• William Aers

The Decline of the Humanities in the FE Sector

(The Tholos at the base of Mount Parnassus, The Oracle of Delphi, Greece.)

The decline of the humanities in the Further Education sector is going to have serious repercussions over the long-term, unless we can teach our children and young people to learn from the past then we will make the same old mistakes in the future.

If one examines the official government policies for behaviour in schools it is evident that the guide describes praise for positive behaviour and punishment for bad behaviour, but at no point does it describe what positive behaviour is, nor does it describe a universal value system that should be encouraged by schools. Instead, there is an ambiguous guide about the expectations of students in and out of school and the punishments teachers are allowed to give. According to the Behaviour and Discipline in Schools (2016) the subject of Citizenship has many valuable areas of study, and the official document mentions a moral code several times, but at no point does it state what this moral code is, where it comes from and whether it is a universal phenomenon. Instead, it encourages students to research their own random examples, this lack of a fundamental guide encourages teachers to resort to the post-modernist approach - that all behaviour is subject to context and moral relativism. It essentially implies that people are able to invent their own values and no universal standard of good and evil exists Fears (2005).

In order to fully appreciate the potential extent of good and evil in society, I believe it is necessary to have knowledge of history and the classics. In the recent past, it was expected that professionals in almost all fields to be classically trained Bagnall and Brodersen (2013). Gentlemen were expected to be able to read Latin and Greek to a high standard in order to acquire jobs in government and the civil service. The Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, even read the Ancient Greek Play, Aeschylus, in its original language whilst lying wounded during the Battle of the Somme.

“He survived throughout the morning in No-Man’s Land, lying in a shellhole. Twice the shellhole was blown in on top of him by German shells exploding a few yards away. While lying there, in pain, he read his pocket edition of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, in the original Greek.”

The Somme, Page 200 

However, there was still a great emphasis on historical knowledge rather than historical thinking for moral development Fears (2011). I believe that, in order to learn moral development, it is important for students to think historically and to learn from the lessons of the past in order to help them make decisions in the present and plan for the future.

Within the last few decades, however, this trend has taken a sharp decline. Classics, history and the humanities in general are becoming less appealing to graduates at universities due to a lack of sustainable jobs. Humanities courses themselves have also taken a stark decline since the 1950s, with fewer educational establishments offering courses in place of the sciences Hanson (1988). Colleges have been affected particularly badly with very few FE colleges in the entire country offering A-levels in history or the classics as most courses have now been replaced with a vocational approach to education in order to meet the demands of local industry Latham (2017).

If we are going to consign the humanities to the dustbin of history, I think it is worth covering briefly, what we will lose and what I believe the affects will be on young people and society. Vocational skills are undoubtedly important to the economy and prosperity of the country and a perfect knowledge of the Iliad does not help someone become a better accountant, but the converse is also true - a person might be an excellent accountant, but without any appreciation of the humanities how can they find meaning in their existence? I believe there should be a balance between the vocational and the humanities if we are going to form a more civilised society.

I agree with J Rufus Fears that an understanding of history and the humanities is essential for a citizen in a democratic republic. It is essential for them to know where their freedoms and liberties came from and why they are valuable, as well as being able to recognise the importance of virtue and morality in their public and private lives Fears (1989).

The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence by the United States features the words ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ Jefferson et al (1776). This extraordinary statement has shaped the modern Western world and many other countries base their charters upon it. However, I would argue that the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is an unrealistic goal. It is impossible for anyone to achieve long-term happiness, and if someone tries to make it their main objective in life then they will inevitable fail. This is because everyone we love and care about will die. Instead of ‘happiness’, I would argue that what people should really strive for is the pursuit of integrity.

Furthermore, the philosophical questions of ‘how should we live?’ or ‘how society should act?’ are not scientific because scientific facts do not allow for subjective meaning, instead we must answer these questions via a narrative social structure Piaget (1985). A person cannot make their own individual values, our behaviours are imposed, reinforced and validated by the societies in which we live, through social interaction and through the stories that we tell and hear Taylor (2012). This is why a foundation myth is essential for social identity, because it provides us with instructions for archetypical behaviour and a meaning for how we should act and who we should be. Every great religion and mythological story involves a hero; sacrifice, the roles of family figures and encourages the virtues of courage, tolerance, integrity and wisdom Fears (2011).

In most modern education systems students are trained to retain knowledge and pass exams in order to meet the demands of local industry, but they are rarely asked why they are doing it and what they plan to do with their lives. In a capitalist society like the West, success is largely measured by material wealth and affluence, whether or not peoples’ lives are meaningful is largely ignored and this comes at the expense of their mental health NHS Digital (2018). The questions of how we should live and act are rarely encountered in an educational establishment. Ergo, if we no longer understand civilisation, how can we expect to be civilised?

The meaning of life, telling the truth, integrity, duty, moderation and responsibility are not a part of the National Curriculum, neither are the abstract ideas of love, jealousy, hate, courage, beauty, honour and ambition. I think it is particularly odd that we test our students so thoroughly with exams, but we do not teach them how to live. The answers, or even the failure to answer the above questions, will have consequences upon a person’s life. They essentially determine how we as individuals, groups and nations, live our lives and provide the values to determine how we will act towards other people. Far more importantly though, life is about suffering because everyone and everything we love and care about will grow old, decay, get sick and die. How we choose to react to the various tragedies that life throws our way will have an enormous impact on our mental health and long-term happiness. I believe that the nihilistic approach to teaching, where science and vocational subjects hold predominance, does little to prepare students for the real tests of life.

I have encountered some problems when trying to incorporate historical themes into my teaching. I once taught a class about why laws are important in the UK, I decided to start with the origins of law by looking at Hammurabi’s legal code and linked it to English law by covering the Magna Carta. However, when I shared my work with my colleagues they disagreed with my premise because they claimed that the students would not gain any knowledge to help them in their daily lives and they would not be able to identify with the lesson.

Students were expected to learn a skill, such as writing a sentence or adding up sums. Learning that English laws originated in 1215, that the nearby city of Rochester was under siege by King John to defend the aforementioned freedoms, and that all free men were under the law was not considered a viable learning objective.

I asked my colleagues how I might go about teaching the subject and making it more relevant to the students. They suggested that I ask the students to research someone that they were interested in and to see whether they had a criminal record and then to discuss whether they should have been punished. I could then mention Magna Carta in a roundabout way, rather than concentrating on it as the primary lesson objective.

On reflection, I think this is a good strategy to use when teaching students, especially those who struggle to identify with academic work because it places an emphasis on their own interests and introduces the main topic in a more subtle manner.

In order to encourage students to think about their life, behaviour and future I have recently attempted to incorporate a style of independent thinking by asking them to come up with a 5-year plan of what they want to achieve. I also ask them to write down all the bad things that could happen to them and the worst place they could be in 5 years’ time. The idea being that the students will have a realistic goal to aim for, but they will also be aware of the obstacles in their way and all the bad things that could inevitably happen to them. Studies have also shown that people who write down what they want to achieve have an improved performance Schippers and Morisano et al (2020). This encourages students to think about how they are going to spend their time, what sort of friends they would like, what sort of things they would like and the barriers which are going to prevent them from getting what they want. It also encourages students to think about the opposite result – what might be the worst-case scenario in their life if they fail to achieve their aims or give in to temptations that would lead them off a moral path?


In conclusion, I believe that the decision for colleges to concentrate on vocational subjects at the expense of the humanities will have wide-ranging effects upon the ability of the citizenry to think historically. This will lead to a populace with a more globalised outlook and one that is less aware of its cultural roots. I believe that people also require meaning in their lives, and this must be taught, if not through humanities, then through the discussion of PSHE and CPD for staff. Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to expect all teachers to have a thorough grounding in the humanities, instead I propose that CPD should consist of staff discussing the following values and to find ways in which they can be embedded into their teaching pedagogy. Speaking the truth, for example, is a fundamental value, which should be encouraged as this promotes actions of honesty and the courage to say what is true. As a guide for behaviour, the Golden Rule from Matthew 7:12 “In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you.” NET Bible (85 CE) promotes tolerance. “Nothing in excess” was inscribed over the Ancient Greek oracle of Delphi, Johnson (2016) which supports the notion of everything in moderation. Finally, the value of integrity should be discussed, the idea that unites all the others (truth, honesty, courage, tolerance and moderation). I have tried to address this by asking students to come up with a 5 year plan for where they want to go and how they are going to get there, and also to reflect about their behaviour and the consequences of their actions. This, I believe, will bring more meaning to their lives because they will understand what will happen when they do not hold true to these fundamental principles. They will also know that their lives will be worth the suffering and tragedy if they can hold true to these ideals, because in doing so they will limit the suffering of others.

Reference list

Bagnall, Roger S, Brodersen, Kai, Champion, Craige B, Erskine, Andrew, Hebner, Sabine R. (2013) The Encyclopedia of Ancient History II Romanization, Pages 5875-5881. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Behaviour and discipline in schools (2016) Advice for headteachers and school staff https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/488034/Behaviour_and_Discipline_in_Schools_-_A_guide_for_headteachers_and_School_Staff.pdf (Accessed: 30th April 2020)

Fears, J.R. (1989) ‘The core as an education for a democratic citizenry’. Academic Questions 2, 27–32.

Fears, J. R. (2005) Books That Have Made History, The Teaching Company Limited Partnership.

Fears, J. R. (2011) Life Lessons From The Great Myths, The Teaching Company Limited Partnership.

Gilbert, M. (2007) Somme: The Heroism and Horror of War. Henry Holt and Co.

Hanson, V. D. and Heath J. (2001) Who killed Homer. USA: Encounter Books.

Jefferson T and Franklin B et al (1776) The Declaration of Independence.

Johnson, W. A. (2016) GREEK 111 | Intensive Greek. Available at: https://sites.duke.edu/greek111_01_s2017/aphorisms/ (Accessed 30th April 2020)

Latham, S. Why we cannot lose A-Levels in FE Colleges (2017) https://www.fenews.co.uk/featured-article/15220-why-we-cannot-lose-a-levels-in-fe (Accessed: 30th April 2020)

Michaéla C.Schippers, Dominique Morisano, Edwin A.Locked, W.A.Scheepers, Gary P.Lathame, Elisabeth M.de Jong (2020) ‘Writing about personal goals and plans regardless of goal type boosts academic performance’ Contemporary Educational Psychology. 1. Introduction pp. 1-2.

NET Bible. Ask, Seek, Knock. Matthew 7:12 (85 CE) Available at: https://netbible.org/bible/Matthew+7 (Accessed 30th April 2020)

NHS Digital. Publication, Part of Mental Health of Children and Young People in England (2018) Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017 [PAS] Available at : https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england/2017/2017 (Accessed: 30th April 2020)

Piaget J, (1985) The Moral Judgment of the Child pp 13-14. Simon and Schuster.

Taylor, J. Personal Growth: Your Values, Your Life (2012) Are you living your life in accordance with your values? Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-power-prime/201205/personal-growth-your-values-your-life (Accessed: 30th April 2020)

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