November 20th, 2010

breaking bad

Oh, the Humanities!

There's a lot of talk at the moment about which degree subjects are valuable, and whether the Humanities are an indulgence which should be the preserve of the rich. My kids have just started studying Biomedical Science and History respectively, and my degree is Philosophy. In each case the choice followed enthusiasm rather than calculation of advantage, and I think this must be the right way. You can not and must not direct yourself towards something you do not love.

OK I make an exception for people like my friend Fatima who are sponsored from a developing country, and must bring back a particular skill needed by their nation.

I spent much of the last week in workshops with people who had developed the curriculum and exams in ICT. At one point they discussed - to general derision - the sad fact that many ICT teachers do not have first degrees in computing. I kept my mouth shut.

However I will say that I think a degree in Philosophy has been an unmitigated good for me. I think the skills I developed have enriched my life, and they have also made me more effective at every job I have ever done - and I've done quite a wide range of work in the thirty years since I graduated. Most of the work I have done has involved quickly grasping and then communicating, and generally what I am grasping and transmitting is some body of material which simply did not exist in its current form at the time I was studying.

In a moving world students need to bring away with them the skills and confidence to approach critically, to penetrate, and to convey. These skills have been perpetually useful to me. Conversely you can not equip students with the body of knowledge they will require, because it does not exist; it will grow new in the future.

Some people also say that a Humanities degree has a low status in the job market. This has not been my experience. For example in the last week - this is literally true - my publisher asked me what my degree was in. When I told him he said 'Oh, you are smart'. This is typical, and it's a very useful reaction when you are trying to get work or contracts.

In short, I can not speak for the Humanities in general, but my degree was good for me. I was not able to pursue postgraduate work because even in those days that was for rich kids only. The degree on its own was helpful though.