What are the humanities good for?

SMAGThere is, apparently, a ‘war against the humanities‘ going on in British higher education, according to a piece in The Observer this weekend. The piece cites as its primary evidence for this ‘war’ the perspectives of scholars from the humanities, of course, lamenting the effects of changes to funding regimes but also the culture of management in British Universities on the proper pursuit of scholarship.

I always worry when ‘the humanities’ is used as a catch-all to encompass the social sciences as well as more ‘arts’-type fields. It is true, of course, that both arts and social sciences disciplines have suffered from the same funding changes since 2010, but I’m not quite sure that the standard ‘whither the humanities?’ style of criticism of higher education policy over this period necessarily sheds much light on what is really going on, or on how best to evaluate it. The piece in The Observer shares various features of a broader genre of criticism of higher education transformation in the name of ‘the humanities’:

First, as already noted, it conflates a range of different disciplines, but presents next to no insight from anyone who looks or sounds like a social scientist. No doubt we could argue about whether the social sciences counts as ‘humanities’ or not, but in this sort of piece, it turns out that ‘the humanities’ really means literary and arts-based fields and forms of analysis. Therein lay the values most under threat from funding changes and top-down management styles and impact agendas. Amongst other things, one effect of this elision of social science is a tendency to present ‘the sciences’ as the more or less unwitting bad guys in the story. Two cultures, all over again, one of which is always a bit too uncultured.

Second, the lament about the squeezing of ‘humanities’ is often enough made in the name of the values of criticism and critique, but I do wonder whether we should really look for our models of these practices from ‘the humanities’ anymore? To be fair, there is a ‘social science’ version of the same lament. John Holmwood, for example, has written in much the same vein recently about the apparent marginalisation of the critical voice of social sciences in British public debate. Holmwood worries that social science is being shaped too pragmatically, in such a way as to displace attention to social structures. I dare say that an appeal to the value of social science as lying in access to knowledge of structures and possibilities of change bears some structural similarity to the form of discerning insight that ‘the humanities’ are meant to have. In both cases, ‘critique’ is the magical practice that is best able to articulate with public worlds by maintaining a certain sort of distance from them.

The genre is remarkably resilient, it seems, even resurgent. Unhappily, it turns on quite conventional oppositions between (bad) instrumental knowledge and (good) critical knowledge. Somewhere in between, the scope for thinking about different versions of instrumentality gets lost, and the critical voice gets snared in its own contradictions, being forced to disavow various public entanglements (the impact agenda, most obviously, or treating students as adults, rather more implicitly), in the name of a weakly expressed ideal of the worldly force of ‘really useless knowledge’.

There is much to lament about the state of British higher education. And there is, of course, a ‘campaign for social science‘, which has recently managed to produce a deeply embarrassing representation of the value of social science that might well confirm all one’s suspicions about the selling-out of social scientists to ‘neoliberal agendas’ (we are in ‘the business of people‘, apparently). Social science is, of course, a divided field, as Holmwood implies. So too, one might suspect, are ‘the humanities’. The resilience of the ‘two cultures’ genre has been evident since 2010, at least, when arguments in the defence of the ‘public university’ took off in response to Coalition policy changes. It was evident, for example, in the controversy around the AHRC’s alignment with ‘the big society’ agenda (remember that?). That episode illustrated the division within the humanities I just mentioned, rather than an impure imposition of pernicious instrumentalism from the outside. It turns out, of course, that the humanities are really good at being instrumentally useful, at knowing how to ‘sell-out’; not least, humanities fields have been at the forefront of legitimizing the impact agenda both in principle and in practice (as evidenced by evaluations of impact submissions and indicators in the 2014 REF exercise).

The ‘two cultures’ genre is always a trap, not least in the current conjuncture when the defence of ‘the value of the humanities’ is made alongside sweeping references to neoliberalization of higher education. Like it or not, the restructuring of higher education in Britain, and elsewhere, is explicitly made in the name of public values like accountability and social mobility; as a result, the defence of ‘the humanities’ always already suffers from a populist deficit when articulated from within the confines of the two cultures genre, however refined that has become in the hands of Stefan Collini or Martha Nussbaum. ‘Neoliberalism’ is, of course, a social science concept, but not a very good one, especially in this context, because in its most sophisticated varieties, it doesn’t allow you to recognise that contemporary political-economic processes involve the reconfiguration of the means and ends of public life, rather than just a straightforward diminution of public life (here represented by ‘the humanities’) in the face of privatisation, individualism, and competition.

Herein lies the real problem with the elision of social science into a precious view of ‘the humanities’ as the repository of irreducibly qualitative values: the defence of the humanities is generally made via a simplistic conceptual vocabulary of ‘the market’, ‘the state’, ‘bureaucracy’, and other hoary old figures of the forces of philistinism. There is a critique, certainly, to be made of trends in higher education in the UK, but it probably requires better social science, better social theory, than the prevalent defence of ‘the humanities’ seems able or willing to muster. It would require, amongst other things, giving up on the idea that critique is a special preserve of ‘the humanities’, or indeed that it requires discerning access to structural analysis.

4 thoughts on “What are the humanities good for?

  1. What is critique good for? Evaluation for what? It is sad that senior academics, especially those on a professorial level (earning good sums of money), use critique to enrich themselves. They are complicit and take no responsibility. They do not support occupations, they do not march alongside their younger peers. “No”, they argue, “the situation is complex. More evaluation is necessary [so that I can publish and make myself useful for impact purposes].” Talking to each about how bad the situation is, in circles, in inaccessible jargon, they refuse to actually engage with the politics where it happens, on the street. To paraphrase Marx, put your money where your mouth is!

    What seems occurring instead is not a divide between the social sciences and the rest of the academy, but instead one that separates high-earning senior academics and managerial administrators from the teaching-fellows, part-time academics, struggling post-docs, students, cleaners, early career people, non-EU academics (ie. yes, the ‘rest’, which is simply told that they do not understand the situation as good as the senior academics do). That is the real divide, it is one of class, and only through class struggle can it be overcome.

    • Tim, I am not so much senior in geography as ‘older’, and my ‘impact’ is reduced by lots of teaching and a refusal to work with the worst commercial publishers. So I am not that able to speak for the real ‘seniors’. I actually think attitudes to ‘impact’ separates many of us in universities: those who think the quest for it is vain and silly (and you might do some self publicity only when you have something to contribute), and those who (sometimes secretly) try constantly to improve their own, and worry about it. The latter like social media because of all those ‘likes’ and ‘forwards’ that were not available 20 years ago. Nonetheless, you have a point. I raised a similar issue myself here https://simonbatterbury.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/where-have-the-radical-scholars-gone/
      That said, I have seen some serious engagement with issues of justice by senior academics – N Smith in Toronto and NYC, here in Belgium an academic who was fired from a Geography Dept. for direct action against GMOs, the anti-cuts protests at Amsterdam, and many activist-scholars outside geography that we all know. I was amazed to discover at the AAG that David Harvey, who admitted he had considered retirement some years ago, has recently established a critical research center in Ecuador, Centro Nacional de Estrategia para Derecho al Territorio. Not bad going. I also know scholars who give away most of their salaries, those that live in voluntary simplicity, and lots who participate in hands-on activities (I’m studying collectives in Brussels right now).
      I suppose what I object to is the type of critical scholarship that carries on as if the social and environmental issues of the day can be partly or wholly overlooked. Academic freedom and common sense accords its authors rights, but no right that other academics, or society, will be interested in it.

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