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

 

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.

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Quitting Like You’ve Never Seen it Before!

 

Quitting smoking, not the easiest task by any stretch. Plenty try and most fail. Those adverts designed to persuade us to quit smoking certainly don’t do much to alleviate the stresses of the guilty smoker, with dangers including: arteries rammed full of yellow gloop and idiotic children trying to puff on a crayon (frankly, this advert concerns me for more reasons than than passive smoking). A world that includes skyscraper sized cigarettes is certainly not one that I want to live in. In spite of the trials of the modern day smoker, imagine living in a time where your habit would have had you labelled an ‘ape’ and a sinner by your own king.

James I, king of England, successor to Elizabeth I, survivor of the Gunpowder plot was also a vehement critic of smoking. In 1604, his work ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’, became one of the first anti-smoking publications of all time. James was a talented and well educated man, he authored many works and earned himself the unshakable title of ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’. Whether this title is wholly complimentary is certainly questionable, James’ attitude towards smoking and more specifically Tobacco, was not.

Just as James I had done some 300 years earlier, a certain Austrian dictator was also to publicize the perils of smoking. Whereas Hitler, as he had done for most of Germany’s mishaps, blamed the importation of this nefarious habit upon the Jews, King James I was equally contemptuous towards the ‘barbarous’ Indians for introducing this disgusting new trend into his beloved country. To James, smoking the Native American remedy for ‘pocs’ was tantamount to imitation – the great people of England may as well be walking around naked with feathers in their hair.

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What James I lacked in racial tolerance, he made up for in some disturbingly familiar observations on the practice of smoking tobacco. Although seriously hindered by the medical knowledge of the time, James I still managed to identify some causal links between smoking and its side effects. For instance, he recognised that smoking was ‘dangerous’ to the lungs, while those around him nonchalantly puffed away on this new delight from across the Atlantic. The boy born in Edinburgh Castle was certainly right in assuming that the foul smell of tobacco smoke did not bode well for our poor little alveoli.

“A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.”

‘Peer pressure’, just another aspect of smoking that James I correctly identified.

“We cannot be content unlesse we imitate every thing that our fellowes doe, and so proove our selves capable of every thing whereof they are capable, like Apes, counterfeiting the maners of others, to our owne destruction.”

The number of people who started smoking as part of some disappointingly familiar guise to be ‘cool’, will forever stagger me, old James I saw it for what it was.

By today’s standards, a remedy for gout, that could make an alcoholic sober, induce sleep – while also being useful in keeping you awake, and one that could alleviate stomach problems, is certainly a dubious one. This being considered, James was by no means the Stephen Hawking of 17th Century England for finding holes in the ‘omnipotent power of Tobacco!’

While identifying the link between smoking and lung problems is probably the most striking achievement of this publication, James I also identified a few other features of smoking that, if we’re all honest, we loath in equal measure.

Lets be be truthful, we all hate the breath of a smoker – James I was also not a fan. He proclaimed that a man who smoked, was a selfish man. He argued that a man who smoked tobacco should be ashamed of himself, for he was corrupting the ‘wholesome’ and ‘clean complexioned’ woman that he called his wife. At the very least, a husband was damning his wife ‘to live in a perpetuall stinking torment.’

He, like many of us, was repulsed by the idea of people smoking at the dinner table. He condemned smoking in the ‘Dining Chamber’ as being unclean, it polluted the air and the food on the table. James is remembered as quite a lavish king, it is hard to see his meals as being less than decadent, it is hardly surprising therefore, that he viewed those who soiled his epic meal time with such disdain.

When James I became king on the 25th July 1603, he inherited a kingdom in a very poor economic condition. Desperately looking for sources of revenue, it is unsurprising that in 1604, he should turn to the very lucrative Tobacco trade as a new source of income. The cynics among us, will say that ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’ was just a means of legitimizing an onslaught on a highly lucrative industry by emphasizing its perverse features.

It is doubtful if we will ever find out the true root and cause of James I’s vigorous assault on tobacco smoking, which in parts, was well ahead of his time. James I work seems even more impressive, when we consider that he advanced his ideas in an age where medical treatment amounted to treating conditions such as syphilis with a good old bath of mercury. Still, Adolf Hitler is widely credited as the first major leader to oppose smoking. However, after studying James I’s critique, we can quite safely say, back off Hitler, James beat you to it.

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The Wehrmacht: A Glorious Myth?

 

When the German army rolled into Paris on the 14th June 1940, the people of France could be forgiven for thinking they were witnessing one of the greatest armies since Napoleon’s Grande Armée . After all, the German army had rendered the Maginot Line redundant, a set of fortifications so modern that it was said to be of better living conditions than a modern city. The Wehrmacht bypassed it through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes forest in 5 days. It is perhaps unsurprising after so much hope and resources had been invested into this state-of-the-art defense, that contemporaries saw the German army as something hereto unseen before – a truly unstoppable force.

the people of France could be forgiven for thinking they were witnessing one of the greatest armies since their very own Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

There is an idealized vision of the Wehrmacht: as an ultra-mobile, ruthless and highly motivated force, a view that does not lack justification. Although Germany lost the war, is it really credible to blame the Wehrmacht for this? To talk of the Wehrmacht one cannot avoid talking of ‘Blitzkrieg’, a concept so fundamental to early German successes. There is a commonly held image of ‘Blitzkrieg’, one that is often portrayed as relentless waves of tanks steamrolling through inferior opposition. This was not certainly not the case in France. French tanks were better armoured, better equipped and more numerous than their German opposition. General Auchinleck in the defense of Norway, commented that the German forces had much greater morale as a result of their superior training. Therefore, can we call an army that defeated superior opposition on numerous occasions an incapable one?  The early victories in Europe, particularly France, certainly vindicate the superiority of the German military doctrine, however, a fully functioning modern state-of-the-art  force they were not.

The Maginot line was a modern and complex hive of defences.  Entrusted with defending France.
Entrusted with defending France was the Maginot line,  a modern and complex hive of defences.

In so far as the battle for France was concerned, the numerical superiority of the Luftwaffe was certainly pivotal. The German army itself had only mechanized 10% of its ground forces by this point. This was as a result of a production deficit from the pre-war years, one that Nazi industrialists had predicted would only be remedied by 1945 – a fact that was to be ignored by Hitler at great cost. The ramshackle fashion of which the Wehrmacht retreated from Russia in 1943 is perhaps its most ignominious moment. A rapid German army, with its immaculate coordination and communication is a vision that is hugely undermined by this campaign. Some 40,000 horses were sent to the Eastern Front to make up for the lack of modernization that beset the Wehrmacht at this time. Some 148 divisions were expected to fight across a front of almost 2,000-kilometers. It is clear that the Wehrmacht was not as polished a force as it has often been seen as being.

Russland, bei Targowi Sawod, deutsche Truppen
Some 40,000 horses were sent to the Eastern Front to support the Wehrmacht.

At times the Wehrmacht was an unstoppable force, one that laid the way for modern day warfare – where mobility and inter-service cooperation were the order of the day. The Eastern Front may have been calamitous for a whole host of reasons other than just the frailties of the Wehrmacht.  However, there is no ignoring the deaths of 4 million men and boys, soldiers that made up what had proven to be an undefeatable army. Maybe Nazi Germany would have succeeded in winning the war if it had the industrial capacity of the USA or Russia, but does this really restore the image of the Wehrmacht? There is no hiding from how fragile the Wehrmacht proved to be. A one dimensional force unable to adapt in the face of a resilient opponent. It had succeeded against weak and disorganized opposition in the past, but as its enemies learned from its mistakes, the Wehrmacht stuck to its principles, even though to follow such principles was no longer possible.