Attack on humanities in non-elite universities will do immeasurable damage (opinion)
Nearly 6,000 people, including many historians, have signed an online petition protesting the recent decision by administrators at Aston University in Birmingham, UK, to dissolve their department of history, languages and translation process and make faculty members “redundant” – that is, terminate their contracts in the next few years.
Most of the petitioners have probably never heard of Aston University before, so why has this action caused such a backlash here and in the UK, where it has been the subject of? an article this month in the Guardian?
The university’s abrupt move, announced without notice in March, seems particularly surprising as, in 2018, Aston recruited three historians from the United States and Australia for “permanent” positions to add to an existing pool of professors from the United States. Languages and Translation Established in 1971. The three new faculty members were excited about the prospect of building a historic program from scratch. Two of the three were hired without a probationary period; one of the two Americans had recently obtained a warrant.
The contributions of these historians to the university seem indisputable. One of the three historians was named Aston’s Best Newcomer of 2019, and two of them have since been promoted. One is a digital humanities specialist with expertise appropriate to Aston’s purpose. Two have published monographs that have been listed as submissions to Aston’s Research Excellence Framework (a UK national assessment critical to institutional success).
Despite the recognized excellence of historians, the success of the program they created to attract students, and the institutional contributions of these scholars, neither they nor their discipline appears to have a place in Aston’s future. Reaching such a determination would appear to require considerable thought and evaluation. Yet the university gave no justification other than that Aston executives had changed their minds on whether the institution’s students would benefit from studying history or foreign languages. The ad made no claims of a financial requirement, misconduct, or less stellar teaching or publishing records by any member of the department.
So what’s going on at Aston – or perhaps, more broadly, in higher education?
From a point of view beyond the ethics of employment in higher education, what is happening at Aston amplifies the alarms that have started ringing elsewhere as well, not only in the UK but also here in the United Kingdom. United States. It seems, based on The Guardianthat Aston’s decision – and a similar one at London South Bank University – could be part of a larger attack on the teaching of the humanities at so-called modern universities in the UK that address in particular to the first generation. students. Likewise, in America, especially in non-elite universities, governing boards and administrators have mistakenly assumed that history and other humanities subjects do not prepare students for employment. State legislatures have even begun to consider proposals to tie financial aid to a student’s declaration of majors that “lead directly to employment.”
It is not a question of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in relation to the humanities. It would be hard to see where physics leads more “directly” to immediate employment than history. Rather, it is an attack on two of the very premises of undergraduate education in a democratic society: access to opportunities and preparation for citizenship. Many employers are looking for entry-level candidates who know How? ‘Or’ What learn, rather than or in addition, specific professional knowledge. Moreover, learning to learn – in fact, the thirst for lifelong learning – may well be more appropriate for an economy that is changing as rapidly as it is today, let alone the foreseeable future. When Aston University eliminates or guts out history programs and other humanities disciplines, it denies its students the broad educational base needed to open up opportunities for their peers at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
Aston’s defense appears to be that it wants to provide a “hands-on” education. History, like other disciplines in the humanities, may not prepare students for particular jobs. But it prepares them for a life of careers. Students who learn to think historically will be lifelong learners. In the 21st century economy, that’s pretty handy.
Everything has a story. As one Aston student recently explained, “I feel like the skills I’m learning in this degree, I could take them anywhere. It’s about gathering information and supporting an argument with evidence. The idea that history is not an employable degree is just plain bizarre.