As I come to the end of my PhD I’ve often been asked to consider, in job applications and interviews, what value there is in my research and more generally in a humanities subject like history. This feels like a question which goes right back to basics, something I should have had settled in my mind long before starting my doctoral studies, but the opposite is the case: I get better at answering this question every day.
The answers I give in a serious context can be quite abstract in nature. I think history, for example, helps students cope with complexity. Historians take a complicated topic and make it seem simple without being simplistic. Constructing coherent narratives out of messy realities is something everyone does all the time, and is useful in life and at work.
But there’s a slightly more mundane answer I’d often like to give to the question: why study (and fund) arts and humanities?
Besides being compulsive viewing, the BBC’s ‘The Apprentice’ functions as a catwalk of caricatures, walking adverts for the importance of the arts and humanities. Contestants are chosen and then skillfully edited to present viewers with what they already think of as ‘business’: strutting egos, dog-eat-dog nihilism and a relentless work ethic. To succeed in this artificial environment one needs to be highly motivated and intelligent, but intelligence comes in many forms, and a contestant can be credible and still ponder out loud ‘Do the French love their children?’
Participants are given tough tasks under considerable pressure and often perform well, but the show’s producers also seek out the comedy in a group of expensively-dressed professionals who don’t know that Caracas isn’t a word they’d just made up or who think Christopher Columbus was the Briton who discovered the potato. This isn’t just an embarrassing lack of general knowledge. The arts and humanities give students the cultural references we need to understand ourselves better, in comparison to other cultures past and present.
People like Katie Hopkins and Stuart Baggs ‘The Brand’ make excellent troubleshooters but they also make poor critical thinkers; a glance at Hopkin’s egregious column in The Sun proves the point, as did the boardroom discussion between Alan Sugar and 2013’s winner Leah Totton, wherein Sugar fleetingly strayed from business and profit to the morality of high street Botox clinics. The arts and humanities teach us to question the bigger picture, not just ‘will this make money?’, for example, but ‘should we use this to make money?’, and ‘how important is money anyway?’
I could go on, but most important for me is the relevance of personal endeavor. Contestants on The Apprentice take their messy realities and are encouraged to repeat one simplistic narrative, which is that all their success is thanks to their own effort (Sugar himself is the worst offender). Without wanting to undermine the truly impressive CVs viewers see torn apart in the programme’s nail-biting penultimate episode, if history has taught me anything it is the importance of contingency. If we better understand the relationship between what we can do and what the world allows us to do, it leaves us better equipped to deal with both success and failure. Otherwise Stalin might fairly be described as a ‘whole field of ponies’.