The poverty of utility – why we need a higher rationale for the Humanities

At the 2017 Telegraph Festival of Education at Wellington College, I spoke on the future of the Humanities. The posting that follows summarises my some of my key points.

A common modern rationale for the study of the Humanities is the acquisition of skills that can be applied to particular workplace occupations.

transferable skills

The incompleteness of the transferable skills argument lies in the assumption that the knowledge content acquired is, at the least of a secondary value and at worst interchangeable, redundant or irrelevant. The notion that Humanities knowledge is somehow chaff to the grain of skills presents, I would contend, a threat to the breadth of education over the longer term.  My argument is that to measure the value of the Humanities predominantly or solely by the yardstick of their workplace utility misunderstands their broader significance and value within society.  

We need to re-frame our understanding of where the Humanities fit in our society.  I think one of the greatest challenges to the Humanities has been what I would see as the unhealthy distinction between the “useful” skills to be gained, and the knowledge, which is so often seen to be disposable.

It is in the interrelationship of the skills (of ordered thought, analogy, critical understanding, expression, evaluation etc.)  and the knowledge content being studied that we gain emotional and intellectual insight into the human condition, whether we are studying the poetry of Ovid, the plays of Shakespeare, the art of El Greco or the Battle of the Somme.

Humanities knowledge has value to society as a whole, far beyond its utility to those occupations where it can be directly applied – e.g. academia, teaching, the heritage industry, the media, arts and publishing, among others.

The case for the societal value of Humanities content knowledge is not helped by the complexities of its own geometry. Whereas laws, principles and formulae give the numerical and natural sciences a self-reinforcing cohesion and universality, the Humanities lack canonical knowledge and pre-requisite foundations in the modern age. While much of scientific knowledge can be expressed through the universal language and processes of Mathematics, experimental method and coding, the Humanities rely on the more fragile and contingent communicative modes of linguistic expression and text.

Notwithstanding these challenges, my argument is that the Humanities, and the knowledge that we gain through their study, have a societal value and relevance that need a more coherent restatement.

Proposition 1

The Humanities give us a textured, layered and multi-dimensional understanding of the human experience – through text, space, material culture and the senses. These have the power to fire the imagination, curiosity and emotions of anyone, whether reading a poem, studying a building, or visiting a war cemetery.

Proposition 2

The Humanities help us to bridge the internal experiences of emotion, spirit, faith, imagination and understanding, and the external settings of political and social organisation, cultural expression, economic activity and associational life.  Studying the Humanities is an exploration of the connections between individuals and groups within infinitely varied relationships, physical contexts and periods of time.

Proposition 3

The Humanities can be a force for societal cohesion, emphasising the intersections and commonalities of the human experience that transcend barriers of nationality, race and social-economic status, while also seeking to critically understand what has divided us through war and other conflicts.  The Humanities have the power to unify through a shared emotional and intellectual response.


In my defence of the Humanities I am very mindful of the counter argument that in an era of austerity  these disciplines might be considered luxuries, or the preserve of the socially advantaged. At a time of vigorous debate over access to Higher Education, the Humanities may be seen in some quarters as a preserve of the privileged.

My argument is that the Humanities must be for all. Indeed, subjects such as the Classics and Art History should not become the preserves merely of those schools that have the best resources, and all pupils should have access to a broad curriculum.  We need Humanities Hubs  (as much as we need Maths Hubs), linking cultural centres such as museums, galleries and monuments, with universities, colleges and schools of all types – following the organic growth model of ISSPs and Teaching School Alliances.






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