NEW YORK – British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has announced some of the most draconian public-sector cuts any developed country government has ever attempted. Indeed, his minister of education recently declared that funding for Britain’s universities would be slashed by as much as 40%. But the most shocking aspect of the move is that arts and humanities departments will be targeted more aggressively than science and engineering, which are supposedly better for business.
The war against the arts and humanities is nothing new – though this is the first time that the fight has migrated so directly to Britain. Ronald Reagan pioneered a wave of policy and propaganda in the United States in the 1980’s that demonized the National Endowment for the Arts. Ever since, Republican governments in the US have slashed funding for ballet, poetry in schools, and sculpture, while demagogues like former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have gained political traction by attacking controversial visual arts.
But the Cameron government’s approach is more sinister than the old right-wing tactic of taking aim at disciplines that can be derided as effete. The British cuts reveal a push in developed countries – one that also started in the US – to target the kinds of education that lead to an open, vigorous civil society and a population that is hard to suppress.
In the former Soviet bloc, it was the poets, dramatists, cartoonists, and novelists whose works encoded forbidden themes of freedom, and who were targeted by the secret police. Today, they are bullied, silenced, and tortured in places like Iran, Syria, China, and Myanmar.
Obviously, neither the US nor Britain has reached that point. But the attack on the arts and humanities is a giant step in the direction of a pliable, dumbed-down citizenry. Indeed, the war against the arts and humanities in the US coincided with the emergence of an increasingly ignorant and passive population and a government that serves at the pleasure of corporate interests.
Academics in the arts and humanities are notoriously bad at defending why their work has value. But, apart from strengthening civil society and the habits of freedom, these disciplines yield bottom-line benefits as well. Who needs to read closely, seek evidence, and make a reasoned argument – skills that the study of poetry, the novel, history, and philosophy provide? Who needs to study languages and comparative literature? For Cameron, evidently, the answer is: no one of importance.
Let us imagine, then, a Britain of tomorrow that includes parliamentarians who don’t know what led to World War I, or what the Enlightenment was; journalists who can’t write compellingly; attorneys and judges who can’t figure out their cases; and spies and diplomats who don’t speak the languages or understand the cultures in which they work. That Britain will look more like the US of today.
In a heartbeat, Cameron (who himself studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford, having previously attended that bastion of classical education, Eton) has signed away Britain’s global influence. Having lost its empire, Britain retains outsized global influence simply because of the power of its civilization and the education absorbed by its decision-makers.
That allure is why foreign students from emerging countries around the world flock to Britain, putting millions of pounds annually into the coffers of its universities. By slashing the funding for the institutions which created that civilization, Cameron has guaranteed that tomorrow’s Britain will be a nation not of world-class politicians, writers, and cultural innovators, but of wonky technocrats raised on bad TV, with little influence beyond their tiny island.
If what has been cut is not restored, Cameron and his ideological heirs will create a nation of quiescent citizens who, like their US counterparts, are better suited to a society whose official policies are more directly aligned to the will of corporate interests. While the fiscal savings may appear attractive to Cameron in the short term, for the British people – and for the rest of the world, which benefits from Britain’s liveliness, civilization, and tradition of democracy – the cost is far too high.