St Andrews, Scotland, UK: Aside from its famous golf course, St Andrews, Scotland is famous for its venerable university, founded in 1413, making the University of St. Andrews the third oldest university in the English-speaking world. It is one of the great universities in the world, especially renowned for its programs in the humanities and the social sciences. During the past few days here in St Andrews, I had the great privilege of presenting a lecture and attending an anthropological conference on how we imagine things -- The Imagination: A Universal process of knowledge? -- certainly a subject that showcases scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.
During the conference I was shocked to learn that David Cameron's government, citing the importance of fiscal austerity, has cut all funding for the humanities and social sciences. Given general reductions in government funding for higher education, university tuition is going to increase exponentially, making it increasingly difficult for middle and working class students to attend a university. Officials cut social social and humanities because they seem to think that subjects like philosophy, history, literature, foreign languages, sociology, anthropology and film studies have no utility. Scholarship in these disciplines, they would argue, has little, if any implication for public policy and brings no economic return. Following this line of narrow-minded reasoning, it makes little sense to invest precious pounds in such "unimportant" pursuits. These short-sighted policies are likely to have a devastating impact on UK universities and, by extension, the young people they would like to educate into well-informed citizens.
The events in the UK, of course, got me thinking about the future of the humanities and social sciences in the U.S. Although Prime Minister Cameron has a decidedly conservative philosophy, I don't think he has denied the human responsibility for climate change or questioned the theory of evolution. On the other side of the pond, by contrast, these know-nothing ideas have flowed into the mainstream of the Republican Party. One of the frontrunners for the Republican Presidential nomination, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, has questioned the theory of evolution, which is based upon more than 150 years of scientific testing, debate, and reflection. He also denies the overwhelming scientific evidence that the earth's climate is warming and that such warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Instead he makes dismissive remarks about scientists, suggesting indirectly they they fudge results of their investigations. Indeed, Governor Perry has joked about his lackluster record as a student at Texas AM and has demonstrated a profound ignorance of history and the lessons it provides for American presidents. Instead of claiming the need to learn about the social, economic, cultural and, indeed, the political complexities of the world, Governor Perry appears to make important judgments based on his personal experience.
Should an anti-science candidate like Rick Perry get elected to the U.S. presidency, what might we expect in the world of higher education? He would most certainly appoint like-minded cronies to important posts to implement his anti-science policies. Citing the lack of its economic return, he would probably recommend that the federal funding of pure scientific research be cut substantially. Like David Cameron, he would probably be thrilled to cut research in the social science and humanities, an exceedingly small slice of the current federal budget, to unsustainable levels. He would probably want to make deeper cuts to federal programs that help students pay increasingly high college tuitions.These kinds of political moves, which are based upon an ignorant populism that falsely cast scientists and humanists as members of an effete elite, would obliterate higher education in America. In Governor Perry's Anti-Science America the drastic restriction of education funding would "dumb-down" the curriculum, make it exceedingly difficult for scholars to engage in research to contribute to knowledge and refine teaching, and would make it impossible for millions of deserving students to educate themselves in what is now an highly competitive world in which getting a job requires the skills you acquire in a college or a university.
But life is more than simply going to work, if you're lucky enough to have a job, and returning home. If you deny the value of science, the arts, and the humanities, if you cast aspersions on college and university teaching, what does that mean for the quality of social life in America? It means that in Rick Perry's Anti-Science America, in which the gap between rich and poor would increase even more, poverty would not only be expressed economically, but socially and culturally as well.
The climate for learning that universities provide is a pathway to a bright future. Such an atmosphere can give students the skills -- technical, analytical, social, and cultural -- to move forward in the world. In Rick Perry's Anti-Science America, in which this climate is likely to disappear, the future looks bleak as more and more of young people would become ill-equipped to confront the complex realities of the coming years.