Ben Pimlott Memorial Lecture 2014. The Two Cultures Revisited: The Humanities in British Universities Since 1945
Twentieth Century British History
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Mandler, P. (2015). Ben Pimlott Memorial Lecture 2014. The Two Cultures Revisited: The Humanities in British Universities Since 1945. Twentieth Century British History, 26 400-423. https://doi.org/10.1093/tcbh/hwu068
Those of us who teach in the humanities—or to use the traditional term, ‘the arts’—in British universities are used to thinking of ourselves as the Cinderellas of the higher education system. For half a century or more we have been consistently told by pundits and funders and the government that our historic dominance in the university system was an anachronism, and that modern requirements—for useful knowledge, for technical skills, and above all for economic growth—demanded that henceforward we take a back seat. This argument intensified in the late 1950s, taking the now familiar form of the ‘two cultures’ discourse, which, as other historians have shown, remains the distorting lens through which we view many other aspects of postwar British life. In this article I re-examine the actual record of the arts and the sciences in postwar British universities, and reinstate another perspective—lost amidst the nannying and muttering from within the Whitehall and Westminster bubble—the perspective of students and their parents, who seemed to have a rather different understanding of what a university education was for. The record will show that the humanities have had a rather better time of things than the moral panics of the chattering classes would suggest. In making this argument, it is not my intention to confirm—or even to address—the gloomy diagnoses of the alleged effects of the dominance of the humanities on economic performance. I share with David Edgerton and Jim Tomlinson the view that the ‘two cultures’ critique—along with declinism in general—was a very partial and a very polemical intervention in a contemporary debate.1 Like them, I agree that the sciences were in a strong position in the immediate postwar period—and if anything got a little stronger through the 1960s—though not much stronger, despite the best efforts of polemicists and policymakers. This was because, in the longer term, broader social and cultural trends favoured non-science subjects, and in these conditions, the humanities fared surprisingly well—with no obvious effects (for good or ill) on economic performance. Whether these relatively good times are set fair to continue is, however, another matter, which I will address in my conclusion.
External DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/tcbh/hwu068
This record's URL: https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/246992