18/07/2013 13:26 BST | Updated 17/09/2013 06:12 BST

The New Zenith of Pointless Oxford Research


Oxford is a place where people are paid to research, and write about a vast array of subjects, most of which are united in their irrelevance to society. A tutor of mine has spent the last few years on a grammar of ancient Greek - pointless not least because the zenith of Greek grammar-writing was reached in the 19th Century.

But one recent piece of research might even have topped my tutor's efforts. Commissioned by the University of Oxford, Humanities Graduates and the British Economy: The Hidden Impact reveals, in the words of the Huffington Post, that "rising numbers of humanities graduates have been employed in key areas such as finance and law in the last 50 years." In the introduction to the pamphlet, Andrew Hamilton, the university's vice-chancellor, advertises the work as "a compelling justification for the Humanities' continued relevance and importance".

It is in fact nothing of the kind. In a peculiarly confident act of navel-gazing, Oxford based the research, and these conclusions, solely on Oxford graduates, the youngest of whom started university in 1989. In the pamphlet's conclusions, it is again reiterated that the research "has shown just how fundamental the Humanities-based system of higher education is to Britain." No - what has been shown is that Oxford humanities graduates from the 60s to the early 90s did well. But nobody was questioning that. Science graduates from the same time presumably did just as well - and I'm not suggesting we need to pay someone to verify that obvious fact.

The report was greeted with delight by Oxford's head of humanities, Professor Shearer West. "[The research] show[s] that employers desperately want candidates with succinct and persuasive written and verbal communication skills and the capacity for critical analysis and synthesis," she commented.

"Anyone who has written a critical analysis of Plato's Republic in less than 1,000 words, or defended their interpretation of the French revolution under questioning from a top historian in a class or tutorial, will know that studying the humanities gives you an excellent grounding in all of these skills," she continued.

As someone who regularly writes Oxford essays on esoteric classical subjects - though I have thankfully managed to avoid the Republic - I would contend that three years of doing so, with the prospect of one more to go, has done very little to make my writing "succinct", or "persuasive". In fact whenever I re-read my essays I am astonished by how bloated and ugly the prose is. The problem is that if you want to remain a human being rather than some academic automaton you never have the time to do enough reading, and you can get round this by filling up the word count with circumlocution after circumlocution. Why write "therefore" when you could write "it is therefore with some justification that we might venture that": the latter gets you ten words closer to producing a respectable word count. Do that ten times and that's an entire paragraph worth of actual thoughts you've managed to excise.

West also rather gives herself away when she talks of the "capacity" for analysis and synthesis, and then implies that essays on Plato helps with this "skill". But you just can't equate capacities with "skills": you learn skills, and capacities are innate. This is the sort of sleight of hand that I'd be proud to have written into one of my essays.

Oxford humanities graduates do very well (or rather, as this report shows, they definitely used to), but this surely has little to do with the actualities of an Oxford education, which is primarily an exercise in how to write up to a word count as quickly as possible - just cogently enough that awkward questions don't start getting asked. There are other reasons for their success. And maybe we could have a bit less navel-gazing?