Cost-cutting – and Future-Proofing

A number of years ago I had the pleasure of organizing an event at which academics were invited to give one-minute talks – yes, that’s one minute. I should make it clear that the motive wasn’t sadism – it was an experiment, with a friend who works in broadcasting, to see if humanities scholars could survive the pace of the BBC pitching system, which involves a reality TV-style  structure of competitive one-minute pitches, with audience votes at the end informing, but not governing, who gets through to the next round. My colleagues came up trumps: unlike many academic lectures, theirs were utterly inspiring and Imagememorable.

This evening I had another dose of the same medicine. This time the speakers, who ranged from a first-year PhD student to the head of an Oxford college, were given the comparatively relaxed time-frame of three minutes.  It is a wonderful format – it requires a bit of skill to get to the point, but it’s surprising how little you lose by shaving forty-seven minutes off the fifty-minute lecture.

The best use of the format was made, perhaps unsurprisingly, by a drama expert. Professor Jonathan Bate took time out from producing a complete edition of the works of Shakespeare to offer three minutes on a question that is on many people’s minds these days, do the Humanities really matter? As the editor of an influential volume of essays on this subject, The Public Value of the Humanities, Bate has had more than his share of irritating conversations on this topic.

The impishly space-age silver bullet in this talk was Bate’s idea of the Humanities as ‘future-proofing’. The point that ‘you never know what will turn out to be useful’ was illustrated with some grim statistics about how Thatcher’s cuts to the British Universities led to the closing of Middle Eastern Studies departments in the years leading up to September, 2001.

Left unexplored – three minutes is not actually very long! – was the more complicated question of how learning to value the Humanities changes people, and how those changes ripple out to create a more creative, humane, and resilient society. But that may be asking too much of the ‘elevator pitch’ format, at least for now.

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2 comments

  1. In like manner – though not in the humanities – funding and attention to agriculture both in research and development was very much de-emphasized in the late 80’s and into the 90’s – and that took place just as global food security issues were developing!
    Perhaps an underlying issue here, both in humanities and in the sciences-social sciences, is the modern proclivity to dispense with whole swathes of learning and teaching with seemingly little thought. Anthropology, too, is now under the fire.

  2. Yes – especially since institutions often find it easier for structural reasons to cut small departments rather than pruning larger ones.

    And there is often a tragic failure of imagination about giving students exposure to ‘unexpected’ subjects, like anthropology, that they haven’t encountered in secondary education. I remember hearing the head of what was then the very lively Anglo-Saxon Studies programme at Manchester explaining how they survived the Thatcher cuts in the 80s and 90s. The answer was that the English Department made a single term of Anglo-Saxon compulsory in the first year of its degree, and then made sure it was taught really well, with the result that hundreds of students voluntarily went on to further study. When under a later regime that early exposure was cut, they started losing numbers, and teaching posts were eventually cut as a result.

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