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.

Calhoun on LSE and Libya

Not exactly hot off the presses, I’ve only just noticed this essay by Craig Calhoun in Public Culture, a long and detailed reflection on the changing dynamics of public social science and the public functions of Universities more generally, as exposed by the LSE/Saif Gaddafi/etc affair of last year.

My Daily Me

These are the three things that caught my eye during a 5 minute scroll through Twitter this afternoon, while very definitely not working: George Steiner reviewing a French book about American theory-wars about French Theory – Steiner is a smart grump on these matters; an essay on book hoarding [they aren’t just objects, they are pieces of one’s mind]; and Christopher Newfield reflecting on the ongoing unmaking of the Public University in the USA. I think I need a hobby.

Back to Syracuse?

One sidebar to political upheaval this week in Libya has been the story about Saif Gaddafi’s academic credentials, holding as he does a PhD from the LSE. In re-posted profiles from 2006 and 2009, he is presented as a reformer in waiting, and credited with influencing the relative normalisation of Libya’s international relations. Now it looks a little like a means of providing intellectual respectability for the anointed son. Gaddafi’s PhD was supervised by David Held, who has professed a certain degree of disappointment at the conduct of his former student this week. There is some discussion on the blogosphere suggesting that somehow the cosmopolitan theory that Gaddafi used in this thesis is now shown to be complicit with state-sponsored violence. A bit of a stretch, that argument.

The more interesting aspect of this story is the funding relationship between the LSE and the Libyan regime, which has suddenly become very embarrassing indeed, provoking sit-ins and rapid disavowals (this particular deal was opposed at the time it was established by the late Fred Halliday). This is hardly the first time that a University has been embroiled in potentially dubious relationships wfide runders. But it is timely, in the current context of UK debates about the future of University funding – the long term trajectory of institutions such as the LSE is to seek greater ‘independence’ by substituting public funding for a varied portfolio of private funding. Anyone who has received alumni literature from an Oxbridge college in the last few years will have had this aim more or less explicitly acknowledged. Again, not new, an old story in the US. Nevertheless, this is a relatively new phenomenon in the UK, and it remains the case that the putative ‘brand value’ of elite universities in the UK as private players in an international marketplace for higher education does depend on a massive, century old public subsidy. So the sorts of reputational risks involved in diversifying university funding are likely to be heightened for quite some time into the future. Cosmopolitanism can be a bit grubby, it turns out.

Universities and their public purposes

Nigel Thrift, sometime geographer and all round theorist, who is now Vice-Chancellor at Warwick, has a short note on The Chronicle of Higher Education blogsite WorldWise note on the complexity of the tensions shaping Higher Education today. Apart from the slightly sneering dismissal of ‘critique’ as a posture to adopt in relation to current changes to University financing in the UK context, this is a rather succinct summary of the complex relations into which ‘The University’ is woven. It is also a useful reminder of the degree to which the transformations triggered by post-election decisions in the UK are part of rather longer, more broadly shared processes of reconfiguration in global higher education. One thing that Thrift’s list of tensions brings out is how they all revolve around the basic tension of being (at least in part) publicly funded institutions which are expected to or aspire to deliver a complex and contrdictory range of public ‘goods’  – world class research, economically useful teaching and learning, social mobility, relevant solutions to all sorts of worldly problems. Rather than there being a single model of ‘the public’ to which Universities are expected to be responsive and accountable, Thrift’s list of tensions indicates the diverse range of public purposes and constituencies which have a stake in the future of higher education. Anyway, Thrift promises future posts focussing in more detail on these different tensions, which should be interesting to follow.

What is ‘public’ about the Public University?

 I was visiting UCL yesterday, where students are involved in an occupation as part of the ongoing campaign against the Coalition’s pernicious policy of higher education funding (we don’t have one at the OU, cos there aren’t any students at Walton Hall). These occupations are interesting not least because they are seeking to directly shame the VCs of individual institutions, who as a collective group have proved horribly supine in their response to the government’s decision to allow an increase in fees AND to slash public funding in support of teaching of all but a select ‘strategic’ subjects. The last few weeks have exposed clear divisions within the University sector, with representatives of the Russel Group and other research intensive institutions quietly accepting proposed changes as inevitable, while the most forceful criticisms of these proposals, and defence of the public value of higher education beyond the personal benefit derived by individual students, have been made by articulate VCs from institutions such as the University of Central Lancashire and Canterbury Christ Church. This division is so clear that it has generated a debate about whether the Universities UK, the umbrella representative body for the whole sector, has lost its legitimacy as an effective representative by adopting such an accommodating tone – you can track the tensions in recent articles and letters in the Times Higher.

All of this will come to a head this week when the Commons gets to vote on the tuition fees proposals. But one of the more important aspects of this campaign is the way that it has very quickly exposed fault lines around the terms in which the politics of newly austere public sphere is going to be fought out: on the one side, a set of arguments which invoke particular images of ‘fairness’ and focus all the attention on the idea of higher education as a system distributing benefits upon differentially advantaged individuals (on this criterion, of course, there are aspects of the current proposals that are easily commended – the OU has loudly celebrated the equalization of treatment of part-time students as potential high education debtors); on the other side, an argument about the public good of higher education residing in various collectively bestowed, and collectively enjoyed benefits which are more than the aggregate of all these personal benefits. The best thing I have read on this issue is Stefan Collini’s critique of the perfect-market idiocy that informs the Browne Review (whose membership is indicative of a shift in the ‘public’ quality of these sorts of reviews). Collini points out that the headline coverage of the Browne Review, and the protests and campaigns since too, has been on the issue of fees increases; and he elaborates on how there is a much more fundamental aspect of the Review, which is its proposed (and largely accepted by the Coalition) ‘dismantling of the public character of higher education’, which he describes as ‘breathtaking’ in its scale. The emphasis of Collini’s analysis on defending the public quality of higher education in a broad sense has quickly found expression in a newly established Campaign for the Public University. In a letter published in The Times earlier this week, the broader issue is clearly stated: “The issues at stake for the future of higher education are not only to do with the proposed increase in student tuition fees. We believe that the public university is essential both for cultivating democratic public life and creating the means for individuals to find fulfilment in creative and intellectual pursuits.” The letter also refers to the results of rather extensive research survey undertaken by Ipsos MORI on behalf of HEFCE and also published last week, which, to cut a long story short, showed rather widespread support amongst the public for government investment in higher education and a broad appreciation of the varied benefits (economic and non-economic, individual and collective) of higher education. The OU currently has a research centre, CHERI, which also focusses on exploring and promoting the public dimensions of higher education, engaging in empirical research but contributing to conceptualizations of the place of higher education in reconfiguring the public sphere – partly through links with CHERI, some of us hosted Craig Calhoun at the OU earlier this year, whose talk about the changing public status of Universities now seems even more pertinent than it did back in March – you can see the lecture here.

The only thing that worries me about the tone of debate at the moment around these issues is the danger that certain aspects of a rather tired Two Cultures debate are already being reproduced, so that ‘the public’ benefits worth defending from the more extensive marketization of higher education end up being represented in terms of the apparently non-instrumental value ascribed to ‘the humanities’. I think that path threatens to undermine much more expansive, inclusive understandings of the public qualities of higher education, by just reproducing some hoary old (class-bound) stereotypes about ‘really useless knowledge’ being the embodiment of the public value of University life. I think the challenge is to acknowledge and defend a pluralist range of ‘uses’ and ‘instrumentalities’ that higher education helps to sustain.