What the Foucault! Social science is not self-indulgent

by Beth Cherryman

The coalition government (though by no means every Lib-Dem) has voted to raise tuition fees to a maximum of £9000, cut EMA maintenance grants for school/6th form students, and to cut teaching grants.

The exact damage will not be known until January – giving university departments only a few months to decide their fee levels for Easter, in time for those entering university in 2012 to have access to that information.

However the likelihood is that Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences will be worst hit.  The London School of Economics (LSE) expects to loose 100% of its teaching grants.  I expect LSE will be raising its fees to the maximum level (in line with Oxbridge).

LSE is after all a business, a successful one at that, currently running at approximately £19m surplus.  This money is completely separate from the £37m they just spent on buying yet another property in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (the Land Registry Office building).

For a long time, I believe it has been the desire of the LSE Committee (highest decision making body of the School) to increase fees for home students.  In fact Sir Howard Davis (Director of LSE; N.B. Director not Dean) has often argued that it is unfair to charge international students so much to subsidise home/EU students.  It would be far fairer to increase everyone’s fees.  Not that LSE has really suffered a great loss by taking on Home students; after all they only make up 20% on the student body.

As under this policy decision my degree ‘BSc Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method’ is no longer considered a public good, I would just very briefly like to outline why it is.

Firstly, I have learned how to read and write.  Perhaps readers of this blog belonging to the generations before mine will not understand the significance of this point – didn’t I learn that at primary school?

No, it actually took a year and a half of university education to learn how to read.  That is, to be active, to engage, to be critical, to follow the argument of the author, to tackle difficult and long texts picking up on the key points.  The same goes for writing.

It is true these are skills I could well have learned at Upper School or 6th Form, but the fact of the matter is that these skills are not really present on the National Curriculum and as a consequence go untaught at least in State Schools.  I think one reason it is a requirement of so many jobs to have a degree is simply because they want employees with the basic skill set of being able to read and write.  Perhaps if education of four to eighteen year olds was improved in this respect fewer people would need to go onto higher education to acquire them – there are your cuts Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne.

Secondly, I am now a “qualified thinker” in the words of my former A Level chemistry teacher.  This again might seem like a ridiculous point.  Why should I go to university and spend thousands of the UK taxpayer’s pounds to learn how to do something anyone can do anyway?  And the answer is, again, thinking is a skill that actually is not taught until higher education.  By thinking I am not talking about learning facts and understanding and being able to explain certain processes.  I am not talking about regurgitation or blind acceptance, but personal thought.

Questioning accepted norms and not taking them as read.  Doing this not only increases and deepens understanding, but also just might pick up on possible flaws either with the system or with the explanation one is questioning.  Why are things the way they are?

Why is it that most of the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet have Humanities or Social Science degrees?

Thirdly, further to the ability and willingness to question, my degree has given me the confidence to do so.  A confidence to look at something almost taken as gospel, e.g. the scientific method, or evidence-based policy, or the legal system and how legal evidence, which is reliant on statistics, judges the behaviour of one defendant on the behaviour of others like him in like situations.

The confidence to ask policy-makers: “Why?”

The last point I want to make here in defence of my degree is that by explicating and evaluating the ideas of my predecessors, I have come up with suggestions of my own.  The level above plain criticism is providing viable alternatives; I ask “Why x?” understand the thinking behind choosing ‘x’ but the ask “Why not y?”

In short, my degree has given me the tools and the confidence to scrutinise, criticise, and contribute to the debate with my own ideas.

Society needs to be questioned: as soon as we stop questioning we cease to progress.  As I said in the first paragraph of my personal statement in my university application:

Philosophy is a natural subject choice for me.  I wish to study an active discipline, where reason and logical thought are a requirement.  I love to ask questions.  I believe societies should be built on the repeated questioning of established beliefs and opinions.  That it is the responsibility of each generation to re-explore those fundamental questions which have laid the foundations of human thought.