Education, Literature, Top Stories

In Defence of the Humanities

The Australian government’s recent decision to cut funding for university courses in the arts and humanities was greeted with rapturous delight by many commentators I respect. In addition to encouraging students to pursue “job-friendly” subjects such as STEM and nursing, the move was interpreted as a flip-off to the branch of higher education notorious for placing left-wing indoctrination ahead of scholarship.

As much as I agree with the latter point, I cannot bring myself to join the celebrations. To the contrary, I find the Australian government’s decision highly unfortunate. That is because I firmly believe that a degree in the humanities is the finest start in life a young person can get. Or, to be more precise, I firmly believe that a degree in the humanities in its pre-1990s form is the finest start in life a young person can get. So, while I don’t wish to defend what the humanities have become, I still think it’s important to defend what the humanities ought to be.

I have a humanities degree in one of the most abstract, theoretical disciplines available: philology. Many people don’t even know what philology is—my colleagues in the City thought I collected postage stamps (that’s philately). Philology—translated as “love of words” from the Greek—is a discipline comprised of comparative linguistics, literary theory, and literary history. So, what did I actually study? I studied the finest works of imaginative fiction created in the past three millennia. Homer was my first assignment and JM Coetzee was my last. I also studied the great vowel shift, translated passages from Beowulf into old high German, and debated Nietzsche’s influence on Sartre. The title of my dissertation was “Linguopoetic Complexity of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and the Transfer of its Semantic and Metasemiotic Value in Russian Translation.”

The course was intense. According to departmental statistics, my fellow students and I had to read an average of 400 pages a day. That’s 400 pages of immensely complex text. And the standards were uncompromising. In my first tutorial on the late romantics, I was asked to discuss the clash of harmony and dissonance in the novellas of ETA Hoffmann. I began to summarise their plots and thought I was doing well until my professor stood up. “May I remind you,” he said slowly, a shadow of contempt on his patrician face, “that this is a philology course, not a book club.”

So, what “skills” did I learn? Well, I can interpret, analyse, and evaluate the works of imaginative fiction. Such is my training that I can tell if a text is any good by reading the first few lines. I have profound respect for language and I recognise it for the precise and rigorous system that it is. I insist on using it correctly. If I had the talent, I could have been a literary translator. Since I don’t, I am not—but I am good at assessing the quality of literary translations and spotting discrepancies between the original and target texts.

Did my education help me get a job? Not directly. Outside the narrow field of academia, philology has very little “practical application.” But then education is not about acquiring practical skills—and this is a point I cannot emphasise enough. Skills are what you acquire in the first six months on a job. When I started working in the financial sector, I had to learn a few formulas in order to value a company. Then I went to business school and learned a few more. That was enough. Granted, I had a harder time than the engineering and economics grads, but I got there in the end. Was I worse at my job than my STEM colleagues? Not in the long run. In the long run, we were all as average as each other.

At my last firm, about a quarter of the graduate intake happened to be PPE and Classics students. The justification for hiring them was their alleged “soft skills”—these guys were supposed to be collaborative, communicative, and empathetic. In reality, most of them were reclusive introverts keen to go home as soon as they finished the job. And can you blame them? Having just spent three years in a place where high minds met to contemplate matters of life, death, fate, and existence, they were now catapulted into a pothole of income statements, profit warnings, and rating downgrades. No wonder they withdrew. They did, however, add an extra dimension to corporate discourse and improve the quality of decision-making. Even with the handicap of studying a politicised modern curriculum, they were a head above everyone else in this respect and raised the firm’s intellectual bar.

Because, once again, the real purpose of education is not to acquire skills. It is to develop the mind. Fill it with knowledge, yes—but also charge it with fire, like a torch, so that, long after we have left the student bench, the mind still gleams and glares and throws a challenge to the maddening mysteries of the world. So what did a world-class degree in humanities really give me? It gave me a front row seat to the extraordinary spectacle of the evolution of human spirit. It exposed me to beauty, meaning, and perfect form. Every day, for five years, I descended into mankind’s formidable past and confronted matters of metaphysical significance. I wrote myself into the great books that I read, and, like Proteus, I lived a thousand different lives. This experience had a purging effect. The veil over the world had lifted somewhat. I may have discovered happiness. Occasionally, I brushed the transcendental. How dare anyone reduce this experience to “skills”? How foolish would that be?

As the Latin root suggests, the Russian word “Intelligentsia” implies intellectual prowess and erudition, and this is how it is usually understood and used in English. But in the original Russian, membership of “intelligentsia” also requires decency, dignity, and honour. “Intelligentsia” is the modest hero who risks her life with a smile; the non-conformist who speaks the truth at his peril; the friend who never betrays. “Intelligentsia” were my philology professors. Among the finest minds of their generation, they had an endless fascination with the human being, and with the intricacies and subjectivities of human psyche. Never inclined to hover righteously above the rest, they were tolerant of all backgrounds and circumstances, and they admired talent.

The only thing they resolutely, categorically did not tolerate was ignorance. But then ignorance is not a circumstance, it is a choice. Whether my professors became “intelligentsia” as a result of studying humanities, or were drawn to the humanities because they already possessed those traits, I do not know. What I do know is that, one way or another, the humanities had a lot to do with it.

One possible outcome of the Australian government’s decision to cut funding for the arts and humanities is that it forces the discipline to abandon its commitment to postmodern nonsense and return to its classic form. Such an outcome would certainly be highly desirable. My own student days fell on the final years of the humanities’ golden age, which means that I studied my subject properly. As a philologist, I was trained to approach a text as something that was written in its age, for the people of that age, and which contained the truth of life pertaining to that age. I could not reasonably expect a 19th-century author to have 21st-century sensibilities.

I studied critical theory, too, and I found it to be the least demanding part of the course. To its proponents, I will say only that it is extremely easy to analyse a text when you are handed a template. For example, if you set your mind to finding instances of male oppression in the collected works of William Shakespeare, Romeo quickly becomes a reckless example of machismo, and Juliet a victim of sexual objectification. However, it is much harder to analyse a text without an ideological compass, relying solely on the merits of language and imagery. My education has taught me to do this. The education of many of those who followed me, regrettably, has not.

“Education teaches us how to use our freedom.” I heard this line in a Louis Malle film the other day, and it struck a chord. It does not apply to the disciples of critical theory, however, so it’s no surprise that they cannot get a job. That is their problem, of course. A bigger problem, however, is that critical theory grads skew the picture for all humanities students, and may cause others to shun the discipline because of the perceived lack of employment prospects. I don’t think that employment prospects for the humanities are quite that bad. While the data on the subject is inconclusive, anecdotal evidence is encouraging. The young people I know with traditional humanities degrees are all gainfully employed. The three alumnae of my business school who currently serve as FTSE 100 chief executives are all humanities grads. My own career, although perfectly average, allowed me to stop working full-time in my early 40s—so, as a humanities grad in business, I did okay.

Another possible outcome of the Australian government’s move is that, put off by the rising cost of tuition and perceived lack of career prospects, university students flee the humanities altogether. This would lead to a permanent decline of the discipline, and this would be a very bad outcome indeed. I am all in favour of STEM and vocational training, and I recognise that, in some professions, such training is essential. When I cross a bridge, I hope that it was built by a qualified engineer; when I prepare my taxes, I hope that the accountant did time with the big four. I am also fully aware that I owe scientists the constantly and spectacularly improving quality of my life.

Nevertheless, a world populated with only STEM graduates and vocational training, a world of hard data and empirical fact, a world that is rational and pragmatic, a world in which the end result rules and where we plod along to achieve it—this is a fragile and spiritually barren world indeed. Material comforts are important and we all crave them, but they are ultimately not enough. So, let’s leave engineers to build roads and bridges, scientists to discover the laws of nature—but let’s preserve the humanities, too, as someone needs to explore the human spirit. Without the humanities, who will make sense of the fuss and fumble that are our lives? Who will explain the evil of which we are capable and also the good? Who will reconcile the divine spark that we all carry with the drudgery of our daily routine? To whose work will we turn for consolation the day we surrender our delusions of immortality and accept that life is just a sequence of births and deaths?

Scholars in the humanities are the bearers of the memory of civilisation, and their role in our society is indispensable. We cannot allow the humanities to die out. A world without the humanities is a world without “intelligentsia,” and it is not a world in which most people will want to live.


Elena Shalneva writes about books, film, and culture. Her work has appeared in Standpoint and City AM. She has published several short stories, and is currently completing her first collection. She is a lecturer at King’s College London. You can follow her on Twitter @ShalnevaE.

Image: Portrait of Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos by Francisco Goya (1798).


  1. The assumption here is that closing the humanities faculties in the modern universities will be a disaster to the humanities. It will not. Shakespeare and Plato will continue to do quite well. If it isn’t a professor, it will be your high school teacher of your parents which will introduce you to them, since they are worth reading.

    In any case, the humanity faculties are already voluntarily ridding themselves of the humanities, replacing Homer and Joyce with “the voices of women of color” or the like. As Don Dellilo puts it in White Noise, “some professors here read nothing but cereal boxes”. He wasn’t kidding.

    What will disappear is this sort of nonsense, or the allegedly more “serious” “philosophical” works of the likes of Habermas, Derrida, Foucault, et al., which indeed nobody in his right mind would read unless forced to. But is that such a great loss?

  2. There isn’t any going back to an older form of Humanities degree. The problems are ingrained in university culture, and aren’t going to change. Defunding the programs is the right choice.

    And really, does anyone need them any more? You can have a “love for words” and read 400 pages a day at home, without spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars (yours or the taxpayer’s) on a degree. A medical degree makes sense, you need specialized training to practice medicine. You do not need specialized training to practice philology, and in our modern, interconnected world with intellectual resources available for all, it is better to do it yourself.

  3. As a former academic in the humanities, I agree with a great deal of this defence, but increasingly I’m inclined to think that the problems have reached such an advanced stage that a cleansing fire might now be in order.

  4. “Material comforts are important and we all crave them, but they are ultimately not enough.”

    Indeed “exploring the human spirit” is a very worthwhile endeavour that most Australians would never have experienced but at least can rest easy knowing that their hard earned dosh has paid for others to enjoy over other priorities.
    It’s a miserably cold wet night in Sydney right now. There are over 116,000 homeless people nationwide amongst a plethora of other problems that aren’t being catered for & with the looming financial squeeze things will only get worse especially for the poor so you’ll have to excuse the “rapturous delight” that luxuries make way for necessities that only those in rarified bubbles aren’t hip to.
    In any case the changes are based at a unit level not a degree level, & students can reduce their total student contribution by choosing electives such as maths & IT within their degree instead of ‘gender studies’ & such.
    Material comforts are more important when you don’t have any so therefore, here here ‘off with their heads’!

  5. It is much too late to resurrect the humanities as that ship has sailed. Unfortunately the author and all those who populated the humanities over the last fifty years simply showed no courage and hid under their desks while it was taken over by the totalitarian left. They no longer have a say in what happens in those departments - thus the humanities must be abolished as it is now one of the sources of the force destroying Western civilization. The author and her colleagues had their chance. One must be brave or lose all power. So went the humanities. Someday the treasures of Western Civ will be rediscovered by curious people. Then once again brave people will have to defend the Judo-Christian values and treasures of Western Civ that created the original humanities. No one knows how much death and destruction will result from this current totalitarian leftist revolution that was birthed in the universities’ humanities and social science departments.

  6. What is really needed is to cut around 90% of the funding of the administration of universities. That will force them to focus on the necessary stuff like keeping track of student progress and drop things like diversity officers and equity enforcers.

  7. That was a rather unpleasant read for several reasons, but mostly because of the sentiment captured here:

    Without the humanities, who will make sense of the fuss and fumble that are our lives? Who will explain the evil of which we are capable and also the good? Who will reconcile the divine spark that we all carry with the drudgery of our daily routine? To whose work will we turn for consolation the day we surrender our delusions of immortality and accept that life is just a sequence of births and deaths?

    1. Making sense of the fuss and fumble of your life is not something you can easily outsource.
    2. To the degree that it can be outsourced, there are exceptionally few minds that are up for the job and can make a worthwhile contribution.
    3. These few minds have not really been restricted in the past by the lack of a structured humanities discipline.
    4. Overall it is highly unlikely that 99% of humanities graduates can do a decent job at the services listed here or have added anything to the human understanding of such issues.
    5. Moreover, they can actually do a disservice to these disciplines by creating so much pretentious, inaccessible and often shallow material to drown out quality and put off people from engaging in such pursuits.
  8. The humanities themselves are one thing. The current academic teaching of humanities is another one. The combination of extreme politicization and post-modernist obscurantism was an intellectual suicide for many academic fields, and since only the most radicalized students go on to do phd and manage to get careers in academia, there’ll be no coming back. But people will still be able to read and enjoy classical texts and older academic studies. And that’s what truly matters.

  9. It should be pointed out that most jobs in the corporate world do not require any specialized training at the entry level. As the author says, you learn everything on the job. Business and management skill is not technical in nature. You will not be helped by either a STEM or a degree in philology. If you are in a technical field it matters, but even then rising to the top will depend on your ambition and ability to network. The fact that someone like the author did well in her career should be attributed to the fact she is intelligent. It has nothing to do with the Humanities course she took and doubtless comparing texts played no role. We do need scientists for science but where is the need for philology? Don’t look to the Russian Intelligentsia as an example. They were the top 1% in their time. Idle rich folks who wanted power. That’s how we got the Bolsheviks. Colleges can always offer courses paid for out of the pockets of the students. You can study whatever you want. Just please don’t force the taxpayers to fund this luxury.

  10. If you think it sucks working for the rich, wait until you work for the poor!

  11. I am quite fond of Literature. I spend most of my time with it. The Humanities was a 20th century invention and it has failed so miserably in every possible aspect that it’s failure alone in making society more literate would be bad enough if it did not also bring with it toxic Identity Politcs, Post Modernism, Marxism, and Critical Theory. All of these seek to undermine the society that funds their existence. It is clearly the very apex of stupidity to feed this monster. If anything, The Humanities cause people to hate literature and texts. Look around. Where do you see a place for literature in the public square? Our literary magazines are devoted to race baiting and tearing down the great thinkers of the past.

  12. I appreciate what the author was trying to say, and my love for literature is lifelong so I support the humanities in theory. However, I agree with many posters that these basics should be taught at an early age, and that much of the specialized stuff is a luxury that the government doesn’t need to be financing, even if the present day version of the field could be detoxed.

    Benjamin Franklin had two years of formal schooling, ages 8 to 10, and then went to work. And yet he became a great writer, scientist, statesman, and philanthropist.

    Something in the interim has gone really wrong.

  13. I am shocked - SHOCKED! - to discover that Ms. O’Connor (born in Georgia, USA, 1925) had prejudices against Black people. Whatever will the New Yorker do when they’ll discover what Shakespeare wrote about Jews?

  14. Here are some humanities course titles from a random selection of top-tier universities in the US:

    1. The Language of Flowers
    2. The Philosophy of Bart Simpson
    3. Whitenss and Evil
    4. What If Harry Potter Is Real?
    5. The Art of Self-Pleasuring
    6. Zombies in Film and Literature.

    Our universities nevertheless turn out more Ph.D.s in the humanities, even though there are faculty positions for less than a quarter of them as schools have shifted to adjunct faculty, who now make up the majority of the professoriate.

  15. My grandfather was a KY hillbilly who quit school in the 7th grade and went to work to help keep his family from starving. I remember his home being full of books and he was probably the greatest authority on Lincoln and early American history that I’ll ever meet.

    My father graduated college with an engineering degree but (back in the day) wasn’t required to pay for useless pre-requisite courses in the humanities. Likewise my home was always full of books on any topic imaginable.

    I think I see a pattern…early exposure to books will allow one to self-educate in the humanities (for free) once they’ve acquired the leisure time awarded those who are able to establish a career profitable to themselves and others.

    The hubris of the humanities, so long as I’ve walked this planet, is galling. The idea that one cannot adequately confront the complexities and travails of the human condition on their own terms, with insight gained through simply living awhile, I find to be ridiculous and condescending.

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