Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Humanities and the Prince

This week, I’ve been thinking (or maybe brooding) about the historical fortunes of the humanities. On Monday, I gave a lecture to Finalists on humanism in late 15th century Venice and Florence, on the intellectual movement which lay at the heart of the Renaissance. When talking about humanism, I’m always struck by the humanists’ audacious and massive success in convincing Europe’s ruling elites - princes, monarchs, popes and republicans – that the studia humanitatis, i.e. the study of ancient languages and literature, history, poetry, was the highest calling of mankind, one of the most useful things anyone could do with their lives and, above all, fantastically useful to the state. Princes rushed to employ humanists as ambassadors (because they were top notch public speakers) and in their chancelleries/government bureaucracy (because they wrote nicely). A humanist education very quickly became a mark of social prestige, a must-have career asset for any aspiring member of the European political or cultural elite; humanism took the world by storm.

The UK, in the autumn of 2010, presents a rather sad contrast to that glorious Renaissance moment, for anyone with any interest in the humanities. Although the details of the Comprehensive Spending Review’s 40% cut to the Higher Education teaching budget are still being thrashed out, government ministers have been saying for months that arts subjects are ‘non-priority’, and degrees in humanities possibly not worthy of any state support whatsoever. That’s quite a historical turn-about: the Medici in Renaissance Florence patronising humanism lavishly, Cameron-Clegg today publically washing their hands of the studia humanitatis altogether.

Obviously, somewhere along the line British humanities scholars have palpably failed to capture the imagination of government. I’ve recently had invitations to a lecture in Oxford and a conference at Birkbeck College, which have both explored the case for the public worth of studying literature, history, philosophy and languages (you can read about the London conference here: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/11/defending-the-humanities). As a community, we seem to be mobilising rather late. Renaissance scholars and politicians alike would be deeply perplexed at the notion that the studia humanitatis were of no value – they teach eloquence, critical thinking, and give a sense of perspective on human society, across time and space. But humanism was loved above all in Renaissance Italy by the liberty-loving, self-governing elites of republican city-states – because they believed that the ultimate point of a humanities education was to create active, reflective, intelligent citizens. They knew that democracy needed the humanities; our present masters think, instead, that the economy needs science.


  1. Any hope of having a physically sustainable planet in 50 years also needs science. (Granted, that's not enough.)

  2. Yes, I wasn't trying to set up an antagonism/polemic between arts and sciences... Paradoxically, I think Renaissance humanists themselves didn't distinguish that much between science and humanities - they saw it all as part of one big universal (even interconnected) quest for knowledge...

  3. Indeed, and I try to look at it that way to the extent possible. (My work doesn't exactly fit into one clean departmental slot, which is all very artificial anyway.) When people are on the job market or facing tough choices, I think it becomes much harder to do that. I was talking about the UK situation with local friends, and I've decided that this situation (and I already believed that UK education in general) would be significantly less severe if we had "general education" requirement like in the US universities. I benefited from taking arts/humanities/social science courses in college (I had to take an average of one of them per term), and arts people would similarly benefit from taking introductory science courses. Not that the UK system will be overhauled to allow that, but if one wants to save the arts long-term in this country, I'm willing to bet that such an overhaul will be required.