Universities need arts as well as science

In which Dr Aust notes that scientists, on the whole, do not think that Universities should only have science in them.

In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.

All right all right… I KNOW we haven’t had the Parliamentary vote on raising tuition fees yet (coming this Thursday). And I also know that, in Dr Aust’s University and in many other comparable ones, the senior brains trust is perhaps hoping that they will get to charge the students a much-increased fee which will replace the lost direct funding. I know that.

But, as many people have already noted, the cuts in the direct funding are already written into the Treasury’s spreadsheets.

And most Universities are planning for significant real-terms cuts in the budget, whatever happens on Thursday.

Anyway… where was I?

Oh yes.

In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.

In particular, the near-total cut of direct teaching funding for arts and many languages has people predicting that Universities will cut whole departments. The Arts Faculties are definitely nervous –and who can blame them.

Let me give you an example: I heard of one University where the science faculty declined to even circulate an announcement about the “Science is Vital “ campaign – the reason widely believed to be that the bosses didn’t want to send the University’s Arts Faculty a signal that scientists thought only science was important. Not that scientists DO think that – they don’t, on the whole – but the arts and humanities people are generally thought to be so twitchy that a “wrong signal” might spread mass panic. The “goodbye arts” idea is certainly widely prevalent among academics gossiping in places like the Times Higher Education comments threads.

Interestingly, the same pressures seem to be abroad in that bastion of the free market in University education, the USA. Conservative governments in the UK have never made any secret of their admiration for the US free market model in all things, and that definitely includes higher education. The fact that some US Universities are shutting arts programmes is thus hardly likely to bolster the confidence of arts academics in the UK.

However, there is at least one eloquent defence of arts programmes doing the rounds, spread from email inbox to twitter to email these last few weeks.

What is interesting about this one is that it comes from a scientist – the eminent enzymologist Greg Petsko, who works at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

Petsko’s article is entitled “A Faustian Bargain”. In it he eviscerates, in a piece of sustained and forensic mockery, the President of the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany), who announced the closure of several art programmes and departments. Petsko makes many telling points, among them that a broad education, including the arts, is actually useful to scientists. He also manages to skewer the tendency of all too many University leaderships to manage by fait accompli. Here is a sample:

“You did call a [University] “town meeting”, but it was to discuss your plan [for Department closures], not let the university craft its own. And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend…

It seems to me that the way you went about [this] couldn’t have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn’t want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.

The Inferno is the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There’s so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders – if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don’t.”

Petsko repeatedly uses the final motif –

“- if only you had an XYZ department, which now, of course, you don’t.”

– to skewer the Albany President mercilessly. He then goes on, near the end of the piece, to say the following – which should ring a loud bell with anyone who has been following the proposed changes to teaching funding in the UK Universities:

“As for the argument that the humanities don’t pay their own way, well, I guess that’s true, but it seems to me that there’s a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do ‘old-fashioned’ courses of study. But universities aren’t just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future.”

Petsko then gives two examples, one from science and one from arts and humanities. They are virology, which was in decline in the 1970s until HIV suddenly threw the shortage of virologists into sharp relief and gave the subject a new urgency; and middle eastern languages and culture, which were sparsely taught until the events of September 11th 2001 and their aftermath.

He continues:

“I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I’ve just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today’s backwater is often tomorrow’s hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren’t too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I’m willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and yourself the President of one. You see, the word ‘university’ derives from the Latin ‘universitas’, meaning ‘the whole’. You can’t be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.”


Are liberal arts degrees a solution to the UK funding problem?

Petsko makes various references to the liberal arts educational model – common in US undergraduate degrees – where students take a broad spectrum of courses. This is something my friend Prof David Colquhoun has been writing about recently as a possible part solution here in the UK.

In Petsko’s view, these set-ups provide a way that more “profit-making” subjects (or, in the UK context, ones the Govt is still going to provide some teaching funding for) could subsidise subjects which make less money. For instance, if students taking science as their “major” subject were also required to take courses like composition, and/or rhetoric, then you could have people in, for instance, Classics departments whose teaching duties might primarily be teaching rhetoric to non-classics students. There is even a sort of parallel here with “service” teaching in science departments. This is a system, common historically in UK Universities with medical schools, where some people in the science departments mainly teach subjects like physiology or pharmacology to medical and other health science students.

As the cuts have loomed larger, there have been many eloquent defences of both the intrinsic value of the arts, and also of the economic usefulness of subjects other than hard sciences. For instance, Kieron Flanagan recently pointed me to this defence of humanities and social sciences. And there is Stefan Collini’s truly magisterial deconstruction of the Browne Review, on which the Govt’s proposed changes are based, in the London Review of Books here.

However, let’s stick to science and University science teaching – on the basis that one should concentrate on talking about things one knows something about. The central point that I would make, along with Petsko, is that studying science – or, at least, studying for a modern science BSc degree – does not teach you everything that scientists need to know. You might, indeed, get some of the other stuff from things like the arts. Or from literature. Or from reading newspapers. Or from writing, and communicating, about science to non-scientists

And again; as a scientist, I find the argument that a scientific training and education is useful entirely, or even primarily, because it is “vocational” quite flawed. It is a commonplace among me and my scientific colleagues that the primary value of our degree is NOT entirely, or even particularly “vocational”, i.e. in training more scientists. The value lies in training critical thinkers who also happen to be scientists. But training critical thinkers is something that all academic disciplines hopefully do – indeed, I would see it as a key purpose of all Higher Education. I am quite certain the arts and humanities pride themselves on instilling critical thinking, as well as producing “lifelong learners”, and all the other buzzwords.

Finally, there is the question on how the culture of Universities will change, if the arts are hit hard. This was, of course, where we started with Prof Petsko’s satirical tour-de-force. But I will leave the last word to an eminent British scientist and Professor I know, writing in the pages of the Times Higher Education a few months back. His short letter does not have Petsko’s rhetoric, or sustained scorn and humour, but it serves equally to make the point that scientists do not generally think that Universities should only do science:

“…..As with every time new [higher education] “world rankings” are published, I find myself scratching my head.

Am I missing something? Card-carrying professional scientist that I am, it still completely eludes me how institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology (or even our own Imperial College London [1]), which, as far as I know, have absolutely no arts faculties of any size, shape or form, can possibly be considered superior “universities” to the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, the University of California, Berkeley or Yale.

Did someone change what a “university” is while I wasn’t looking?”

To which the answer seems to be:

“No, but the UK coalition government seem to be inclined to give it a try.”

I do hope, myself, that they don’t succeed.


[1] Before Alice Bell tells me off, we should say that Imperial Colege haz humannities..it duz: see here.

Note: You can find a list of all Petsko’s columns, written for the journal Genome Biology, here – and a link to download a kind of eBook compendium of them (if you are an iPhone/iPod type) is here.

7 Responses to “Universities need arts as well as science”

  1. Tweets that mention Universities need arts as well as science « Dr Aust’s Spleen -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. Kieron Flanagan Says:

    I agree with everything said here, especially about the fact that all university education should be about inculcating critical thinking. I just wanted to comment briefly on the point about the value of a liberal education. My own science policy/innovation studies institute and our friends in the Centre for the History of Science, Technology & Medicine both have our origins in the 1960s experiment (began at Manchester by the leading figures in the science faculty including Lord Flowers) to give science students a more liberal education. Unfortunately this went out of fashion in the late 80s and such groups were hit hard by the restructuring forced by the 80’s teaching cuts.

    Even today, my undergraduate units on science policy and technological innovation attract UG science students (as well as a wide range of humanities students for whom this is a way of expressing their interest in science and technology). Today, more than ever, science students need and deserve to learn more about the social, economic, political and business contexts of science. Sadly, in times of straightened finances the trend is likely to go in the opposite direction, with schools blocking service teaching in order to retain all the income from their students.

  3. abetternhs Says:

    Nobody was ever sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant.
    —Dennis Overbye
    You’d appreciate the excellent article, “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school by Mark Slouka in Harpers (sept 2009)

    I’ve also been moved by the hypothesis that the rise of fundamentalist/ evangelical religion, from the Taliban to the Alpha course is (in part) because lacking an education that teaches people to interpret and understand metaphor, religious texts are increasingly being read like technical instruction manuals. Suicide bombers are increasingly middle-class rather than desperate peasants they were once thought to be.

    Economism, the ideological belief that market models can be applied to every sphere of human life is so barmy that every morning when I wake up to discover that the Condems are trying it somewhere new is resulting in my perpetual state of fight or flight (mostly fight)

    Keep up the fight Doc.

  4. Kristina Says:

    Such is the same case with major corporations shutting down departments that do not directly generate income. It’s a harsh reality. And no one would like to see this happening but there must be a solution such as Petsko’s and what your friend Prof. David is writing.

    Fight a good fight and best of luck!

  5. sylviamclain Says:

    Great food for thought and very good points on why we NEED humanities, and why they are essential…

    It seems to me one of the fundamental problems with this ‘fund science, not arts mentality’ is, as you mentioned here, this idea that STEM subject training is some sort of vocational training at UK universities, but in my mind it patently is NOT. By receivng a BSc in a science subject – say Physics does this necessarily train you to jump into the high tech industry (when it blossoms in the Coalition government’s hypothetical future)? A univeristy training is not the same as a technical training and this is a huge oversight on the part of the governtment, in my opinion.

    I am personally a product of the US liberal arts system – which I think has benefited me in some ways and can be a detriment in others. Its not a perfect system either but what it does do is give you exposure to many different ways of thinking and that is one of its benefits. It also leaves you behind in many other respects in a particular field compared to your EU compatriots, until about the level of a PHd where it starts to equal back out. UNLESS you go to a very good school (such as MIT, Yale, etc) where most people don’t go.

    In the letter from THE you quote above it says CalTech and MIT don’t have big arts programs, which they don’t but they do still provide liberal arts degrees – in that students of science MUST take humanities courses, big departments or not. Unlike Oxford for instance where if you read physics, you only read physics. And as you point out, writing, reading, critical thinking are all part of being a scientist and what we SHOULD be teaching and what a University education is really about.

    What I think the UK has the opportunity to do NOW is actually create something better than the US system which maybe does allow more formal humanities training (perhaps a slightly longer degree or programs similar to what Kieron suggests) – but this would only happen if a government was progressive and would listen. Which I am not sure the present government will do.

  6. draust Says:


    I didn’t know that bit of history about CHSTM and your outfit. The Life Sci students in M’cr can do CHSTM units “in-faculty”, of course, as CHSTM is now part of Life Sci, which avoids internecine wrangling about who pays for what. There is usually an understanding that people doing the Life Sci degrees can take broadly about 1/3 of their 2nd and final yr taught units in topics outwith “primary hard science”. This does get re-debated from time to time in the teaching boards, but on the whole the idea that students should have some choice is not seriously challenged. Now, it could be that taking two CHSTM units out of your six final year choices might be looked at a teeny bit askance if you were applying for PhD places in molecular biology. But, on the whole, if the student had really good marks I imagine they would simply get asked to expand on why they had picked those courses rather than more molecular bioscience stuff. It would then be up to them to give a cogent answer.

    Agree it would be a shame if “inter-disciplinary studies” for undergrads became a casualty of the funding stringencies. Do we know if any of the research-intensive Univs actually run “Combined Studies” degrees? I don’t know of any off-hand, but I haven’t actually looked


    Thanks for the article. Will track it down when I have a moment (Xmas hols!)

    Interesting idea about fundamentalists. As someone who grew up on the 60s and 70s I do find the revival of fundamentalist versions of all the major religions very weird. I certainly I don’t think anyone in about 1975 would have predicted it.

    Your comment on “economism” reminds me of a story I read somewhere about the mathematician John Nash, of A Beautiful Mind fame, on whose game theory ideas from the early 1950s some of the modern mania for applying economic theory to everything rests. Supposedly Nash routinely gets asked “how does it feel to have all this market economic theory, with the vast inequalities markets produce, resting on your work?”. According to the article he usually answers this by saying. “Well, of course at the time I did that stuff I was in kind of a paranoid frame of mind… but no-one ever mentions that”


    Thanks. Yes, it is just like companies shutting down the “less profitable” sectors. The Pharmaceutical Indsutry does a lot of this. Of course, a lot of people who go into academia choose it in part precisely because it isn’t like a business. Or at least it didn’t used to be


    Thanks for the kind words.

    Completely agree about science degrees not being “vocational”, as I say in the post. The “vocational” training for a scientist is a PhD, pretty much. And even that isn’t completely vocational if you switch field afterwards, though it is as near vocational (plus being like getting your “Union Card”) as anything in science is.

    Also agree about a bit more “breadth” being a good thing, in general, for scientists (and people in arts, and everyone, actually). It is certainly something students in our degrees can pursue (see my comments to Kieron) – and it is actually easier in British Univs now (thanks to modular course structures) than it has ever been – though at the moment it is typically optional for students rather than compulsory.

    Re what will happen in the UK over the next few years, I would imagine some HE institutions may well switch emphasis to something more like a liberal arts set-up, with a lot of “combined studies” degrees. What I think is not predictable is exactly which kind of institutions it will be, or even from which sub-group of the sector.

    Finally, as a Brit student in the 1980s I didn’t actually get to do any non-science stuff at Univ – I may do a post on why as a follow up – but I was lucky enough to get a kind of “unofficial” liberal arts grounding through studying an arts/science mix in the 6th form, being a big reader, and coming from an academic family with one science and one arts parent..! My brother is an architect, so you could probably say that both he and I are kind of science-arts hybrids.

  7. Dr Colin Smith Says:

    Well I am a scientist and I completely disagree with this whole article and the comments above. In fact I do not know anybody in the real world who does agree with you about this. In my opinion the government is doing exactly the right thing by prioritising the Real Sciences, Engineering and Maths. These subjects led to the modern world as we know it.

    Universities should not just be given money to keep academics in work. Universities are funded by taxpayers and they deserve a return on their investment. A University education should be a stepping stone to a career not just an end in itself.

    A graduate in a STEM subjects is more likely to work in an industry that produces real things that earn money and change lives. I know this from first hand experience.

    If to give money to the right things you need to take it from the wrong things then tough luck.

    At university studying chemistry I used to look at students doing Humanities and Social “Sciences” with envy because they never seemed to be doing that much. They had much fewer lectures than us Scientists and Engineers no practical lessons at all and did much less homework. They looked on us as idiots for choosing hard subjects but I’m glad I did and glad I took it further and got a Ph.D.

    During my time at universities including one mentioned above. I met some American undergrads on exchanges and in general their education system had let them down if they planned on a career in science. The way the could pick and choose modules to make the required grade meant they could pick the bits they liked and miss out the bits they did not. That left them with big holes in their knowledge and understanding. So I do hope that kind of degree does not take hold in the UK and lead to graduates with a little bit of understanding spread too thinly over too many subjects. Friends who went to postdoc in the US told horror stories of good students with top grades who just could not work in the lab or were missing vital knowledge. A US chemistry degree takes 4 years and a Ph.D. 4-5years to get to the same standard as a 3 year UK degree and 3 year UK Ph.D. Those extra 2 years are because of the way US degrees are structured by hey the US Universities can charge for 4 years instead of 3 so they are not going to change. I just hope UK institutions do not follow suite. Subjects based on knowledge like STEM’s do not work well with modular courses. It may not be trendy and popular but it’s true.

    Science does teach critical thinking but one of the most important points is that you can not bullshit nature. Just because you can put together a convincing argument for something does not make it true. I can talk nicely, lie or shout & scream at a chemical reaction but if it is not favoured it will not happen no matter how much I want it to.

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