Culture & Society

Oxford Chancellor: The Humanities Are Being Starved

Chris Patten discusses the importance of liberal arts, disgraceful CEO pay, and the problem with identity politics.

May 20, 2016

| by Bill Snyder



Chris Patten, chancellor of Oxford, says government is not the enemy of growth. | Natalie White

As one of the last colonial governors in the British Empire, Chris Patten had the unenviable task of handing over Hong Kong to the Chinese government in 1997. Nearly two decades later, Patten, now the chancellor of Oxford University, says he has no intention of ceding control of academia to those who would give short shrift to the humanities, or to those who practice what he calls “identity politics.”

An unabashed conservative, Lord Patten of Barnes – he became a peer in 2005 – is no party-liner. He is, as the British put it, a “cross-bencher” in the House of Lords, meaning he is not aligned to any specific political party. And he has a very different take on wealth creation than many of his U.S. counterparts. “The city on a hill [a reference to Ronald Reagan’s view of America] was built by government as well as by the private sector,” he said during a recent discussion with students at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Patten, a former chairman of the BBC Trust, shared his views on global business, the state of higher education, and politics at a Global Speaker Series event in April. Here are five takeaways from that talk:

The Humanities Are Being Starved

Raising scholarship money for students pursuing graduate studies in sciences and medicine is relatively easy, Patten said. But not so for the humanities. And that’s partly because of “the disgraceful utilitarian way in which universities tend to be judged.” Having to justify teaching the humanities is annoying: “We teach the humanities because we’re human,” Patten said.

Government Isn’t the Problem


American history is filled with examples of successful combinations of public investment and private endeavor, said Patten, mentioning Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower, who championed the Interstate Highway System.

“There’s a very good book I read recently, which makes the point that it’s a complete fiction that wealth and prosperity have always been created in the United States by the private sector [and] that the government has always been a drag,” he said.

How CEOs Get Away with Mega-Salaries

The Gini Coefficient, a measure of economic inequality, fell to its lowest level in American history during the Eisenhower administration, but has been on the rise since 1968, which is “the wrong direction,” maintains Patten. One obvious example is the wide gulf in pay between CEOs and their employees, he said.

But few people know what the actual numbers are. When asked, they think the ratio between CEO and average employee pay is roughly 30 to 1, when in fact it’s some 10 times higher, he said. Patten believes that “the levels of social inequity in the United States, and the United Kingdom, are becoming politically hazardous” and explain the rise of Donald Trump.

The Lethality of Identity Politics

Patten, who negotiated the Good Friday Agreement that largely ended the sectarian fighting in Northern Ireland, said that when people identify themselves “with a very simple, pure-blooded set of loyalties,” they tend to imagine that they are being victimized. “When their rather crude and simple sentiments are whipped up by demagogues, it nearly always leads to disaster,” he said.

That’s not to say that Patten dismisses all identity-based concerns. Shifting the makeup of the Northern Ireland police force (and changing its name) to one that more closely reflects the religious makeup of the country was a key component of the settlement, he said.

Silicon Fen – Not Yet

Although the tech press has labeled Cambridge, England, as “Silicon Fen,” Patten said, “we don’t have as natural an innovative culture as exists in the United States.” He said Britain must improve infrastructure and the level of basic math in schools and try to do more to promote innovation. “I don’t think that that has as much to do with the tax system as some right-wing politicians think,” Patten said.


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