“To be, or not to be: that is the question:” must be one of the most famous lines in the world, known by young and old, encapsulating the nature of dilemma, the weighing of imperfect solutions and consequences.
Decision-making falls upon us all at some time or the other, as citizens and individuals. The paths we choose reveal not just who we are, but mould us into who we become. “To be, or not to be: that is the question:” The sentence could also have been written as ‘To do, or not to do: that is the question:’ its meaning, breadth and depth wholly changed. Shakespeare the maestro, knew what he was doing. Being human means having to deal with complexity, emotions, morality and…“The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to,”
Being human, being those who question, we’ve written and evolved subjects reflecting our human needs; languages and literatures, the arts, history, philosophy and more. We call them the humanities. This very same area is now under threat from the government, who’re putting subjects on weighing scales and imposing numerical outcomes. Briefly the government are threatening to impose penalties on universities if 75% of their students don’t complete their courses and if less than 60% aren’t in professional jobs, or further study, within 15 months of graduating.
I’m fully in favour of oversight and evaluation of institutions, but frankly, applying the same methods of judgement, to vastly different subjects, ignores their natures and their contribution. The humanities are in the business of endeavouring to examine, reveal, develop, that most necessary quality: wisdom. As the Reverend Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch FBA, has said “You can’t weigh wisdom or take a measuring-tape to it; but without it, humanity will be annihilated. Never assume that the humanities are an optional extra, a bit of leisure-time fun, alongside the real hard-nosed human business of science, medicine or engineering. Without hard and creative thinking in the humanities, the human society in which you and I find ourselves may well go mad. Look around you at the world in which we live, and try to prove me wrong.”
Learning should be available to all who seek it, at whatever stage of their lives. I don’t see universities as the only methods for delivering teaching. Nonetheless, they possess buildings and experience, and should be enabled by government to provide the variety of courses needed by society. Much as our short-sighted government may wish it, we aren’t just drones or work-horses, our needs range from the practical to the social and transcendental.
In a world racked by violence, war and a global virus, it may not seem so, but the humanities are needed more than ever. They’re about being human. The humanities teach empathy through languages, literature and the arts; help us to understand others; nurture equality and social justice; assist us in trying to make intellectual, spiritual and ethical sense of the world. The skills acquired are critical thinking and reading, the weighing of evidence with reason and logic, considering different points of a question, researching and analysing information, and applying reasoned imagination to human problems. The humanities talk to us about the good, the bad and the ugly of being human. There’s nothing fluffy about the precision of a novel or the clarity of a poem.
(Extract from Auguries of Innocence by William Blake)
Unsurprisingly, a number of universities have begun to make cuts to arts and humanities courses, generally regarded by government ministers as “low-value” courses. Roehampton University has had to make savage cuts, closing literature, languages, classical studies, anthropology, and numerous other courses.
When Sheffield Hallam University decided to pull its English literature degree from next year, many writers raised an out-cry, protesting the closure. The author Philip Pullman said the study of literature “should not be a luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt and privileged aesthetes, but a spring of precious truth and life that every one of us is entitled to.”
The world has been gifted with wonderful writers, poets, artists, historians, sociologists, and thousands of others in related disciplines, whose work creates fascination, wonder, and surprise. Leading us to consider the deeper meanings of love, loss and our mortality. It’s amazing to be swept away by the emotional charge of great works, the awe and wonder created by music, a great painting, or a thought.
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
(The Merchant of Venice. Act 1V. Scene 1. William Shakespeare)
The humanities provide an education, an endeavour towards wisdom and knowledge in many a varied way; including the formative events of our histories and societies, through books and novels.
Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, a novel about the Partition of India in 1947, takes us into that cataclysmic moment, into the heart of cruelty and barbarity, with unflinching honesty. “According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped.”
We may be products of history, of human thought, belief and yearning. But we’re also products of our own questions, our ability to consider, choose or reject. Imperfect as we are,our existence on this planet can only be enriched by the arts arising from our hearts and minds. Their value may be indefinable, but their influence has touched each and every one of us, and must continue to do so.
“When day comes, we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.
And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished.
We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.”
(Extract from The Hill We Climb, by Amanda Gorman, read at President Biden’s inauguration)