It’s Not Just The Economy, Stupid

Richard Shaw

What’s the problem?

The humanities and social sciences – collectively described here as the Arts – have been under sustained assault in Aotearoa New Zealand for years, too often derided by policy-makers, parents and pundits as irrelevant, frivolous and indulgent. The primary purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the empirical inaccuracy and intellectual laziness of such judgments; a secondary aim is to show that they are short-sighted at best and dangerous at worst.

The nub of the problem is the marginalization of the Arts in what has become the dominant narrative of the purpose of the tertiary sector: the production of employable graduates. This story stretches back to the reforming era of the 1980s and early 1990s, when a policy architecture aligning the funding of tertiary tuition with employment imperatives was cobbled together. Its most recent expression is in the current Tertiary Education Strategy , in which the primary function of a university education is defined by the Minister as ‘better equip[ing] individuals with the skills and qualifications needed to participate effectively in the labour market and in an innovative and successful New Zealand’.

Critically, the requisite ‘skills and qualifications’ appear to be those associated with what goes on in the parts of university campuses housing the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. The sorts of aptitudes traditionally associated with the Arts – communication, critical analysis, reasoning, interpretation, complex problem solving, ethical conduct and so forth – rarely feature in official rhetoric regarding employment outcomes for graduates. Moreover, any discourse concerning the wider public value of the Arts has more or less disappeared entirely.


So what?

There are numerous problems with this state of affairs. For a start, it is contradicted by the international evidence on employment outcomes. A study of more than 11,000 Oxford Humanities graduates who took their degrees between 1960–1989 found that 40% of graduates gained employment in the management, finance and law sectors. Education was the largest single destination for graduates (25.8%), but they also found work in the media/literature/arts (11.4%), legal (11.3%) and finance (10.4%) sectors. The UK Campaign for Social Sciences (2013) has found that 3.5 years after graduating, the proportion of social science (84.2%) and humanities (78.2%) graduates in employment is higher than that of graduates in the STEM subjects (77.8%). In other words, Arts graduates are sought after by employers right across the economy.

In this respect a second issue with the orthodox position is that it rests on a peculiarly narrow slice of employer sentiment. These days:


Hiring and career advancement both rely on evidence of the individual’s capacity to continue to learn new technical and other skills, communicate well, and adapt actively in the context of new challenges posed by changes in the economy and society. These capacities were rated [by employers] more highly than the teaching of techniques to be applicable on first employment. Knowledge skills at the core of Humanities-based higher education were consistently cited as the basis of this capacity (Kraeger, 2013: 3).


Similar views were expressed by participants in a 2014 survey of Wellington employers undertaken by Massey University, only 9% of whom indicated that the attributes of a BA graduate were irrelevant to their particular needs. In short, employers do not have a single, unified view on the merits of the Arts. Many are well aware of the critical importance to their firms of people who can think clearly, craft a good question and cope with difference, uncertainty and unpredictability. In a contemporary economy underpinned by human relationships and spanning geographical boundaries that is hardly a surprise: what is of concern is the extent to which a single employability story drowns out all others in government rhetoric and policy.


It’s not just the economy, stupid

In addition to the positive case that can be made for their economic contribution, four points can be made regarding the broader importance of the Arts. The first is that there is more to being human than working. That is not to gainsay the importance of work to people’s material wellbeing and to their sense of self, but we are not reducible to the labour we perform. The human condition comprises dimensions other than employment (or the lack of) which the Arts help cultivate. The humanities and social sciences ‘help you learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free’ (Deresiewicz, 2014: 155).

Relatedly (and this may have both work and non-work applications), the Arts can enable us to make sense of the circumstances in which we live. Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s account of his experience in Auschitz, stands as one of the great expositions of the importance of comprehending the meaning that lies ‘in every moment of living’. Frankl’s is an especially harrowing story, but the lesson at its centre is no less relevant today. And so it is to the Arts we turn for the means of distinguishing knowledge from data, recognising how (and what) meaning is attributed to phenomenon (and by whom), and of weighing the relative merits of competing truth claims. Bluntly, it is through the Arts that we avoid leading Socrates’ ‘unexamined life’.

Third, the Arts (should) play an important role in humanising science. While there are those in the biophysical scientific community who are of the view that ‘science’ should not be contaminated by the messiness of the social (and by no means are all such scientists of this persuasion), the performance and application of science is unavoidably social. From the culture and politics of the lab to the anthropogenic dimensions of climate change, science is rooted in social contexts. The ethical, philosophical and political dimensions of the practice and applications of science are far too important to be left to scientists alone: STEAM, not STEM, is the acronym we should really be using.

Finally, the humanities and social sciences sharpen the questions we ask of those in power. It is one of the hallmarks of these disciplines that they cultivate the tendencies to question what is taken for granted, challenge established truths and prod sacred cows. These things matter – they really matter – at an historical juncture when the state is able to keep citizens under perpetual surveillance. In such times scepticism regarding the motives of political and economic élites is essential. The latter are inclined to the view that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear (which begs a question: why keep me under surveillance when I have nothing to hide?). In fact, we have everything to fear – particularly the glib promulgation of blandishments inviting us to accept, without question, decisions taken by the powerful.


Follow the Yellow Brick Road

What, then, to do? At one level the conundrum facing those of us in the Arts can be simply put: Do we engage in political and policy debates about the future of our disciplines or do we remain on our disciplinary reservations and trust to fate? I think that the later position is politically naïve. The positive case for the Arts is not self-evident and it does not make itself: if it was, and if it did, we wouldn’t be in the state we’re in. Rather, we need a pan-disciplinary, cross-institutional political strategy to counter the anti-Arts narrative in Aotearoa New Zealand. There are at least three elements to this strategy. First, we need a compelling story to tell – and that story must engage with and shift the present employability narrative. Second, in addition to the sporadic efforts of individuals we ought to create arrangements within our own institutions which facilitate the public championing of the Arts. Last, we must cultivate alliances with those in other sectors of the political economy (including the Fourth Estate and the employers’ community) who share our views on the importance of the Arts. Clearly, even if these preconditions were achieved there can be no guarantee of success. On the other hand, it is entirely probable that if we fail to grasp this nettle we will continue to play into the hands of those who see the Arts, and its practitioners, as pampered, disengaged and irrelevant relics of a time long gone.


Richard Shaw
About the author

Richard Shaw

Richard Shaw is a Professor of Politics and Director BA (External Connections) at Massey University’s Palmerston North campus, where he teaches courses in politics and public policy. With Victoria University’s Chris Eichbaum he is co-author of Politics and Public Policy in New Zealand: Institutions, Processes and Outcomes, and co-editor of Partisan Appointees and Public Servants: An International Analysis of the Role of the Political Adviser. His research on political advisers in Cabinet ministers’ offices has been published in leading journals including Governance, Public Administration, Public Management Review and Parliamentary Affairs.