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Why is Norway shovelling money into the humanities, while Denmark cuts back?

In Denmark, humanities subjects have been hit by cuts and a debate over their usefulness and relevance. In Norway, the government has just given the humanities a NOK 100 million boost. The University Post asked an expert in education why there is this difference.

If you have been a humanities student over the last few years, you will have felt it. The cutbacks. Courses have been merged or shut down. And in Denmark, the use of humanities, and the point of humanities research for society is a constant media topic.

In Norway, on the other hand, humanities subjects are both prioritised and praised. In 2017, the Norwegian government decided to strengthen the humanities. And in January, the management of the University of Oslo presented a strategy for how the humanities should be disseminated and provide supportive research and teaching in society.

The humanities are, and should to some extent be, present in all fields of research and education at this Norwegian university. This is according to the strategy, which is supported by a NOK 100 million (EUR 10m) funding boost partly from the Norwegian government.

This sounds like a fairy-tale for Danish humanities people. But why is it so different being in the humanities in Norway from being in the humanities in Denmark?

Goes back to the Nazis

Jesper Eckhardt Larsen may be able to make us the wiser. He has written a PhD dissertation on the arguments against, and for the humanities since World War II, and has just completed his postdoc in the history of education at the University of Oslo. He now teaches on the degree programme in pedagogy at the University of Copenhagen.

He has followed and studied the way people speak about the humanities in Denmark.

From 1945 onwards, there was wide political consensus in Denmark on prioritising the humanities, which was considered a contribution from a cultural nation to a common project of humanity.

Jesper Eckhardt, postdoc in the history of education at the University of Oslo

 

»Over the past 15 years, I have seen a new way of speaking about the humanities at Danish universities. It is almost presumed that the humanities are a source of concern for the universities. There is now this dominant discourse that the humanities are not good and that they are a bit unnecessary. They can be transformed into communication or something else that can be useful for the business sector,« he says.

This is a completely different line of conversation over the humanities than in the years following the Second World War.

»There was this flowery discourse about the humanities. From 1945 onwards, there was wide political consensus in Denmark on prioritising the humanities, which was considered a contribution from a cultural nation to a common project of humanity. The cultural sciences represented humanism and the values on which society was built up on after the struggle against Nazism,« says Jesper Eckhardt Larsen.

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Brings colour to modernity

In Denmark, humanities research is being debated. Especially politicians from the political right-wing – as well as the Minister for Higher Education and Science, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen (Social Democrat) – say that they want some degree of political regulation of research.

Some humanities research areas are, at best, irrelevant. At worst, they are activism and identity politics disguised as research, according to critics like Rasmus Jarlov (Conservative), Henrik Dahl (Liberal Alliance) and Morten Messerschmidt (Danish People’s Party).

»If you want a broad description, then the problem is the humanities’ programmes’ identity studies,« Morten Messerchmidt said recently to the University Post.

If there is one thing that looks sophisticated, then it is this know-it-all Copenhagen humanities researcher.

Jesper Eckhardt, postdoc in the history of education at the University of Oslo

 

You would not hear a Norwegian right-wing politician say this kind of thing, according to Jesper Eckhardt Larsen.

»Nowadays, the right-wing stands on a kind of anti-humanities platform. At least that’s how it can be perceived. In Norway, there are no political parties that do not have some understanding of the significance of the cultural sciences. There is a discourse among conservatives of the right, that consider modernity to be in itself cold and bland, and that it is the humanities that provides all the colours.«

Danish politicians of the left tend not to acknowledge the importance of the humanities either, according to Jesper Eckhardt.

»In Denmark the driving force of politics and culture is somewhere completely different from Norway. It is in the popular and unsophisticated. And then there is resistance against its opposite – the academic.«

»If there is one thing that looks sophisticated, then it is this know-it-all Copenhagen humanities researcher.

Three reasons

According to Jesper Eckhardt Larsen, there are three reasons why the Norwegians have a different view of the humanities than in Denmark:

The university-based teacher training programme in Norway, Norway’s young age as an independent country, and oil money.

In recent years, Norway has had teacher training programmes as a part of universities. It is also a part of the new humanities initiative that humanities graduates are trained to be good teachers.

»One of the big boosts to the humanities in Norway was when all the teacher training programmes were moved into the universities in the 1990s,« he says. This move put academia and the popular element on the same footing, because there is nothing more unsophisticated and popular than primary school.

The Trojan humanities horse

Just as the humanities in the period after World War II were seen as the Danes’ spiritual saviour in the rebuilding of Danish society, the cultural subjects still have the same role in Norway.

Norway is still a relatively young country – Norway did not become the independent nation we know today until 1905. For this reason, the humanities still play a major role in cultural nation building.

Nation building is the Trojan horse in Norway. When something contributes to the national project, it typically gets support.

Jesper Eckhardt, postdoc in the history of education at the University of Oslo

»Nation building is the Trojan horse in Norway. When something contributes to the national project, it typically gets support,« says Jesper Eckhardt Larsen.

For this reason, the humanities in Norway looks slightly different from in Denmark. Eckhardt Larsen has seen humanities research in Denmark as more farsighted and internationally oriented, while the humanities in Norway, according to him, have traditionally been more focused on itself.

»In my PhD I counted how many nationally-oriented projects were supported, relative to more general humanities projects, after the set-up of their first research councils in the years around 1950. There was a strong predominance of initiatives on national themes. It was not the humanities that we could see in Denmark in the same period, which had plenty of global and joint European agendas.«

Oil = welfare

And yes, there is, of course, the oil money. When the oil boom started, and the proceeds started dripping into the Norwegian treasury in the 1980s, it was invested in education and research.

In the first instance, subjects such as biotechnology and oil and gas technology were prioritised. But money was also put aside for culture and tradition research, as it was called.

In general, the oil money has been instrumental in ensuring that the Norwegian humanities subjects have avoided the cutbacks that the humanities in Denmark have been subjected to, according to Jesper Eckhardt Larsen. Just recently, 12 staff at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Southern Denmark were dismissed.

»The Norwegians have been able to afford to continue from the 1970s until today without actually cutting back on the welfare state,« says Jesper Eckhardt Larsen.

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