Monday, 18 October 2010

A Modest Proposal

From the Dean of Serious Sciences

Dear Vice Chancellor,

As we are all acutely aware, the government is shortly to announce unprecedented cuts in funding for universities. If the rumours are to be believed, all public funding for degrees in the humanities is to be withdrawn. I think we can all condemn this savage act of philistinism; if nothing else, where are the future life-partners for engineers and chemists to come from, if not from an on-site pool of young humanities students? I have tried not to "gender" this comment, as the social scientists would say, but I think we're probably on the same page here.

It strikes me that the underlying issue is simply one of cost. Although, in material resource terms, the humanities are relatively cheap -- how much can a whiteboard and a pack of coloured pens cost? -- an awful lot of useful money is being invested in staff. Now, I think it is well established that research in the humanities is, in terms of outcomes, verging on the pointless. Does the world really need a fresh perspective on Milton when, if the bibliometric evidence is reliable, the previous 1753.6 perspectives have had an impact so negligible as to be unmeasurable?

A rhetorical question, obviously. That argument has been won lost. But, if there is to be a humanities presence on campus (and, from a practical social and emotional hygiene point of view, not to mention the "student-centredness" of our approach, I would argue that this is essential) the question of the excessive cost of employing teaching staff needs to be addressed. I have given this some thought, and here is my conclusion.

We talk of spoon feeding. Increasingly, undergraduates are being taught by student-friendly pedagogical techniques, such as multiple-choice and scratch card. Why couldn't we take that approach one step further: could not degrees be dispensed in pill form? Obviously this would be impossible in information-intense subjects, like Serious Science, but the humanities?

A recent neurological study has shown that the impact of an English or History degree on the 20-year-old brain is indistinguishable from a placebo effect (using a controlled comparison with degrees in hairdressing and pet psychology offered by rival institutions). Why not go the whole hog, and offer a humanities placebo pill, delivered in three equally-spaced ceremonial doses?

A suitable stock of colourful sugar pills would not represent a major investment, and a nurse or two could be recruited on a purely seasonal basis to accompany your worthy self on the awarding platform. That is, assuming your presence is still considered necessary; perhaps using the facilities of the Medical Centre would represent savings in terms of marquee hire, etc.? A spoonful of sugar, a glass of water, and everybody's happy.

It's a win-win!

Kind regards, etc.


Poetry24 said...

Nice one. Mike.

One of the reasons I became disillusioned with the 'profession' was the gilt by association, craved by the movers and shakers. I refer to the snuggling up to the academics. Herding groups of 30 students into 'information skills' sessions does not qualify as teaching (or librarianship) however clever the presentation. Privately, many lecturers have told me how they see this development as just another example of 'dumbing down'. And, with the best will in the world, the awkward and idealistic vision of wideneing participation, was bound to end in tears.

Our son-in-law graduated with a good degree in Naval Architecture, from that 'other' place in town. Although, many of his contemporaries have been let loose on the world, clutching their hard won qualifications in Basket Weaving. Our future, in their hands? Help!

Mike C. said...

If you don't know it, the venerable original "Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift, can be read here:

It's a classic of satirical prose.


Poetry24 said...

Thanks, Mike. It's on occasions like this, when I feel ever so slightly exposed. All those years in snooker halls and pubs, when only Swift pints afforded us the capacity to satirise.

Mike C. said...

I'll have a course of humanities pills sent round straight away -- red or green? (I'm afraid the purple ones are much more expensive).


Poetry24 said...

Hmm, those expensive purple ones...are you sure we weren't at the same party, on at least one occasion?