The Tory Government distrusts the arts and humanities – but what about academics?

The cover story of today’s Sunday Times indicates a plan on the part of the UK government to reduce fees in higher education.

Sunday Times 18-2-18

According to the story:

He [Education Secretary Damian Hinds] revealed that future fees would be determined by “a combination of three things: the cost [to the university] to put it on, the benefit to the student and the benefit to our country and our economy”.

Ministers expect this to lead to dramatic cuts in fees for arts and social science courses, which universities have expanded because they are the cheapest to run and make them the most money.

Under the plans, universities will be told to offer: more two-year degrees; sandwich courses, where students spend time in the workplace; and “commuter courses”, where they live at home to cut costs.

Various television interviews today with Hinds and also with Universities Minister Sam Gyimah have done nothing to dispel such suggestions, though precise details are vague. A statement from the Prime Minister is promised tomorrow, though it is unclear how much has yet been decided, how much will be the outcome of a review.

There are various outcomes I could envisage, few of them likely to be positive for those working in the arts and humanities in British universities. The items on the following list are not mutually exclusive.

  1. A re-introduction of the pre-1992 divide (though ministers will be at pains to stress how different it is), whereby the sector will once again divide into a series of universities in the traditional sense (probably the Russell Group and a handful of others) and others offering more vocational and technical courses (most of those which became universities after 1992 and maybe some others as well). This will be spun as entailing a new level of support for technical education, with the second group of institutions intended to be akin to German Technische Universitäten. The latter institutions will receive little or no support for research, and most lecturers will be on teaching-only contracts. The government money thus saved will be used to finance a cut in some tuition fees.
  2. A push for many degrees, especially in the arts and humanities, to be able to be undertaken in two years, delivered by a mixture of lecturers on teaching-only contracts (whose increased teaching burden would leave little time for any research), casual academic staff without permanent contracts, and postgraduates.
  3. A limitation of practically all government research money to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects, with nothing for the arts and the humanities, though the social sciences may keep some.
  4. A variant of 3, in which all or the bulk of arts and humanities research money is only available to those in Russell Group institutions.
  5. The introduction of a direct link between ’employability’ (as measured by the Teaching Excellence Framework) and the level of fees which an institution is allowed to set.
  6. An insistence that the majority of academic jobs be teaching only. Having a research position will then become one of the most sought-after things in HE.

Most of these measures, or some variants thereof, will be designed to enable the government to cut fees without having to pledge any more money for HE. I believe strongly in the abolition of tuition fees and re-installment of maintenance grants for all, but realise at present this is unlikely to be on the cards (even with a Labour government which pledges to abolish fees, but will be hit by the dire economic consequences of a Brexit they are doing little to stop).

The outlook for the arts is bleak, and especially for degrees in performing arts such as music, theatre, dance, or various types of spatial arts, which include a practical element requiring significant resources for appropriate facilities. Already, as a result of the introduction of the Ebacc (English Baccalaureate), there was a five-fold fall in the numbers of pupils taking arts subjects at secondary school in 2015-16, while other evidence points to a special fall in take-up and provision of music. When combined with other likely problems relating both to recruitment and access to research funding following Brexit, this will put various music and other arts departments in a highly precarious position, as some already are.

The arguments for the employment benefits of arts and humanities degrees have been rehearsed often, as for example in response to politicians such as former Conservative Education Secretary Nicky Morgan dismissing arts and humanities subjects and urging pupils at school to concentrate on STEM if they want a better career. I do not wish to dwell on these further here, not because I do not believe them to be true, but because I resent the debate always being framed in such narrowly utilitarian terms. Rather, I want to ask why many – including some in academia – have lost such faith in the value of the study of the arts and humanities as an end in itself, and are submitting to terms of reference which will always place them at a disadvantage?

In many continental European universities, there are battles to save rare subjects in the face of declining student numbers, but at least some measures are being taken to prevent these from extinction. It would be nice to imagine that the UK government (or the opposition) were backing similar measures, but evidence of that is in short supply. I wonder in how many other developed countries one would find a vice-chancellor of a major university declaring the irrelevance of the study of sixth-century history, as the late Patrick Johnston, of Queen’s University Belfast, did in 2016. I refuse to accept that the study of early medieval (or ancient) history is somehow automatically less ‘relevant’ than modern history – or that the study of Guillaume de Machaut is less ‘relevant’ than that of Madonna. Any measure of the relevance of history in proportion to the temporal remoteness of the period in question ultimately undermines the case for the study of history at all. There has also been, in the UK, a marked decline in foreign language degrees, no doubt linked to a decline in their study in schools. It is dispiriting and more than a little arrogant when those in Britain no longer feel it important to engage with any of the world’s many other languages.

There have been, and will be for a long time, heated debates about the value to individuals and society as a whole of various types of art, and especially regarding their purported humanising or civilising potential. Overwhelming evidence exists from the fascist era that individuals with a love for and firm schooling in high culture could still commit crimes against humanity. At the very least, this renders automatic assumptions of such culture’s civilising potential impossible to maintain. But one need not subscribe to the views of Matthew Arnold (themselves more complex and nuanced than sometimes credited) in order to believe that a society with only minimal support for and education in the arts and humanities to be one which is deeply impoverished.

So what should be included in teaching and research of these disciplines? I would argue that at the very least, students should be encouraged to explore not only the forms of culture that they would encounter anyhow, but also those of different times and places, not to mention less familiar or commercially successful genres. Such culture can benefit from being examined in its social, historical, geographical, political, ideological contexts, without in any way neglecting its specifics and technical details, which are not merely the by-product of such contexts. The relationships between different cultural forms (between music and theatre, between theatre and performance art, between literature and film, just to give a tiny few obvious examples) are also greatly important, as are the relationships between culture and the intellectual environment of its time/place/social milieu, the societal functions of various cultural forms, the nature and demographics of those who partake of such culture and their responses (i.e. the study of reception), the economic situation of cultural production, the role of changing technology, and much else.

Yet so often I encounter the dismissal of many of these things, including by some academics, in ways which mirror government ideologies, despite being presented in somewhat different language. In the case of my own field, music: government emphasis on STEM subjects is mirrored in increasing emphasis on technological skills in music over other varieties of musical study and musicianship (and in the case of research, favour bestowed upon anything which has a contemporary technological dimension), as if musical study is somehow more acceptable when it has some of the veneer of science. Positions become available for the teaching of commercial music, or functional music for another commercial medium (such as popular film or video games), more frequently than those requiring expertise in a historical field, or in musical cultures outside of the Western world. I was recently informed by one Professor of Theatre that historical study of that discipline has all but disappeared except in Russell Group institutions (though am interested to hear of any evidence to the contrary).

I accept that some of this is pragmatic, borne of desperate attempts to recruit and maintain students who have less and less of a foundation in music and the arts at primary and secondary school than ever. But I am dismayed at how many embrace rather than tolerate this situation. There was a time when the study of popular music (see this debate from two years ago on this blog) could reasonably be argued to inject increased diversity into rather rigid curricula. At best, this can entail the study of many different popular musics from various times and places, critical interrogation of the concept of the ‘popular’, consideration of various social contexts, means of production and distribution, not to mention relationship to other cultural traditions, languages, and so on. But when it means limiting a good deal of musical study to Anglo-American popular music of a restricted period (essentially that music which is already familiar to students), then the net effect for diversity is negative rather than positive. Ethnomusicologists (see another debate on this blog) eager to decry not only relatively traditional approaches to teaching Western art music, but also older approaches to their own disciplines which involved Western scholars spending considerable amounts of time in remote places, absorbing as best as they can the language, cultural practices, and so on, might reflect upon how precarious their own discipline might become if there is less of a place or welcoming environment for those interested in such things. The more musical study becomes simply about the application of a selection of methods derived from sociology or cultural anthropology to fields of musical activity close to home, the less reason there will be for institutions to support music as a separate field of study. The sociology and anthropology of music are vitally important sub-disciplines with multiple intellectual trajectories of their own, but if those engaged with them are housed solely in sociology and anthropology departments, they will then be in direct competition for students, funding and positions with the rest of those fields.

More widely, in many fields of cultural studies, especially the populist varieties which, as I have argued in some recent papers, are rooted in the work of the Birmingham School and especially that of Stuart Hall, commercial utility is equated with relevance, musical engagement is viewed as just another consumer activity, and research can amount either to conducting focus groups, or dressing up familiar informal chat about popular culture with a modicum of jargon. Any deeper critical engagement with popular taste, the latter empirically measured at one particular time and place, is dismissed as elitism. This amounts in many ways to an eschewal of arts education itself, and can lead to rather patronising ways of patting students and ‘the masses’ on the back simply for having the tastes they do, rather than encouraging them to venture beyond their comfort zones.

I do believe, after working in HE for 15 years (in multiple institutions), that most students those who study arts subjects at university do so after having read some literature, heard or played some music, seen and acted in some theatre, looked at or produced some visual art, etc., and care about these and want to know more. They often seek help and guidance to navigate an overwhelming range of available culture, and also learn technical skills so as to be able to engage with this more incisively. Certainly not all will become equally drawn to all the manifold areas of study, methods, or emphases involved, nor could any realistically study all in detail in the limited time available for an undergraduate degree (for which I think we should be looking towards four- rather than two-year degrees, ideally) which is why we offer some degree of elective options. But I do believe it is important, indeed vital, that educators attempt to broaden students’ horizons, encourage them to explore beyond what they already know, and also consider the familiar from unfamiliar angles. Those educators, with years of experience in their own fields, are in a position to facilitate all of this. Not through spoon-feeding, teaching-to-test, or rote learning, but introducing what to students will be a plurality new ideas, new cultural forms, new contexts, and encouraging them to consider these critically.

I also realise this type of humanistic approach may not be attractive or feasible to some potential students, and this situation is unlikely to change without wider changes in primary and secondary education. With this in mind, I would not rule out questions as to  whether the removal of the pre-1992 divide has been wholly beneficial, and whether a need to maintain the pretence that all degree courses are roughly equal just entails a race to the bottom for all. But technical colleges are not universities in the traditional sense, and it benefits nowhere to pretend otherwise, as argued well by Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton:

Just as there cannot be a pub without alcohol, so there cannot be a university without the humanities. If history, philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training facility or corporate research institute. But it will not be a university in the classical sense of the term, and it would be deceptive to call it one.

Neither, however, can there be a university in the full sense of the word when the humanities exist in isolation from other disciplines. The quickest way of devaluing these subjects – short of disposing of them altogether – is to reduce them to an agreeable bonus. Real men study law and engineering, while ideas and values are for sissies. The humanities should constitute the core of any university worth the name. The study of history and philosophy, accompanied by some acquaintance with art and literature, should be for lawyers and engineers as well as for those who study in arts faculties.

I would not like to live in a narrow, utilitarian, technocratic society in which there is little wider societal interest in other times and places, in all the questions which the humanities raise, or one in which such interest and knowledge is limited to the upper echelons of society. Nor a society in which art has no meaning other than as a form of commercial entertainment, as some right-wing politicians in the UK have been urging for many years (see the notorious 1990 Westminster speech by then-Tory MP Terry Dicks, and the spirited and witty response by then-Labour MP Tony Banks). And I doubt that this type of society would be attractive to many, especially not those working in arts and humanities fields. But if many of them are not prepared to defend the ideals of the arts and humanities, acting instead as advocates for narrowly conceived notions of social ‘relevance’, defined in terms of being contemporary, technocratic, and generally restricted to the place and milieu of them and/or their students, what are the chances of any meaningful opposition to governments who would happily slash most of these?

Universities, the arts and the humanities, are not just means to ends but valuable in their own right. Cultures and cultural histories are far from unblemished things, to say the least, but it would still be negligent in the extreme to let them fade into oblivion. And allowing students to retreat into the comfort zone of the already-familiar is damaging to global citizenship. In some ways, those who advocate such an approach to education are already doing the Brexiteers’ work for them.




‘Radio-Controlled’, BBC R3 Feature, Sun 11 April 18:45. New Music after 1945 in Germany.

On Sunday 11 April at 18:45, on BBC Radio 3, the Sunday Feature will be a programme called ‘Radio Controlled’, looking at the role of radio stations in supporting and promoting new music in Germany. This is based extensively upon my own research and I am interviewed at length for the feature. My work on radio forms part of a wider research project, drawing extensively upon a large amount of archival data and also many German newspapers from the period, into the origins of German (and indeed European) new music in the period from 1945 to 1951, and its earlier provenance during the Weimar Republic and to some extent through the Third Reich.

Some time ago, I figured out to myself that the infrastructure for new music in Europe had its origins in West Germany, in the sense that in that country, before anywhere else, there was a large and elaborate range of festivals, concert series, radio stations broadcasting new music, dedicated journals, newspapers with a range of sympathetic critics, and educational institutions in which modernist composers had teaching positions. Nowadays similar such infrastructures exist, and have done for some decades, in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Spain, Finland and elsewhere, but that in Germany was essentially in place by the early 1950s. Considering how devastated the country was been after the war, with over three-quarters of buildings destroyed in many major cities, this was a remarkable development, which took place very quickly. I was fascinated to explore how and why this could have happened, exactly which types of music were most favoured at the time (not just those that today’s historical filter determines to be important). Other scholars, including historians David Monod, Toby Thacker, Elizabeth Janik and Andreas Linsenmann, had explored wider aspects of post-war German musical life and its reconstruction, but while all had considered new music, none had made this the primary focus of their study.

There have been other historical models applied loosely in this respect: the so-called Stunde null or ‘zero hour’ model, which maintains that in the wake of the devastation of war, Germany had to rebuild itself from scratch. This was equally true of music, necessitating the forging a new language, free of the tainted historical past. Another model, based upon some questionable writings of Frances Stonor Saunders and others, and widely disseminated by Richard Taruskin, maintains that new music was essentially fuelled by the United States and its intelligence agencies, beginning in the occupation era, and the most ‘abstract’ (especially atonal and pointillistic) work was supported in opposition to Soviet ideals of socialist realism, especially following the Zhdanov Decree of 1948. Thus new music was enlisted as a weapon in the cultural Cold War.

Both these models contain grains of truth, but both are also too simplistic. There were a great many continuities of works, styles and personnel in German music before and after 1945. There is also very little evidence of US support for the most radical new music in Germany after the occupation era, though there was certainly a programme in place in the late 1940s to promote US composers, who were mostly contemporary. These were however mostly the likes of Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, Quincy Porter or Walter Piston. In the 1950s John Cage would visit Germany on several occasions, and his influence was pronounced and sustained, but there is little evidence of this being connected to any wider US government policy or Cold War strategy. The latter was mostly focused elsewhere (the German programme of the leading agency, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, was relatively small and mostly focused upon Berlin) and they promoted neo-classical music and jazz more actively than the far-out achievements of the post-war avant-garde.

What is a much more significant factor, in my view, is the concept of Nachholbedarf (‘catching up’), which was used widely immediately after 1945. This held basically that Germany had been cut off from all significant international and modernist developments in music for a period of 12 years, and so it was now necessary to ‘catch up’. The assumptions entailed here were at most only partially true, however. Whilst the protagonists of one wing of Nazi aesthetic ideology, epitomised by Alfred Rosenberg and his Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur , were implacably hostile to modernism in all the arts, others thought differently, as did their counterparts in fascist Italy. Composers such as Bartók and Stravinsky were quite widely performed in Nazi Germany at least up until the early years of the war, while the twelve-tone composer and Schoenberg student Winfried Zillig won great success for a range of operas and took a position as music director in occupied Poznań, in Poland (part of the so-called Warthegau, a region of Poland which was the site of some of the most atrocious racial policies against both Jewish people and Poles at the hands of fanatical ideologue Arthur Greiser). Much has been made of the Entartete Musik exhibition in Düsseldorf in 1938, now and also after 1945, but this was not a large-scale event and was in many ways a personal obsession of the organiser Hans Severus Ziegler. It was not attended by many prominent musicians, and did not impress Joseph Goebbels, who wrote about it in his diaries. There was plenty of international music performed throughout the Reich, though generally from friendly nations. Modern Italian music could be heard regularly, as could Spanish music after 1939, while there were tours from Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian musicians, even a reasonable amount of Russian music during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Japanese conductor Hidemaro Konoye travelled repeatedly to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and and his score Etenraku (1930), based on a traditional gagaku melody, was played widely throughout the Third Reich and occupied territories. Cultural exchange associations between fascist nations sprung up during the period, while Peter Raabe, head of the Reichsmusikkammer after Richard Strauss’s resignation, essentially subscribed to what is now thought of as a ‘nationalistic cosmopolitics’, favourable towards multiple cultural nationalisms, in opposition to pan-national cosmopolitanism. Raabe was also sympathetic to a fair amount of modernist music. He conducted Schoenberg, Hindemith, Skryabin and others when Generalmusikdirektor in Aachen from 1918 to 1929, and was impressed when he heard Berg’s Wozzeck.

Nonetheless, the assumptions underlying the concept of Nachholbedarf were rarely questioned after 1945, and this argument was used to justify the creation of a range of specialised institutions for new music, gaining financial support from local and state authorities, and the occupying powers, towards this end. Many contemporary institutions for new music were either founded during this period or have their roots there. Furthermore, the US, France and the Soviet Union all had extensive cultural programmes, in large measure devoted to promoting culture from their own countries for a variety of motives (for the US, in part from an inferiority complex, aware of German perceptions that the US was a highly commercialised society lacking high culture; for the French, in order to supplant Germany as the central nation for European culture; for the Soviet Union, in order to promote the purportedly superior possibilities for culture under communism). The UK had a certain programme, but it was relatively modest, and primarily focused upon the press and media, seen as vital in generating a culture of political pluralism.

Furthermore, as has been shown above all in the comprehensive scholarship of Martin Thrun, there was an extremely extensive infrastructure for new music in place during the Weimar Republic. Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart, Munich and elsewhere all had extensive cultures of new music – and some of the musical aesthetics entailed a more radical break with the recent past (with widespread opposition to the values of Wagnerism and Imperial Germany prominent especially amongst the Novembergruppe of artists in Berlin) than was the case after 1945. A great many festivals and concert series came and went between 1918 and 1933, some continuing beyond 1933. Radio began in Germany in late 1923, and a few years later stations were commissioning new works of music, and composers exploiting the specific possibilities of the medium.

However, this was a time of huge economic instability, and few of the institutions proved financially stable for this reason. The same situation was naturally true after 1945, especially at the time of currency reform in 1948, in which the introduction of a new currency rendered many people’s savings essentially worthless. However, this is where the role of the radio stations, whose funding was relatively stable due to a licence fee system, is crucial. Many of the most prominent and important festivals and concert series for new music – in Munich, Darmstadt, Frankfurt, Donaueschingen, Baden-Baden, Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Cologne and Hamburg in particular – were supported by radio stations, which gave them a staying power which was rare in the 1920s.

Furthermore, it is vital to consider some of the individuals involved with these radio stations – figures such as Heinrich Strobel at Südwestfunk in Baden-Baden, who did a huge amount to support and promote contemporary French music, Herbert Eimert at the branch of Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne (later Westdeutscher Rundfunk), who founded the electronic music studio in Cologne and was mentor to the young Karlheinz Stockhausen, Eigel Kruttge, the first music director at the same station and later co-founder of the important new music series Musik der Zeit, Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt at Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor in Berlin, who presented a range of programmes with quasi-Socratic dialogues between himself and other individuals unsympathetic to new music, Heinz Schröter at Radio Frankfurt, later Hessischer Rundfunk, who developed a major new music festival in Bad Nauheim and then Frankfurt, and was also involved in supporting the courses at Darmstadt, or Herbert Hübner, also at Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk (later Norddeutscher Rundfunk) but at the central headquarters in Hamburg, who like others created a special late-night series devoted to new music, and from 1951 the series das neue werk, Otto-Erich Schilling at Radio Stuttgart, later Süddeutscher Rundfunk in Stuttgart, or Heinz Pringsheim at Radio Munich, later Bayerischer Rundfunk.  All of these figures had a strong commitment to new music, and almost all were appointed to key positions between 1945 and 1946 (Hübner in 1947). Some had very questionable pasts: Schilling, Kruttge and Hübner had been NSDAP members (possibly also Stuckenschmidt, and also certainly his wife, singer Margot Hinnenberg-Lefèbre, though both may have been entered without their consent), as had other influential figures such as composers Wolfgang Fortner, Ernst Lothar von Knorr and Gerhard Frommel, Robert Ruthenfranz, founder of the Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik in 1936, Hugo Herrmann, an interim director of the Donaueschinger Musiktage and musical director of other festivals in Konstanz, Trossingen and Tübingen right after the war, pianist Eduard Erdmann, choral expert Siegfried Goslich, who worked at the radio station in Weimar, in the Soviet Zone, after 1945, and from 1948 played a major role in developing new music at Radio Bremen, or electronic music pioneer Werner Meyer-Eppler. Schilling had written an opera based on the anti-semitic propaganda film Jüd Suß and also a cantata beginning with the text ‘Wir hassen den Juden und lieben, was deutsch ist’ (‘We hate the Jews and love that which is German’). Stuckenschmidt and Eimert’s Nazi-era journalism sometimes parroted Nazi propaganda, as did that of Strobel when writing for the Nazi occupation paper Pariser Zeitung, though in Strobel’s case it should be borne in mind that he was married to a Jewish woman and there is good evidence that he made whatever compromises were necessary to protect her.

But in almost all cases the individuals involved with radio found that the occupying powers found them acceptable and were happy to allow them to take up the positions they did. Kruttge was an exception, and removed from his position at an early stage for a period. Why this was depends on individual cases: in some cases there was simply not the time for the military authorities to investigate the fine details of some people’s journalism and employment of Nazi tropes and rhetoric, and this became less and less of a concern as denazification was scaled down and handed over to German authorities, before being brought to an end entirely. In the case of Strobel, who been an opponent of German romanticism and indeed the expressionism of Schoenberg back in the 1920s, the French authorities had plenty of good reason to believe in his Francophile tendencies, notwithstanding his wartime journalism. As such he could be counted upon to support their own cultural agenda, a prediction which proved wholly accurate.

Without the work of these individuals at radio stations, I do not believe that not only avant-garde German composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen (and arguably less radical composers such as Hans Werner Henze or Giselher Klebe), but also those from elsewhere including Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, and indeed John Cage, all of whom were widely performed in West Germany, would have gained the reputation and profile that they did, at least for a period. And their work paved the way for subsequent generations.

‘New music’ is a concept whose roots are in an essay ‘Neue Musik’ published by critic Paul Bekker in 1919, stimulating a wide range of responses through the 1920s), in the sense of a separate realm of musical activity from more ‘mainstream’ classical music, with financial support from sources other than ticket sales and private sponsorship. It is fundamentally a phenomenon borne out of particular historical circumstances in Germany after crushing defeat in 1918 and 1945. This is not the whole picture, for sure, and one should not neglect other parallel developments elsewhere – for  example the Festival internazionale di musica contemporanea founded in Venice in 1932 (thus in the midst of the Fascist era), which continues to the present day, or other developments in France, Austria, the UK and elsewhere. But the scale of such a thing was greatest in Germany. What then becomes a difficult question for all of those (including myself) committed to and involved with such a scene, is what is the basis for its continuation, and financial support, now that historical conditions have changed, and the legitimising arguments for the associated infrastructure no longer have the same cogency.