Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What's the point of studying the humanities?

This is a much rehearsed question, particularly in the light of research that suggests that arts graduates are less successful than any other discipline in turning their qualifications into high salaries. In fact it is estimated that some arts graduates would have done better to start work at 18 or even 16. E.g. Male arts graduates may never recoup degree cost.

The problem bothers me a lot as I teach humanities, and is brought into focus by starting out with this year's batch of AA100: The Arts, Past and Present students, most of whom are at the beginning of their OU careers. Should I counsel them to give up their degree now, and go and work in a call centre? Lovely mates, flexible work, meet interesting people, annoy them intensely... No, of course not. But what's the point? How can our humanities students get the best value from their degree, in whatever sense we mean the word value? Particularly when starting with AA100 which has such a wide variety of disciplines. (It's designed to introduce the student to all eight disciplines within the faculty - classics, art, literature, history, history of science, religious studies, music, philosophy.)

I discussed this recently with my students and tried to relate it to the skills they're already learning as they go through book 1. The course is quite well organised in that each chapter has learning outcomes, and the alert student can track their skills as they go through the book. I try to get all my students to anchor their learning by returning, at the end of each chapter to the beginning and analysing what they've learned against the stated outcomes. (Do they all do that? I don't know, but I have my doubts.) The task here is to set the chapter learning outcomes in the wider context of the overall purpose of the course.

Asking the students why they're studying is too wide a question. Twelve students will give twelve different answers, and I wanted to finish by lunchtime. I focussed the question by pointing out that everybody here, even those paying the full retail price, was supported by other people's money in the form of the grant the OU gets from taxes. So I asked them how they could justify spending other people's money on this course. I instantly got the answer from several that they had paid taxes all their lives, and were just getting back what was rightfully theirs. That didn't change the question, just turned it round. If someone is a net tax payer, then what is the justification for somebody else taking their money to enjoy themselves doing AA100.

They got the first answer relatively quickly - it improves employability. Several were intending new careers. We left aside for the moment what exactly they will get from this course that will make them more employable. They got to the second answer a bit more slowly and hesitantly, but eventually they argued that in some way they would be better as people. I became Socrates at that point. "But what do you mean by that?" My answer to that is that people become better citizens. I know that that is very disputable, but to me it's the best way of making the purpose concrete. I think that in saying that I'm not parting company with the liberal tradition of education in the sense that it's something people use for their own purposes. I do part company with the misuse of liberal tradition that implies that education for its own sake is essentially purposeless.

A word of definition before I go further. I'm aware that "good citizen" is a weasel phrase. It can mean anything to anybody. I know that in government speak a good citizen is a compliant one. But in Rob speak a good citizen is a critical one.

The idea of education for its own sake is a fine one, and one to be upheld. But I'm not sure if I can justify spending other people's money on it. I'm also suspicious because some, though by no means all, of the roots of liberal education are class based. They come from the days when leaving the ruling of Britain to largely uneducated landed gentry was no longer sufficient, and what was needed was an entire class of relatively well educated gentlemen. (Note the lack of women.) Knowledge of the classics became one of the markers that distinguished gentlemen from the rest, and enabled us to expand the machinery of government so that it was capable of managing, first of all the great unwashed of these shores, and then the even greater unwashed of the countries we colonised. There's a whole history of the mechanics of imperialism hidden in there which I lack the wherewithal to unravel, but it leaves me uncertain about anybody's right to pursue education for its own sake at somebody else's expense without any other sense of purpose.

So, having established that in my opinion there must be a sense of purpose, here we return to how that purpose is to be expressed in learning. I think here that humanities programmes in general have a lot to answer for. I'm ready to be corrected on this - my smapling is purely happenstance - but my impression is that far too many arts graduates leave university without having a really good idea of what they can do. When an employer asks you what you can do for the company, the answer, "I can read Latin and appreciate Mozart" doesn't really cut it. It used to, for running the empire, but we live in a different world now. So what can arts graduates actually do?

I think that the skills and qualities for being a good worker and for being a good citizen are pretty much the same thing. The issue is how to develop them and how to articulate them. In one way AA100 students are lucky - they have a wide range to choose from. Each of the eight disciplines has its own core skills and concepts, all of which can contribute to the student's development as a critical thinker and problem solver. Philosophy - understanding the structure of an argument and the ways in which language can deploy meaning; history - the organisation and evaluation of documents (and in particular the ability to understand what is not said); art - understanding visual representation and how people react to, and position themselves in relation to, social and historical movements; etc, etc.

At a more detailed level, let's take the learning outcomes for one of the chapters in book one of AA100. I call them learning outcomes, but actually only chapter 1 gives you learning outcomes as such. All the other chapters outline the aims of the chapter, rather than the outcomes for the student. I don't know why. It makes a useful learning exercise though: I get the students to translate the chapter aims into learning outcomes.

From p198 of Waterhouse, H (2008) The Dalai Lama, in Moohan, E (ed), Book 1: Reputations, Open University: Milton Keynes:

"This chapter will enable you to:
l explore the development of competing reputations
2 consider the role and reputation of the Dalai Lama
3 study the past in the light of a religious worldview
4 engage with the beliefs and practices of a non-western religious system
5 use visual and documentary evidence.
"

I'll miss out the intermediate stage of translating this into actual learning outcomes. All of these can be subsumed into higher order outcomes, ultimately emerging as skills, concepts and qualities that enhance the student's ability to work well or participate well.
- understand how selective representations can be, and hence the need to gather different points of view and understand their motivations
- understand group dynamics and group representation
- understand how cultural differences influence people, and the way they think adn react to other people
- evaluate visual and documentary evidence in all sorts of situations
and so on.

At an operational level they translate into "transferable skills", and we see a slight parting between employability and citizenship. But it is still important that students can turn the study of the Dalai lama, Cézanne and Shostakovich into transferable skills. Some of the skills are more generic, are not mentioned in the chapter summaries, but are equally important for both spheres:
- being able to search for and evaluate information, electronically as wella s physically
- being able to set out an argument in writing and use supporting evidence
- being able to meet timetables and deadlines
- being able to work with other people - which we do in tutorials, both face to face and online.

The books are less help here, because of the lack of relevant learning outcomes in the chapter summaries, which makes it more important that students are aware of what they are developing for themselves. Emerging with an OU degree demonstrates that you have the skill and the ability to organise yourself and achieve goals. There are still some benighted employers who think an OU degree is worth less than a brick one. Fortunately more nowadays realise that putting yourself through a part time degree means you have just the kind of self discipline and commitment they are looking for. These attributes are not specific to humanities degrees, but sometimes humanities students forget to articulate them.

That's why, when one of my students, badly behind with assignment one, asked if it would be all right to leave it and go on with assignment two, I said that was a bad idea/ I said it was their choice (I always do - I don't dictate to my students unless the rules say I have to, and sometimes not even then). But I said I wanted to see the assignment. They did complete it and hand it in, and it was good. Now they're working on assignment two, and they are also, because of making themselves do that task, a step closer to getting a decent job.

In the sphere of citizenship there is a different emphasis. The ability to assimilate complex information is crucial as in employability. People need to be able to work out for themselves who they believe on issues like climate change, terrorism, international relations and so on. The ability to make complex moral judgements is also salient. Questions like what should our policy on recreational drugs be need to be debated and answered on the basis of values as well as evidence. These abilities tend (I simplify greatly here) to emerge more from the fine arts, which deepen the ability for self knowledge and reading your own and other people's emotions. This cannot be taken for granted though and neither can the assumption that a finer knowledge of yourself and other people will make you into a better sort of person. I think that there are still remnants of that view around largely for historical reasons. It used to be taken that knowledge of the classics and the fine arts unproblematically translated itself into being a better person (or in the language of the time a gentleman). This understanding was rudely shattered in a single historical moment not that long ago. At the end of the second world war Allied armies liberated the concentration camps. The liberating armies were largely conscript armies, containing numbers of officers and men who had had a liberal education and fervently believed in its benefits. They had to confront the dreadful reality that they were taking into custody German officers who would do the most unspeakable things during the day and then go home and read Goethe and listen to Beethoven in the evening. Some people have found it very hard to accept that basic truth that any moral development requires a choice. That , I believe is one reason why arts students still leave universities relatively ill equipped in terms of understanding what they have achieved - some of their teachers still believe that it ought to be taken as read, when in fact it cannot.

Several of my AA100 students are reading this, I hope, and this last piece is addressed to them. All that above, the need for a sense of purpose, the reasoning behind employability skills, and the reasoning behind citizenship skills, are why I want you to be working at two levels.

"By the end of this chapter, I will be able to use some technical language used to describe and discuss music" (chapter 6 of book 1) and

"by the end of this chapter I will be better able to understand and deploy the technical language of any field I have to familiarise myself with; hence I will be better able to adapt myself to any new situation".

That way at any time you will be working on the skills of the moment and also aware of how those fit into the larger picture of what you will get from this course and from your degree. I will welcome comments from anyone on this piece, and particularly from my students. If my students do comment, please remember that, unlike the group forum, this is a public place.

4 comments:

diane elizabeth said...

i read the blog (TMA) early hours this morning and thoroughly enjoyed it! I attended the tutorials and it was like i relived them in my study!! i think that it has given me much to reflect on and re-evaluate what i am doing with reference to my my learning outcomes. At this moment in time (and i dont mean to sound like a swot) i am working through Plato, what an interesting chap! - also Mr Socrates. When i first opened book two my first thoughts were 'oh god this looks tough' but working my way through i have found that the skills i am developing seem to be flourishing, Yippee!
i have discussions with my husband on the phone talking about my subject and what i have learnt( he's great!) he always asks how do apply what i have learnt to every day life ...... bring on Mr Plato!however the keeper of all the secrets 'the learning journal' has all my thoughts scorched on paper, on relection reading over my notes i have noticed a subtle change to how i view things and my own questions i pose to the dear 'learning journal' are going someway to keeping me sane and on track with this task of learning i have undertaken.
The question Rob asked us 'why are we studying? had many different answers but all were equally relevent to his question albeit a wide one. Furthering my education is my choice and i am lucky to live in a country where i have that choice...i will not waste the opportunity given.
With reference to the spending of tax payers money etc i think that is perhaps a discussion for another day (shame old Plato and Socrates aren't around) we all have different views on this but as said before we are all jolly lucky to have the chance to expand our development and learning! Will it make me a better person? i can't answer that one i think that is a tough one! One thing is certain after reading Robs TMA i will be reaching for the 'keeper of all secrets' to reflect!!!!!

Lastly, as i need to go back to bed.... thanks Rob for such an interesting intoduction to the OU world. Night Night.

Audrey Marlowe said...

You have covered a wide range of issues, Rob. A full response would be book length. I don't think the issue of taxpayers money was fully debated at the tutorial. My view is that no matter how much taxes we have paid in the past, we are now being subsidided and therefore have some sort of duty or responsibility to do our very best. I also think the onus is on us to see the course through to the end and work to the best of our ability.
I have long since retired from work so I do not have career prospects in mind, but I am deeply interested in all the subjects and have a love of learning.
My grandchildren, charities and the locaal community will benefit from my further knowledge. Also, on a lighter note, perhaps I will save the NHS some taxpayer's money by warding of Alzheimer's etc.
I hope everyone is enjoying themselves as much as I am. Regards to all.

Rob said...

Thanks for your comments, Diane - glad it's sparked some ideas ;-)

Audrey, you're right about the tax thing. There's a whole debate to be had about the ethics and practicalities of using other people's money for learning, and I didn't really want to get into that. I was using it as a way of confining the debate about our own purposes to a manageable field.

And I hope you ward off Alxheimers for many decades to come ;-)

Breige said...

Glad I found this Rob. I am signed up for AA100 in February and feel I now have a better understanding of what the course offers. Ordered my set books which arrived today. I am so excited about having a valid reason for reading a play again that I can't wait to get 'stuck in' and resurrect the old (very old) grey cells.
Breige