I know the season for frivolous quiz games has passed but do you know who is buried in Westminster Abbey? More generally, do you know what it takes to get buried there (besides being dead of course)? Here’s another question that will help you guess why I’m curious about the accolade that such honourable burial implies. How many of the people pictured on banknotes were famous because they contributed to STEM disciplines? Shakespeare (£20) and Dickens (£10) would certainly not have their courses supported by the government if they were to apply in a couple of years’ time. I suspect Elizabeth Fry’s (£5) chosen course may also be dismissed as mere social science, putting an end to her possibility of contributing to prison reform.
Of course some famous engineers such as Thomas Telford are buried in Westminster Abbey, as are those stalwarts of science, J.J.Thomson and Ernest Rutherford. But the pride we have in poets and composers, playwrights and novelists is also amply demonstrated on the list of those interred beneath the hallowed stones. Do we really think that studying the structure of the atom should be funded directly by the taxpayer but the insights of John Dryden, or Beatrice Webb for that matter, should not?
So far there has been a resounding silence concerning the proposal to abolish by 2012 all government subsidies for those disciplines that are not regarded as Science, Technology, Engineering, or Maths. There seems to be an implicit assumption that STEM subjects are what make the economy go round and everything else is froth of little value to the development of our society. But the economic crisis that has brought on these draconian measures was not the product of a weakness in mathematics, or sluggish technology. Quite the reverse. It was the clever mathematicians and the rapid speed and complexity of communication that enabled people with little understanding of human decision-making, poor knowledge of the human frailties scattered throughout history, and ignorance of destructive social processes, to set in motion a spiral of silly actions that predictably got out of control. It was the lack of influence of the humanities and social sciences that got us to this pass, not the need for more technology.
It is remarkable that a government that thinks only in terms of financial processes, with virtually no understanding of how society’s values and aspirations are shaped by the arts and humanities, should be so unaware of even the most elementary cost-benefit analyses of university education and research. Do we really need to spend thousands of millions of pounds on trying to work out which of the myriads of string theories for the explanation of the structure of matter is the most plausible? Yet remove the possibility of understanding further what makes string quartets such powerful and moving emotional forces? Should we be encouraging the expensive development of technologies untrammelled by the much cheaper training in social processes, history and human values that will make these technologies a real contribution to social development?
One of the arguments in favour of investment in expensive, but exceedingly abstract, scientific training and research is that there is no knowing where the technological spin-offs from the studies will emerge. Lasers are often cited as originally a physicists’ toy until applications were found for them that now are everywhere. Yet I remember when the social sciences were under attack in the 1980s that much was made of the irrelevance of studies such as those into kinship patterns in Eastern Europe, and departments that specialised in Slav languages and culture were under threat of closure. Then unexpectedly the Berlin wall came down and the EU opened its doors to Eastern European countries: these specialisms became fundamental to any intelligent foreign policies.
Furthermore, over and over again, it is the very much cheaper humanities and social sciences that show us how to clear up the mess that uncontrolled technology spews out. Management failures are at the heart of nearly all man-made disasters, including the most recent oil spills. The vicious conflicts that have been so incalcitrant in recent history, from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan, all require an understanding of history and anthropology, psychology and sociology for their resolution. It could be argued that in times of limited resources, the gearing in benefit that can be achieved by the less costly arts, humanities and social sciences should be where the emphasis is placed, not pushing these disciplines into an economic wilderness where they must survive on their own.
How many famous doctors, vets or physicists do you know of? What about artists or composers or novelists? Some things that are taught in universities make life comfortably possible. Others make it worthwhile. Both should be supported equally because they need each other. That’s why we have a Poet’s corner in Westminster Abbey but not one devoted to famous STEM proponents.