There is much debate in the UK about the proposed increases in tuition fees that are charged to undergraduates. This has been intertwined with a perceived threat to the humanities. Courses in the natural sciences cost a lot more to teach, but they will continue to attract direct taxpayer subsidies. Tuition in the humanities will not be subsidised in this way. So courses in the natural sciences and in the humanities may end up costing individual students much the same.
The perception of threat comes from the perception that the withdrawal of tuition subsidies reflects a Government view that the humanities are not worth subsidising: that their study is a private good, not a public good, so that those who want to pursue that study should pay the full cost themselves. It is natural to see that as reflecting barbarism in Whitehall and Westminster.
I do not think it is pure barbarism. Rather, the new Government is faced with some very tough spending decisions, and there will be casualties. But if serious cultural loss is to be avoided, something will have to change. Are there ways of conducting study and research in the humanities, which will make study and research affordable to individuals, without requiring so much support from the taxpayer, and which could be used more widely than at present? And would such a change have advantages of its own, independently of the question of cost?
We need to start by setting out the important goals for the humanities (these are goals for the sciences too, but the subject of this post is the humanities). Three strike me as covering most of the ground:
the advancement of the disciplines through research;
dissemination of the fruits of the research;
the provision of a liberal education to large numbers of people.
In all three of these, it strikes me that there is a strong element of public good. The achievement of the goals benefits society at large, not just the people who participate in the achievement. (In contrast, the ability of specific individuals to make a living out of research or teaching is an exclusively private good, or very nearly so.) I do not see any need to base the claim to public good on any effects beyond the disciplines, for example, the effect of making us better able to criticize our current social arrangements. There may well be such benefits, but we are on safer ground if we point out that it is part of being human to deepen our understanding of ourselves, and that this demands the advancement and dissemination of the humanities. The practice of these disciplines is part of our nature. It is what we must do. Utilitarians can be brought on side if we point out that a liberal education, which should continue throughout life, is one of life's greatest, and in Millian terms highest, pleasures.
So can we achieve the goals more cheaply?
On dissemination and liberal education, there are plenty of new opportunities to make lectures and written material available over the Internet, and several institutions are doing just that. We just need to put structures of courses and assessment around that material. We have the models of the University of London International Programmes and the Open University, plus several online colleges, although the ones that exist now are of variable quality. This approach would not be as good for a student as being together with professors and other students in a physical university, but it might not be much worse. And it would make it feasible to extend higher education to even more people than at present.
On research, the essentials are good libraries, access to online journals, and seminars and other fora where people can submit their ideas to criticism and learn from others. It would be possible to provide these things outside the context of a university burdened with heavy institutional costs. Again, there would be some loss, but not a catastrophic loss. The important thing would be to ensure that any loss was in the quantity of output, not in its quality. Quality control cannot be enforced outside an institutional context. (It is not always clear how well it is enforced inside such a context.) But quality can still be recognized, and can be the subject of comment. It is pretty clear to the experts in a discipline which authors who work outside institutions are worth reading.
I therefore think that there is scope for a partial (but not total) reversal of the professionalization of research in the humanities that we associate with the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, without serious loss to the disciplines. And this might have advantages. The independent scholar is beholden to no-one, can choose his or her topics without reference to what others in the field think should be studied, and can take time to get a piece of work right, unhurried by a requirement for an institution to publish a certain amount each year. There is no money in that life, but those who really care about their subjects will not mind adopting modest lifestyles that can be sustained by jobs that leave time for other things. We should support researchers right across the humanities out of taxpayers' funds. But if their number must shrink, we should adapt. There is no need either to fear, or to drift into, a new dark age.