Dr Alice Violett
Book witterings and PhD archive

Oh, the Humanities!

The humanities get a bad rap.  Not as obviously linked to any career as medicine or engineering, or regarded as important in the same way as science and foreign languages, English literature, geography, history and philosophy (and subjects that I think also come under the ‘humanities’ umbrella such as art history, film studies, politics, etc. etc.) are often derided by people with no imagination, who ask ‘what’s the use of that’?

My humanities story: my school specialised in science - which I wanted to like, but I found it variously confusing and difficult to keep all the information in my brain for exams - and languages - unlike in science, I can remember the words, it’s just putting them in order that throws me).  By contrast, I really enjoyed English literature, history, and religious studies, and took all three at A Level.  I did well in them because I found them interesting, and made me think.  I took history at university partly because it was my best subject at the time we had to decide, and partly because I thought it would encompass elements of the other two (the Reformation, anyone?).  I wouldn’t have been happy or comfortable taking any subject other than a humanity, because they’re what I’m good at and feel happiest doing.

The clue as to what I found interesting is in the name: HUMANities.  Despite being an introvert who frequently wishes other people would pipe down a bit, I’m fascinated by the things humans have chosen to do, write, or believe.  And if it’s well-regarded to study human cells and disease in biology, or human formation and thought processes in psychology, and try to improve them, then why is it sneered at to look at human behaviour?  It’s all part of the package in the end.

Arguably like biologists and psychologists, a central question of my thesis was ‘what makes people who they are?’  Okay, so I didn’t perform health checks and take DNA samples to find that out, but I analysed people’s experiences, which is every bit as important - after all, what’s the point of having a healthy population if they’re miserable?  And I knocked down a stereotype that’s held among humans, as well as explaining why it has been held onto.  My supervisor was always saying about how ‘human’ my work was, as I described and quoted my only children at length, giving a full evaluation of how they perceived their childhoods, even though this could be messy and contradictory - in other words, like human life.

Going back to what I wrote a couple of weeks ago, too much stress is put upon how much graduates earn, and what jobs they do, after university.  People with no imagination value STEM subjects because they’re associated with high-paying jobs (overlooking the fact that science has massive funding deficiencies which will only get worse after Brexit).  But what if at least some of the humanities graduates aren’t that bothered about high earnings, because they’re doing what they love?  A common question for humanities students is ‘are you going to be a teacher?’, well, if they are, they’re not going to be rich.  What if they go into a career like publishing or journalism where it takes a while to get what some might consider a decent wage?  What if student satisfaction’s not just about earnings, but the student experience? 

Admittedly, I was more willing to pay £3,000 year to have loads of time to read and think about an interesting subject than I would be to pay £9,000 (would I have bothered going to university with today’s fees?  For all my love of studying, I do fear the unimaginable hugeness of the sum ‘£27,000′ for fees alone would have put me off), but students are still populating humanities departments in their droves, and writing in their UCAS applications that they’ve loved x subject for their entire lives.  Okay, so quite a few of them are coming out of university saying it’s not worth the money, and I’m not sure I blame them when I got exactly the same thing for a third of the price, but I suspect they’ll still have fond memories of their student days and not studying a subject they don’t like as much.

And who can blame students for still being attracted to the humanities when they’re all around us?  While art and performance students (another ‘you’ll never make money doing that’ group) obviously play a big part in the creation of art (duhhh), music, films, TV, plays, and books, it’s the humanities students who are making sense of them for audiences, curating exhibitions, administering the arts, doing the marketing, checking the facts, doing the editing, writing the reviews, making the case for the arts in funding applications and to governing boards, and so on and so forth.  And life would be incredibly dull without those things.