Why the arts and humanities are still important

What would the world look like without the arts and humanities? Well, in the not too distant future we may know. The relentless drive in the English education system to push STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects, may bring that dystopian nightmare to fruition. Education has been hijacked by philistines whose only belief is that the future will look different to how it looks now and our only hope is that mathematicians, engineers, scientists and computer programmers might be able to push in a direction we find mildly agreeable, if still somewhat, disconcerting.

According to Dr Kevin Stannard, writing in the TES, the new national curriculum has dire consequences for the humanities. As Stannard explains, the new curriculum unifies (to a large extent) the three national sciences around a core understanding of the scientific method. The arts and humanities, on the other hand, are not treated with such esteem, being kept separate without an over-arching theory of understanding or practice that gives meaning to the study of people in society.

The justification for this consists of the unoriginal and uninspiring idea that the future is already owned by scientists and producers of the yet unforeseen ‘world of tomorrow’. Nobody in the government has any clue what this world will look like, who or, possibly even, what will inhabit this world; merely that those that do live there will have skills that not a soul has even dreamed of.

Although this sound somewhat exciting, what would children who have had not experienced or come to understand the arts and humanities be like? What type of people would they be? Would they be good or bad? What would they prize? How would they organise their new, shiny, technologically driven society? Ultimately, would they be good or bad? Would such concepts even make sense?

To my mind this world would, quite simply, be horrific, ugly to the point of disgust and unhuman.

The arts and humanities, even with the narrow confines of the national curriculum, offer children the ability to understand and empathise with different peoples and times. They offer children a glimpse into a different past, a true break from reality, where the imagination must take shape in conceptualising what the past looked like and how it treated different members of humanity. During this time, one hopes, they are not concerned with themselves (or, more accurately, their phones) giving space to the imagination to experience something that gives a new meaning or perspective to their own lives, through the presentation of an alternative reality. This, ultimately, is the beauty of great writing, philosophy and art within which we find universal concepts that tell us something about the nature of humanity – both good and bad.

Hannah Arendt – a writer who achieved such heights – wrote:

[E]ducation… is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us… prepar[ing] them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.

How could this be achieved without the arts and humanities? How could our children ‘renew a common world’, with the potential of creating something unique, without understanding the triumphs and failures of those that walked the Earth before them?

While the sciences are certainly important and have brought us many great things, expanding our world to the stars and beyond, it was the philosophers, the thinkers, the humanists who conceptualised our place within the vast expanse and understood that we were capable of greater things.

This piece was edited and republished by Spiked after submission (5th February 2016): ‘Don’t STEM the development of the Humanities’

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