Don’t throw down Voltaire for Voltage: A student’s defense of humanities

Hugh Coates

The year before I began my university career studying a BA in History, it was reported that A Level students were shunning humanities subjects. This downturn has largely been blamed on the much advertised uncertainty of the economy, with prospective students adapting to this climate by choosing vocational courses with clear gateways into the working world.

As a member of  the imprecisely labelled demographic of ‘young people’, from the age of 16 to the present day, I have been fed the bitter cocktail of how foreboding and unforgiving the modern-day job market is. Competition is rife for graduate jobs and my school, college and university were not at all out of line advertising this. The career guidance I received was fairly one-dimensional: do law to become a lawyer, do medicine to become a doctor, study surveying to become a surveyor. For many people under the cloud of such uncertain times, in pursuit of some sort of reassurance, the clearest path to a job, is often the best path.

I was lucky…

I have always been glued to some sort of historical book. Horrible Histories occupied me when I was younger and marching through Max Hasting’s brilliant volumes, as I am older. However, interest, as is the case in many things, does not always translate into grade performance. On the back of some fairly uninspiring grade predictions for my AS History paper, I set out to look for a University where I could study Psychology, realizing that if my attained grades for History matched my predictions, I would be better served looking to do a different course at a ‘better’ university.

I continued to work at History, with Biology taking my focus during my A-levels, as my required science subject to apply to the Psychology course. When visiting universities I would only casually visit the history departments, with a passing interest but without any real conviction. I did this largely to humour my mother – whose study of history at A-level had not marked the end point of her enjoyment of the subject.

It was on one open day, on the south coast, that it all just clicked. The University in question had a respectable looking humanities campus – not the run down, out of sight department that I had seen elsewhere, on other visits. I thought to myself, ‘this University respects this discipline’, it got me thinking and, after some very positive results in my History AS-Level, I chose to, and luckily was accepted into, said University. I had blindly gone for the subject I loved unquestionably.

To many students, this approach is uncomfortable and illogical. I was going for a humanities subject, one that could branch into many fields of work, but one that does not select it for you.

Classifying the value of degree in this way is the first mistake students make. Yes, as consumers, this can be viewed simply as a transaction. The fee-paying student seeks to obtain the skills that will get them into the most agreeable jobs for the modest price of £9000 a year. But ‘transferable skills’ is only one part of this transaction. For a humanities degree, it is only a small part. Cultural enrichment is a term that would probably cause many to cringe. It is probably a term you would find in a fictional dystopian Orwellian novel, whereby an unfortunate protagonist is ‘encouraged’ to reacquaint themselves with the values of their ‘mother’ country. Label it however you wish, it is the study of humanity that provides this knowledge and awareness, which encourages us to adopt an open-minded free-thinking approach to solving life’s may conundrums. It is within the field of Law, by all accounts a career which avoids that all too familiar situation at that family drinks party where one well-oiled guest decides to question your entire future, that the value of humanities is arguably understood the most. Maths graduates are considered desirable for their logical approach to problem solving and humanities students for their cultural awareness and creativity. This is not a skill, this is quality of personality and mind, nurtured over the course of a humanities degree.

The world needs logical thinkers and it needs creativity. Science degrees will certainly provide the latter, simply by virtue of the material being consulted and the way it is assessed. Humanities students are pushed to think creatively and outside the box. No one group is more important than the other. Steve Jobs’ vision would have been nothing without the insurmountable talent at his disposable, but without Job’s anthropological and sociological background, it would equally have been wasted. Rarely in history have individuals been truly gifted with both of these things. When they have, they have gone on to do great things, Albert Einstein and Steven Hawking, but to name a few. And yet, the world cannot rely on these rare instances. Creativity must be fostered and the place this begins is at University.

The stigma from within Universities, against humanities students, as an irrelevant luxury must go. Not for the sake of those studying there, they know why they’re there, but for those who are making the almost life changing decision on what degree course to embark upon. Schools must be more creative and enthusiastic about the opportunities presented by taking a humanities degree. Faculties have argued that the solution lies in the graduates of humanities degrees sharing their experiences so as to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. For the lecturers of empire and feminist history alike to expect this, for them to attract the most promising, they too must be realistic. Students may often omit an aura of peaceful ignorance to their long-term prospects, but in reality, we worry, we worry a lot. History, English, and Philosophy departments across the land, must accept that they will lose some of their best young thinkers to industry and elsewhere. They must be more active and forceful in promoting the utility of a humanities degree for a career outside of academia, instead of limply repeating the term ‘transferable skills’, without any real additional direction.

We live in concerning times, where from a young age, setting a course for a job is top of the agenda. We are encouraged to assess what we are good at, and what we are are not. To dust off the careers book and plot the course of our entire adult life in but a few years. A humanities degree does not hold you back on this path to employment. It allows you to become a more rounded individual with a skill-set and more importantly, a mindset, that is of just as much importance to the job sector and indeed humanity itself.

GE2015: don’t throw it away

By Hugh Coates

I’m worried.

In less than a month’s time, people old and young, poor and rich, morally barren, idealistically blind or otherwise will cast their vote on who they believe should take the tiller of this country, or at least share the grip.

Very near to me, the constituency of Norwich South – narrowly secured by the Lib Dems last time round – faces an almighty offensive from the Green Party as they look to make inroads into a traditionally Tory controlled part of the country. The volume of students in the city, mingled with general discontentment over issues such as poor transport links, has made this a potentially successful venture for the Green Party, with voters looking for something slightly different.

What concerns me is how students, as is the case for Norwich South, make for such a tempting foothold. It doesn’t take a political analyst to point out that students are feeling a little irked by politics these days, I also feel deeply misled – £9000 tuition fees is something I won’t be allowed to forget in hurry. After such a shafting, I am astonished by the number of people who will still show indifference to politics, or just give away their vote in protest.

Before I begin, let me be clear, I have no problem with anybody, having considered all the parties, deciding to vote for a party, that is democracy. What I do take issue with, is people directing their vote towards one party based on its face value and denying it from another,  for the same reason. It is this sort of puerile approach to politics that the Green Party so clearly demonstrated in their recent election video, a parody involving a harmonizing group of four middle aged men, wearing blue, red, purple and yellow-gold ties. Not only is this view illusory to the point of being willfully deceptive, it reveals a serious lack of credibility on the part of the Green Party. It makes Nigel Farage patrolling the cliffs of Dover and Martin Freeman’s most recent casting as a downtrodden ‘working man’ almost endearing (I love your work Martin I really do, I’m just making a point). From the Green Party’s position somewhere miles to the left – almost unrecognisable in the fog of radicalism – these 4 groups must look remarkably close to together. But to anyone and I mean anyone, who has clicked on to the BBC website, or any other mainstream news provider, and has had even the most cursory look at who is saying what, we see an election campaign not of 4 synonymous parties, but an exciting discourse between parties with different beliefs.

I plan to round off this article by sharing some of the most striking features of the Green ideal for anyone thinking of voting for them in ‘protest’:

1) Under the glorious Green Party, being a member of al-Qaeda, the IRA and other currently proscribed terrorist groups will no longer be a criminal offence. In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that having grown up under the shadow of at least one of these malevolent groups and having heard a great deal about the other, that I hold no desire to live aside anyone who shares the beleifs of a terrorist group on our rather small island, which may have influenced my views somewhat.

2): Under the Green Party, we will leave NATO, tell the U.S. where to stick their ‘special relationship’, completely abandon our nuclear weapons and disband an ‘unnecessary’ army, air force and navy. In a world where war was only waged with inflatable swords, this would be an understandable approach.

3) Football clubs would not be traded on the stock market and would become cooperatives. Urm…

I have selected a few policies here that would aggravate me personally. There are some Green policies which I do believe have genuine merit, but they are very much in the minority. Certainly not enough to win my vote. The point is, I have made an informed decision.

I urge anyone planning on just gifting their vote to a party they don’t know much about or who ‘seem nice’, to please, at least, investigate further. If you find they are for you, then great. But throwing your vote around like confetti is nearly as bad as not voting at all – as the great thinker of our time Russell Brand is calling for. In the words of the the party’s leader herself, Natalie Bennett, the Green Party want ‘committed’ voters and not those ‘who lend us their vote when they’ve despaired of all the others and want to protest.’ Don’t become one of those people.

To anyone teetering on the fence of uncertainty, I urge you to visit this marvelous site to inform your decision:

https://voteforpolicies.org.uk/

Learning To Be You Again

Leo Gauvain 

This blog is meant to be presented in quite a light-hearted manner but there are some serious issues that also need to be addressed and this is one of them.  I feel on my part it’s probably quite a selfish act and I do not wish to condone misery on anyone that reads this.  As a matter of fact it aims to hopefully support and connect with those going through similar periods whilst simultaneously being used as my own form of therapy. I am talking about being on the receiving end of a break-up.

It’s something that pretty much everyone will go through in their lives and, no matter how you put a spin on it, it’s one of the worst feelings you can have.  It may not get any easier but one thing is for sure and that is that you will be better equipped to deal with those feelings of loss.  Of course your friends will be there for support but they can only offer so much support before they start repeating themselves.  It’s something you have to tackle head on and just look at ways to ease the pain.  I personally found that the emotional investment and being so close to someone only for that to be sheared off is akin to someone suddenly pushing you into a freezing cold lake.   You’re  completely unprepared and are without that transition you need to adapt.  You have that security of someone who loves and cares about you, they become very special to you and you may become quite dependent on them.  It’s a mutual bond that when severed can really leave you in the lurch.

I perhaps over indulged the grieving phase and from time to time would say I still do from time to time but not as bad as originally, I digress.  In a relationship your personalities gel with your other half.  You unconsciously find yourself taking on some of their traits and following their interests. You become almost a hybrid of the person you once were.  When this is all over, you leave yourself with all those traits you have taken on that made you so happy previously instead only serving as painful associations.  It’s natural that in your daily routine you will probably reminisce when a particular object evokes that particular memory of you together but you can’t compare everything you now do to how it was before.  I was/am guilty of this, it is not helpful.

Of course no one wants to be sad, although the emotional release of a good cry now and then can be satisfying, happiness is usually the primary objective that every human being strives to achieve.  If you can make yourself happy without relying on anyone else you are in a very strong position in the greater scheme of life and independence.  Everyone is their own person with their own values and of course their own methods with coping against adversary.  I knew that rediscovering what made me happy would undoubtedly improve the situation and i would do this at any cost.

I’ve always loved music and playing the piano is something I love doing at home. I never really had the opportunity to play at University and it was that release that I was sorely missing.  I go to the piano when I’m stressed, when I’m upset, when I’m angry as well as for pleasure.  It’s a skill I am incredibly grateful for and one that the highs you gain from playing a particular piece are quite hard to explain.  The obvious decision, therefore, was to purchase my own piano for my uni room. I got my own headphones so as not to disturb my fellow house mates and play away until my heart’s content.  The headphones have the added benefit of blocking you off from the rest of the world, leaving you immersed in doing what you love.  As well as playing, I have started listening to a lot more music.  Those previous lonely journeys to the shops or to campus take on a completely different view when accompanied to good old R.E.M, that reassuring message that everybody hurts.  I’m personally a massive fan of the song, it’s not as negative as it sounds and offers reassurance when you feel at your lowest.

Friendships are those special relationships that can sometimes get neglected when your mind is elsewhere, yet when you’re in need you can always rely on those loyal people in your life.  You can often find yourself feeling very lonely after a break up but, if you reach out, your friends will be there with an outstretched hand to lift you out of that hole of self pity you find yourself in.  I sometimes I feel that I don’t have many friends but then realise that those I do have really do look out for me and knowing that I mean a lot to them is reaffirmation that I am happy to have them in my life.  I guess it is born out of insecurity but I have often felt that few people really care about me just because I’m not told.  I find I get very emotional when those that are close do try to show me that I am perceived and received in a positive manner.  Recently I went to visit my friend in Manchester.  We barely speak during term time but it was just so nice to spend time with him and enjoy his company.  It was confirmation of why we have stayed friends for so long; since the age of 6.  Back at Uni, I am extremely fortunate to have friends such as my co-blogger who stick with me through thick and thin and I’m not really sure what i’d do without them. Soppy I know.

Getting my brother to come and visit me in Southampton has also been a great decision.  I don’t get to see him often but after dining with him in London I was reminded of how important family are and how fortunate I am to have the family I do have.  Nothing tops a big hug from your bro or a heart to heart mother son talk to reassure you everything is going to be ok.

It’s coming up to Christmas now and, although I’m not fully upbeat, I definitely intend to enjoy the holidays and not let anything get in the way. Sometimes you have to put yourself first and convince yourself that you are a great individual with plenty of fulfillment in your life.  You need to learn to love yourself.  Relationships are great when you’re in them but the end of one, doesn’t have to be the huge negative it appears to be.  That age old cliche that time heals; well it will but only if you give it a little helping hand.

 

Cold War in the Kitchen

Leo Gauvain

Cooking. It’s the one feature of uni life that students perhaps fear the most as they embark on their first tentative steps to semi-independence. A life skill that, if you were lucky enough, you never had to do yourself as a child. Personally, I find cooking quite enjoyable from time to time. However, this is mainly due to the fact that I am able to make use of the well stocked fridges and cupboards of home. Yet when Uni comes around, those premium ingredients that I took for granted for so many years were cruelly taken away from me in one foul swoop.

When you brave your first halls kitchen, the cooking game is a completely different kettle of fish. One hopes that if everyone pooled all their cooking knowledge together that you would be able to share the bountiful culinary delights that your combined teamwork would hopefully produce. While I am sure this may happen in rare cases, the reality, is that student cooks often have to fend for themselves. Constantly wary of each other, the game turns into more a game of espionage than Ready Steady Cook. you will very soon realise that student cooking intelligence agencies do exist, and that they will use any means necessary to increase their own cooking prowess at the expense of your own. This can be achieved through various means, the most popular is the poaching of your very own ingredients. This not only undermines your own natural resources but, moreover, causes a rift between you and a flat mate, who is rapidly emerging as Public enemy no. 1.

The severity of the situation is only fully realised when your meal of today becomes their meal of tomorrow. One can only assume that whilst you share a friendly conversation by the hob, that this is merely a distraction whilst the blue print of your steak with peppercorn sauce is being duly noted down and undoubtedly stored in the theoretical book of stolen student recipes that has now manifested itself in your head.

This really shouldn’t bother you as much as it does. After all, your adversary has every right to attempt your staple dishes, the ones you undoubtedly planned with your parents to make sure that you didn’t return home at Christmas resembling a deflated balloon that requires re-inflation. However it is the manner with which they have so obviously thieved your expertise that hurts the most. Without this vital know how, they would be forced into an existence of papa johns (budget permitting), instead of sponging off your well earned survival skills.  You may not be Bear Grylls, but a student learns to adapt and survive on the scarcest of resources.  Making those multiple cans of long life soup that fester in your cupboard last a year is an achievement in itself.  However, it is clear that with your new nemesis clawing for parity on the cooking front, you will have to step up a gear and what ensues is the beginnings of an arms race centered around food and one that will encompass cuisines from far and wide as well as combinations you didn’t think could exist. All in an attempt to gain that vital edge and maintain your superiority as top dog.

It is a relief when the ordeal is over, for this ongoing conflict only usually lasts the first year before dissipating.  When you have a house with people you have chosen to live with they are much more willing to trade secrets or, if you’re both on the same wavelength, go halves on a takeaway.

‘Should have done Medicine’…Or Should I?

Hugh Coates

I write this with a tear in my eye as Mike Skinner’s lachrymose song about heartbreak and rejection trundles along in the background. Don’t be mistaken, my current melancholy has not been caused by a female, but by a more pressing issue, that of my career.

I am more than half way through a BA in History. I have thoroughly enjoyed the degree thus far (I haven’t started the dissertation yet…). Delving into the debauchery of Henry VIII was both enlightening and well, saddening, what good times they were…if you were king. Equally pleasurable were the occasional skirmishes with sanctimonious pacifists who had somehow found themselves in a module entirely dedicated to war.

What I am trying to say is that you will struggle to find a more stimulating degree. Passion for a subject, for myself and others like me, has resulted in many taking up a humanities degree without even considering how this will fit into their career. While this is admirable, when you consider that paying £27K+ is fairly large financial burden to place on anyone, let alone a 21 year old, for pursuing an ‘interest’, it is not enough to cling to. Eventually, we must all board the train of life and find the carriage for us, whatever career that may be (unless you are a benefits cheating scum-bag ARRRRRRGHHHHH!)

It is now July, a fair amount of time before I throw my mortarboard to the sky. It is at this time where I face that common question, ‘what do I do now?’ I petulantly whine to anyone that will listen, usually whichever unfortunate parent is around, about how I should have chosen a degree with a more defined career path. ‘Why didn’t I do medicine!” I cry (the fact that I was/am academically incapable to enroll in such a course has been politely ignored by myself and my family so far). Why hadn’t I thought about this when I was applying through the torturous UCAS process instead of trying to procure a fake ID? I curse myself for choosing a humanities degree, I brought this upon myself.

Ignoring my behavior on this matter, there is actually a lot out there for us humanities students – not that we knew this when we submitted that final personal statement about how much we adore history a few years back.

Many of the top graduate schemes are not degree specific at all. It has even been suggested that to practice law, a ‘proper’ career, it is actually preferable to have a grounding in another academic field, like history, before converting. I could be here all day saying we are all going to be alright etc. God knows the careers advisers at university have tried.

The unreasonable 20-year-old of a few months ago is a victim of his own decision to choose a degree that allowed him to pursue an interest while, unknowingly, preparing him for the workplace.

Humanities students must not complain about a lack of clarity in their career path, after all, they chose their degree. And while I am saying we mustn’t feel sorry for ourselves, we must also must relish the rich choice available to us.

The ‘Black Widow’ of Sochi

Hugh Coates

37,000 extra troops are being brought in to Sochi to man the so-called ‘Ring of Steel’, in spite of these seemingly inordinate measures, the whereabouts of one person in particular is causing a degree of concern for the Russian authorities.

Ruzanna Ibragimova is one of 4 women suspected of having intentions to attack the games.
Ruzanna Ibragimova is one of 4 women suspected of having intentions to attack the games.

The individual in question is a woman, Ruzanna Ibragimova. She belongs to a group females evocatively named the ‘black widows’. A ‘black widow’ is supposedly motivated by vengeance for a personal loss. Ibragimova, like the 3 other female suspects, is the widow of a militant killed by Russian forces in the Caucasus region. The 22 year-old is alleged to have intentions to attack Sochi and is feared to have have broken the tight security ring around the city.

You don’t have to look far to see what Ruzanna Ibragimova looks like, with wanted posters in various hotels and airports in Sochi, it is clear that these women are being considered as a genuine threat. The Russian security forces have every right to be concerned, after all, in the past female bombers have been extremely successful in bypassing even the most stringent of security measures.

Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film, ‘The Battle of Algiers’, demonstrate the capability of female bombers. In one scene, 3 females successfully evade French checkpoints to plant three bombs in the French zone of the city, the ensuing blast results in horrific devastation. We could debate the use of films as historical resources all day. However, even if the accuracy of this film is questionable, events of the last decade or so certainly vindicate what it portrays: that females are becoming a hugely dangerous weapon that security forces are struggling to get to grasps with.

The use of suicide bombers is not a new feature of warfare, with no need of an exit-strategy, low cost implementation and a high probability of inflicting significant casualties – attacks of this nature are becoming all to familiar.

Battle of Algiers (1)
In ‘The Battle of Algiers’ female bombers are used against the French.

Why specifically a female bomber then? In 2002, Hamas, rejected the use of females in such a way, yet in 2004, they unleashed their first female suicide bomber. Why this change in tactics? Hamas had denounced the use of women on the grounds of it being ‘against modesty’, not on a lack of faith in their operational value. The most plausible explanation, is that security forces have become more proficient in searching and identifying threats. With a female, there is a certain reluctance to search adequately, if it all – an error so ruthlessly exploited in ‘The Battle of Algiers’. Perhaps there is even disbelief that females would partake in such brutality, this is purely speculation but not altogether unconvincing as an explanation. It has also been suggested that the psychological impact of female bombers is much greater, as it only increases the web of suspicion and fear among the security forces and the local populace. That being said, it is certainly misleading to say that female bombers are completely attached to such overarching tactics and strategies – as demonstrated by the ‘black widows’ – personal motivation can be hugely powerful driving force.

The Russian security forces are quite familiar with the capabilities of female bombers. In the year 2000, two Chechen women entered a military base in Chechnya riding a truck packed with explosives, killing 27 Russian soldiers. The 1,500 mile ‘Ring of Steel’ may seem excessive, and although its necessity is not solely dictated by the threat of these 4 women, the authorities will be keenly aware of its importance in preventing such attacks. If the history of this field has taught us anything, it is that female bombers are very capable of attacking high profile targets, in 1991 the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a female suicide bomber. With a much swelled population in Sochi and the presence of certain dignitaries and high profile targets, the importance of such security seems especially apparent.

The most devastating example of an attack by female bombers occurred in 2008, where 99 lost their lives at two popular Baghdad pet markets. The terrifying ease with which these female bombers inflicted devastation is obvious, however, females haven’t until recently been acknowledged by the FBI as an active group of Al Qaeda. It is clear, therefore, that the strong measures being employed in Sochi are necessary, and, in part, necessitated by a fear of this threatening new group of attackers.

With the world watching, security has been maximised at the games.
With the world watching, security has been maximised at the games.

We are now well within an age where war has taken a new face, where rigid frontlines and state-on-state warfare seem a distant memory. We can only hope that female bombers do not become just another familiar feature of warfare in our time.