give every American the opportunity to go to college. But Congress had not directly subsidized higher education until the Civil War. Prior to that time, less than 2% of the population attended school beyond the 12th grade; higher education was conducted through private institutions for the provision of the cultured gentleman (and, of course, at the time this really did mean men). Towards the turn of the century, facing the need for more skilled labor, education was undertaken as a public concern not for the production of the learned and cultured but for the technically skilled worker. In 1870, only 9,371 bachelor’s degrees were conferred across the country; by 1940, that number increased to 186,500, largely thanks to government funding through the New Deal.

True to the same Progressivist roots of the New Deal, in his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama declared that “in the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education” and that “in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job”. The solution, then, is to provide increased access to higher education, which is a “career pathway to the children of so many working families”.

Yet here we must proceed carefully. Not only is there more than one way to receive the appropriate “training” for goods jobs (the classic defense of the humanities is that general “critical thinking” skills are required for any job), it is a mistake to conflate career opportunities as an effect of education with being the purpose of education. If education must have a purpose, what that purpose might be is multiple, as our own history attests: to impart culture, to train skilled workers for increasingly technical jobs, to produce informed citizens, and so on. These are not all inherently incompatible, but they are potentially so, and not every attempt at reconciliation among them is successful.

According to philosophy staff at Middlesex, “in a meeting with [Dean Esche, he] acknowledged the excellent research reputation of Philosophy at Middlesex, but said that it made no ‘measurable’ contribution to the University”. While the university has not been forthcoming about what constitutes a “measurable” contribution, the implications are obvious: given reputation of the purged department and the international outcry, it is at least clear what the criteria for “measurable contributions” are not.

The administration at Middlesex executed in dramatic form the unspoken wish of many involved in education (whether students blowing through distribution requirements or faculty vying for funding from disciplines not only remote from their own but devalued by them): to install a single purpose for education (and the criteria for what counts as success that attend that purpose) at the expense of all the other competing purposes and values that education might hold.

Of course, the humanities are all too familiar with the demand to square their existence with the value of education (and often overcompensate by declaring themselves to be the only such value). But such a situation only exists to the extent to which the “value of education” is conceived—whether by the public or by university administrators—as one that, eo ipso, excludes the humanities (as “irrelevant” or “distribution requirements”). In 1974, literary critic Lionel Trilling presciently wrote that it did not seem likely that, by the end of the 20th century, anyone would again be able to articulate a compelling ideal of humanistic education. The Middlesex decision is an extreme example of a more generalized phenomenon: the demand for a “real world” education especially prevalent among community colleges and colleges catered toward adult and continuing students, the emphasis of going “beyond ideas” to “practical” applications of classroom learning, and President Obama’s suturing of education to the economy with the result that not a few school districts have explicitly adopted “business plans” for improving their schools with all the appropriate criteria that follow for what constitutes a good business.

When C.P. Snow delivered his Rede lecture of 1959 describing “two cultures” within education (roughly the sciences and humanities), among the ensuing controversy, intellectuals claimed that Snow’s description was too simplistic and antinomical. Yet Snow’s dismay is precisely what we seem to witness even here in the US where he thought his predictions may not hold: the initiated in the sciences and technical disciplines find themselves illiterate in the humanities, and vice versa—often declaring this illiteracy in other disciplines other than their own as a necessary mark of specialization. If Snow’s analysis were truly ill-conceived, then in response to the situation at Middlesex, what we should see are business schools decrying the decision to close the philosophy department and engineering students protesting alongside their colleagues in philosophy. In other words, we should see a shared commitment that admits the mutual implication of different values and purposes in education.

Such a shared commitment across multiple values requires, in turn, the refusal of any policy whose criteria for “success” or “measurable contributions” privilege any one value of education at the expense of others (what would it mean, for example, to “measure” the way in which a humanistic education shows a student a better life than one s/he may not otherwise have had). It is only by recognizing a shared commitment to education across disciplines, purposes, and ideologies that any of the individual crises we face in education can be addressed, whether we are speaking of poor performance by students or teachers, functional or cultural illiteracy, or financial problems. Prior to addressing any of these problems (e.g., what constitutes “good performance”, what standards might be set for “literacy”, how to remedy “mediocrity” when we don’t know what criteria are relevant for such a determination, etc), an effective educational policy must recognize that any solution must unite the various values and purposes of education instead of dividing them. Currently, however, we seem to find ourselves amidst another two cultures, this time of education: the liberal and the technical or vocational that fail to speak to each other in the same way Snow charged the sciences and humanities with speaking past each other fifty years ago. And just as Snow had pled for the two cultures not to remain at odds, so too these two ideas of education must not compete but must find a way to negotiate a shared commitment to education, for either of these at the expense of the other will find itself not only unsuited for the needs of our world but a poor offering for our students.

In short, the appropriate response to the closing of Middlesex’s philosophy department is not only to see it as an assault on the humanities but on the very idea of a university. More than that, as a public we must demand that, for the sake of education, the ones responsible for this attack have no place in it. What the current situation, both in the UK and the US, demands, in light of the preponderant tendency to usurp the liberal ideal of a university with its vocational cousin is a united front of all those who, regardless of discipline, fear that under the guise of economic concerns we will continue to produce a massive workforce but no educated public—when what we need is both.

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