The public values of the arts and humanities? You gotta be joking!!

The public values of the arts and humanities? You gotta be joking!!

So recently there has been a little flurry of books exploring “The public values of the arts and humanities” For example (images link to Amazon or publisher websites)





This is a very good thing of course. Or is it?

It is crazy, and a sign of troubled times, that such books have to be written.

Imagine people having to write books such as, “The Public Value of Mathematics … or Engineering … or Medical Science, or… Chemistry or (Astro) Physics”. (Just how much do we spend on astro/particle physics at the moment? working out where life might have come from in deep macro-micro space and time – as we scrub it out around  the world.)

Of course, such publications are in response to the devaluing of, and dwindling funding for, the arts and humanities in the UK within the financial crisis, the new university funding regime, and general neoliberalising market ideologies of government.

It is now that case that scholarship/research is split into STEM subjects and non-STEM subjects.

What does STEM stand for?  “Science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” Central funding for non-STEM subjects has been markedly reduced in the HE sector.

This is , quite simply, a failure of vision – short sighted, depressing, and dangerous. Look around us. What is our nation, our society? It is formed as much from cultural values, moral imaginations as it is by science, technology and economy.

Yes, the natural sciences are fundamentally important, but they have proved, only too often, that, separate from moral, political and cultural contexts / compasses, they can lead off down very misguided, even destructive, paths.

This is not about the impact or the utility or market values of the arts and humanity; it is about how culture and society take form and transform through time.

Ideas and narratives are as fundamental to shaping society as formulas, models, and scientific laws. Think Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, The Romantic poets, Constable, Turner for just a few historic examples, or a host of more recent writers, artists, directors who are shaping modern culture and trying to address questions of say, multi-cultural living.

Culture is not a layer of value/ meaning overlain onto a substrate created by science, economy and technology, it is a key shaping influence in the direction of society. To question the value of the subjects that explore and create culture – you’ve got to be joking – mate!

About Owain Jones

I work at Bath Spa University as a Professor of Environmental Humanities, and I am Director of the University's Environmental Humanities Research Centre
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