How Britain abandoned its classical education

With more universities dropping humanities and less demand at A level, academics are trying to fight back against the STEM world order

‘We need the humanities because its subjects provide us with an essential understanding of what it is to be human: where we have come from, who we are, and what we might become’

Once, most perceptive people had an idea of what an educated person was. He or she had usually been to university: and, whatever the degree and whatever the “educated person” ended up doing – chairman of a company, doctor or lawyer, computer technician or a research scientist – that person had some grasp of the humanities.

They had read the great works of English literature. They had the rudiments (at least) of a foreign language. They knew some history, and a little about religion and about philosophy. If someone made a popular classical reference, be it about Julius Caesar being stabbed in the back or Nero fiddling while Rome burned, it made sense. They could distinguish Mozart from Stravinsky, Wren from Richard Rogers, Van Dyck from Lucian Freud. And all of this led to their having a critical faculty they could deploy in their working lives, their personal relationships, their consumption of creative works, or even just in choosing a prime minister at a general election.

Their grasp of our common civilisation became a hallmark of our establishment: people simply didn’t “belong” to our elite if they had no knowledge of these things. But now that may be about to change. The new establishment is computer literate, knows something of quantum mechanics and is equal to any mathematical problem. More and more universities are dropping humanities degrees mainly, it appears, through lack of demand. That is driven by the growing utilitarian belief that a degree in a STEM subject – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – will ensure a graduate a successful career in a way that one in English, classics or history won’t.

This belief is questionable, but important because people routinely incur £50,000 of student debt. High university costs and the price mechanism in higher education turn students into customers, who want guaranteed bang for their bucks. But the process starts long before university, with fewer humanities A-level students because a more vocational degree requires appropriate A-levels.

It is hard to believe that, until the late 1950s, some trainee doctors entered medical school on classical scholarships, and learned about the human body during their training. Indeed, when I was an undergraduate, medical students had to spend a year of their first degree studying an arts subject, to broaden them out. A senior judge told me he advises would-be barristers to take a degree in a subject other than law before doing a conversion course, so they could feel “properly educated” rather than knowing only the law. Serious journalism trainee schemes rarely employ anyone whose sole degree is in media studies. It is invaluable to understand the world beyond one’s vocation.

‘Reading difficult things is an essential skill which has to be taught and mastered, never more than in an era of fake news’ Credit: Jan Hakan Dahlstrom

This was accepted wisdom when I was younger. I was fortunate enough to attend one of our oldest and most successful grammar schools, where gifted teachers identified boys with aptitudes for either the arts or sciences and developed their strengths. I was hopeless at sciences largely because, despite the efforts of my excellent teachers, I simply couldn’t be interested in them – whereas literature, languages, music and history could not come in large enough quantities. I still recall the shock of learning I had passed maths O-level, again thanks to superb teaching. Now, a scientific blockhead like me would be rapidly written off.

Then, I managed to get into Cambridge, took an undergraduate degree in English and, later, a PhD in history. Both have been exceptionally helpful in my career in journalism, writing, broadcasting and now as a part-time university teacher. I did not blink when my elder son followed me to Cambridge to read classics, and his brother went to the University of London to read French and Spanish. Both are remarkably intellectually curious, and better citizens as a result; and both, incidentally, have excellent jobs. Whatever the popular view may be, humanities are no dead end.

“Our great universities are increasingly dominated by the sciences,” observes Cambridge’s Prof Robert Tombs, a brilliant historian of France, “not only financially, but through the talent and enthusiasm of their best academics. The humanities, already in danger of marginalisation, risk crippling themselves by timid conformity and self-censorship in the face of intellectually feeble dead-end ideologies. Yet the humanities are the core of our cultural existence. We need to cherish them, and support those who uphold intellectual honesty and freedom of thought.”

Our cultural existence, however, seems less important to potential students, for whom a university degree must enhance employability, not the expansion of the mind. And although this interpretation of education as a utility dates back to Jeremy Bentham over 200 years ago, and was famously mocked by Dickens in his 1854 novel Hard Times through the character of Mr Gradgrind and his obsession with children being force-fed “facts”, it has gathered stunning momentum in this century.

This is not just because students are “customers”: it has had political drivers too. In 2003, Labour’s then-education secretary, Charles Clarke (an alumnus of King’s College, Cambridge, where he read Maths and Economics) attacked the teaching of classics, said he thought teaching medieval history was a waste of public money and useful only for “ornamental purposes”, and famously described the idea of education for its own sake as “a bit dodgy”.

Charles Clarke came under fire for his comments Credit: Paul Grover

His reward was to be attacked, even by Labour supporters in academe, as “illiberal” and “terribly narrow”. He was branded “a philistine thug”. Some among his political opponents argued that the Left dislike the humanities because they teach independent thought, encourage debate – there are few certainties in these subjects – and give people that potentially dangerous critical faculty. This idea has become more prevalent among some academics, fuelled by the rise of the “woke” mob that would limit freedom of expression.

The assault on Clarke caused his successors to choose their words more carefully: and to ensure that stealth replaced outright aggression in moving away from subjects that had underpinned a university education for decades and, in the case of classics, centuries. Some teachers of these threatened subjects, both through their actions within academe but also outside, sought to fight back. A notable advocate has been Prof Dame Mary Beard, renowned as a Cambridge classicist, but also for bringing aspects of civilisation to the masses through television programmes.

“For me the point is that the humanities are not ‘the icing on the cake’, something that we can sponsor in times of plenty and cut when the going gets rough,” Beard says. “They are as essential as STEM subjects to how we understand the world around us, make sense of where we have come from and grapple with what we see and read.

“I once asked one of my senior colleagues what she thought a classics degree taught you … ‘To read difficult things,’ she said. I think it does more than that, actually, but reading difficult things is an essential skill which has to be taught and mastered, never more than in an era of fake news.”

Professor Dame Mary Beard has long advocated for the humanities Credit: Geoff Pugh

In Britain’s growing private universities, by contrast, the absence of political pressure has allowed the humanities to flourish. Prof John Adamson, who directs the Humanities Research Institute in the University of Buckingham (full disclosure: I too am a professor in this institute), says: “We need the humanities because its subjects – history, literature, philosophy and the like – provide us with an essential understanding of what it is to be human: where we have come from, who we are, and what we might become.

“They teach us that the discernment of truth from falsity can only come from free debate, not just among ourselves but in conversation with the best that humankind has produced in the past. They inform, inspire, and also warn. And by giving us knowledge of the best and worst of which humankind has been capable, they free us from the myopia of the moment: the arrogant delusion that our own times are uniquely endowed with insight into what is virtuous and right.

“For without the humanities, we are not only impoverished as individuals and as a society; we are also infantilised, for like a child we are even unaware of what we lack.”

This sums up what society has to lose through its determination to push intelligent young people into the STEM world, and to fulfil the vision of successive education ministers to make Britain a scientific powerhouse. It doesn’t need to be either/or, but that has become the nature of the debate as politicians respond to the fear of our being left behind by developing industrial economies, notably China.

Evidence of the Government’s view appeared in May 2021 in a blog by the then-education secretary Gavin Williamson, written shortly before his sacking for presiding over the Covid lockdown exams fiasco. He proclaimed that an increase in those studying STEM showed students were “starting to pivot away from dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt”. He cut funding for courses such as music and art. Sir Gavin, as he now is, was regarded in higher education as possibly the most ignorant education secretary in living memory, and statements such as this suggest why.

The data make interesting, and alarming, reading. A report by Dr Gabriel Roberts for the Higher Education Policy Institute found that the popularity of the humanities has fallen for over 60 years, relative to other university courses. Between 1961/62 and 2019/20, the proportion of UK students studying humanities fell from 28 per cent to 8 per cent. In recent years there has also been an absolute fall in enrolments. The total number of humanities students at UK universities has fallen by around 40,000 in the past decade.

Dr Roberts’s report also illustrated the decline in humanities studies in schools and sixth-form colleges. Since 2016, almost all humanities subjects recorded a fall in A-level entries larger than the decline in the population of 18-year-olds. Some subjects have been hit especially hard: there has been a 28.5 per cent drop in the past decade in history of art – despite its vocational use for those wishing to work in galleries, museums or auction houses. But even more mainstream subjects are suffering: according to UCAS, the universities admissions service, acceptances for English studies, including English literature, fell from 9,480 in 2012 to 6,435 in 2021.

Funding is a problem, but it is hard to resolve the chicken-and-egg argument about whether it falls because applications fall, or vice-versa. It also varies widely in different parts of the UK. In Scotland, the unit of resource for Scottish humanities students is around 40 per cent lower than for students in England, with an emphasis on more “profitable” degrees, such as the STEM subjects.

During the Cameron administration, under Michael Gove as education secretary and the higher education minister David Willetts, the cumbersome Research Excellence Framework was created. It seeks to audit academics’ research “outputs”. The onus is on teachers to “monetise” their activities – something far easier if you are at the cutting edge of developing artificial intelligence than if investigating and translating newly-discovered ancient papyri or medieval manuscripts. They are asked to establish financial values for their “outputs” and to justify their existence according to the logic of the markets. In a free society there is much to be said for this logic – but it simply does not, and cannot, apply to teaching in the humanities.

Universities that have dropped specific humanities courses include Sheffield Hallam, which suspended its English literature degree. Cumbria University had taken similar action the year before, which prompted the author Philip Pullman to protest that the study of literature “should not be a luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt and privileged aesthetes”. That was a rather clumsy way of expressing a valid sentiment. Even the spoilt and privileged might soon find it hard to join a degree course to allow them this study; and one benefit of a humanities degree is that it is not that it is the culmination of such study but, rather, a stimulus for a lifetime of learning, another prospective loss to society if this trend continues.

Also, universities feel additional pressure to review such degrees. Under proposed rules, they could face penalties if fewer than 75 per cent of undergraduates complete their courses, and if fewer than 60 per cent are in professional jobs or studying for a further degree within 15 months of graduating. Since STEM subjects usually have a vocational pathway into professions or postgraduate study, universities who wish to succeed will be more inclined to pursue those subjects. About 70 per cent of graduates of Sheffield Hallam’s English literature degree gained graduate entry level jobs.

Sheffield Hallam University said that English literature is among the courses that will be suspended for the 2023/24 academic year, but did not clarify the reason behind the decision Credit: Mark Richardson / Alamy

It may be that the way humanities are taught requires reform, to prove that their intellectual rigour and the training of students to think are as valuable as ever. There is great controversy about the excessive politicisation of some humanities courses – notably history, which in some universities has become a vehicle to promote identity politics, a means to ridicule British history because of the former empire, and an outlet for politically-motivated teachers. The bad publicity this has attracted has undermined the credibility of some degrees in the eyes of employers.

There is also talk of reforming A-levels so that pupils study a humanities subject and maths throughout their schooling, and of embedding professionally valuable skills in humanities degrees to encourage applicants and boost their employment prospects. Both have their dangers: a top maths GCSE ought to be sufficient to equip for life anyone with a humanities bent; and if humanities courses began to be sold as vocational, their content would have to include less of the pure learning that distinguishes such courses.

Also, figures show humanities graduates are as likely to be employed as any others, and when subjects are ordered according to average salaries five years after graduation, humanities subjects fall in the middle. Good humanities graduates are not merely educated in a rounded fashion, but have skills employers want. In 2019 research by LinkedIn found that the three most wanted “soft skills” were creativity, persuasion and collaboration. One of the top five “hard skills” was people management, which an empathetic humanities graduate taught to think for him or herself should find straightforward.

Two senior Microsoft executives recently wrote: “As computers become more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important … [they] can teach critical philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of all solutions.” A 2015 study of 1,700 people from 30 countries found that most in leadership roles had a social sciences or humanities degree.

Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent, has condemned the decline of humanities as “dismal and dehumanising, and I’m afraid its effects will be far-reaching”. She reflects the widely held belief – not just among humanities teachers and ex-students, but among many others who understand the rich benefits to themselves and to society of an intellectual hinterland – that the nature of humanities degrees creates a better-rounded graduate at the end of the process. A good humanities degree, rigorously taught according to a syllabus of breadth and depth, is an excellent training for life. Such graduates bring enormous talents to society in terms of their creativity, intelligence and ability to think.

Above all, they should in their studies acquire that critical faculty that takes a lifetime to develop fully but which, in a free society, is a most valuable tool. It ill becomes any government to seek to marginalise the humanities, or to snuff them out, in the supposed interests of what they define as “progress”.