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On not funding the arts and humanities

If we don’t adequately fund the arts, where will all the digital content come from?

Recent noises from within the UK’s funding structures suggest that the future for arts and humanities education is somewhat threatened. In a time of restricted resources (the argument goes) the available funding needs to be focused on topics that make a clear, traceable contribution to the national economy. This essentially means supporting the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and medicine — at the expense of the arts and humanities.

As a computer scientist I might be expected to be loosely in favour of such a move: after all, it protects my discipline’s funding (at least partially). But this is to mis-understand the interconnected nature of knowledge, of scholarship, and of the modern world as a whole.

We need first to think about how people use their degrees. Contrary to popular belief (even amongst students), degrees don’t generally lead to jobs — and nor should they. It’s true that we teach a lot of information and skills in a degree: how to program, how to analyse algorithms and understand different technologies, in the case of computer science. But this isn’t the reason to get a degree.

What we try to teach are the critical skills needed to understand the world, contribute to it and change it. Computer science is a great example of this. Three years ago there were no tablet computers and no cloud computing: the field changes radically even on the timescales of a typical degree programme. So there’s not really much point in focusing on particular technologies or languages. What we teach instead is how to learn new languages and technologies, and how to assess how they fit into the changing pattern of computer science. Put another way, we have to turn them into people who can learn and assimilate complex technological ideas throughout their lives, and create new ones

Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten

B.F. Skinner

This is even more true in humanities. Most people who study geography do not become geographers (or polar explorers, for that matter): they go into fields that require critical minds who can come to grips with complex ideas. But they bring to these jobs an appreciation of a complex and layered subject, an ability to deal with multiple simultaneous constraints and demands upon shared resources, the interaction of people with the natural world, and so forth. This is much more valuable than the specific knowledge they may have acquired: they have the ability to acquire specific knowledge whenever they need it, and to fit it into the wider scheme of their understanding.

But even if we accept in part the narrower view of education as a direct feeder for the economy — and realistically we have to accept it at least to some extent — reducing humanities graduates seems shortsighted. If we also accept that the future is of a digital and knowledge economy, then the technologies underlying this economy are only one part of it — and probably only a small part. The rest, the higher-value services, come from content and applications, not directly from the technology.

Consider how much value has been created from building computers. Now consider how much value is created from selling things that use computers. Computer scientists didn’t create much of the latter; nor did physicists, mathematicians, materials scientists or electronic engineers. Humanities people did.

So even aside from the reduction in quality of life that would come from reducing the contributions of people who’ve studied history and literature, there’s a direct economic effect in play. Without such people, there’ll be no-one to create the digital content and services on which the knowledge economy depends. (It’s called knowledge economy, remember, not science economy.) Increasing the proportion of knowledgeable, educated people is valuable per se for the creativity those people unleash. The fact that we perhaps can’t directly trace the route from university student places to value to society doesn’t make that contribution unreal: it just means we’re not measuring it.

When we went about inventing computers and the internet we had specific goals in mind, to do with scientific analysis and communication. But it turned out that the most socially significant impacts of these technologies didn’t come from these areas at all: they came from people who thought differently about the technology and came up with applications that no computer scientist would ever have thought of. It still amazes me that no professional computer scientist — including me — ever dreamed of social network sites like Facebook, even though we happily talked about concepts like “social network” and of using computers to examine the ways people interacted at least five years before it debuted. We don’t have the mindset to come up with these sorts of applications: we’re too close to the technology. Scientists can happily develop services for science: it needs people who are closer to the humanities to develop services for humanity.


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