The Public Value of the Humanities

The Public Value of the Humanities

When the humanities are under attack, they either Duck and Dive or Go to War. The Public Value of the Humanities (Bate, 2011) is an example of the latter. There are three points the authors want to make. The first one is that the value of the humanities is manifold. Some authors discuss the economic value in terms of direct commercial benefits for or indirect inputs into creative, cultural and tourist industries, but most authors stress the moral value the humanities have for the public. Their importance regards both the scope of their work, which can be summarized as to find out “how we came to be human” (McMahon et al.2011:255), “what it means to be human” (Hampson 2011:74) and “where we may go” (Parker Pearson 2011:40), and the intricacy of that work (many authors stress that their research is painstaking, tremendously challenging, time-consuming, complex and very difficult indeed, needing highly skilled and trained professionals, et cetera). Some authors are aware that their efforts and value are not easily understood by the public. Sometimes humanists have been “somewhat coy about acknowledging a contemporary application for their work” (Wolffe 2011:52) and sometimes they are just poorly understood and misinterpreted as “quite useless and impractical [...doing ...] fanciful research [] a privileged indulgence” (Davey 2011:305-10), or “selfish because we have chosen to be researchers rather than ‘giving something back’ to society” (McMahon et al.:256), or worse, “reviled [...] pretty close to the bottom of the food chain [... and ...] parasites” (McDonald 2011:287), “a superficial ornament of society [...] sometimes accused of obscurantism, of being all too eager to show off the amazing Technicolor dreamcoat of their academic jargon” (Bate 2011:12), which meets with “genuine and widespread doubtfulness [... and ...] dismissive bafflement or [...] ridicule [...when they ...] have been caught out by imposture or empty rhetoric” (O’Gorman 2011:272-277). But sometimes the story of the ugly duckling unfolds. With “reversal and recognition, the wisdom of the fool, the exile and the prisoner who rises to power and eminence. The person who appears to be useless turns out to be very valuable indeed” (2011b:2) Bate refers to the biblical figure Joseph, who unlike the experts and wise men could explain the Pharaoh’s dreams about cows and ears and therewith helped to prevent famine in ancient Egypt. As he moves on, “Joseph’s predictive skill is a little allegory of what faculties of humanities can do for society” (ibid.). Watt makes a similar case: “Politicians and professions are enthroned where kings once sat. It is in hard times and hard cases, when their power is greatest, that the humanities are most required to play the wise fool” (2011:205). Foolish of selfish as they might be in the eyes of the public, humanities researchers certainly play a role of considerable importance in this book, not in the last place to protect the public against its own simplicity and ignorance, so manifest in its lack of appreciation of the humanities. In most chapters the feeling is mutual. Their “public” is objectified and appears as a passive recipient of the goods humanities research has to offer. It is therewith excluded from these goods without humanities research. In other words, the public is everything the humanities researcher is not and vice versa. For instance, without the humanities, “individuals may only know what is happening in their own community” (McMahon et al 2011.:249) and the public risks “an uncritical traditionalism [... and ...] the perils that come from wholesale rejection of the past” (Wolffe:53); as we live in “a culture that has [...] become persuaded by the adequacy of the briefest accounts of difficult issues, the sound-bite, the newspaper summary, the thirty-second media digest, however deft and witty” (O’Gorman 2011:277) we will remain “naturally powerless to resist the rhetorical power of a sound-bite, still less to resist the power of a whole story, myth or saga” (Watt 2011:202-3); what is more, “the ‘history’ which policy makers use is likely to be naive, simplistic and implicit, often derived from unconscious assumptions or vague memories from lessons in school, [...] highly selective, to be used to suit predetermined purposes and [...] largely unverified” (Szreter 2011:222). Two lengthy quotes to summarize this point:

While professional politicians have come up with impoverished notions of ‘Englishness’, they have also failed to articulate a national vision beyond celebrity and the accumulation of wealth. The Beckhams became the cultural icons of the 1990s, and footballers and their wives have been set up as aspirational figures. At the same time, there has been ever-increasing evidence that these values of celebrity and wealth have not produced a healthy society at ease with itself but rather a culture of debt, depression, alcohol and substance abuse, mental health problems, and a widening gap between super-rich and poor. Again, our literary heritage has the potential to provide more ambitious versions of human aspiration than our politicians currently offer. However, one obstacle to be overcome is the disenfranchisement of the working classes here as in many areas of contemporary society. (Hampson 2011:72)

If you are happy with understanding what is around you as just a pretty picture, then academic research is not worth funding, and you will take home with you a sentimental, slushy and ultimately conservative and reactionary view of the landscape. Public debate will be impoverished by ignorance and stereotypes. If on the other hand you want to know about the historical and cultural processes that created what you are looking at, you will understand the value of academic research. Understanding those processes may in part be sheer intellectual curiosity, but you will also come to a more positive, more informed, more liberal, more inclusive and ultimately humane understanding of what it means to be English or British in the world today. (Johnson 2011:129)

A task with the scope and intricacy of the humanities researcher is not to be left to the public but to trained academics and, this is the second point the book wants to make, reserved uniquely for the humanities. In several occasions a stance pops up that Slingerland (2008) calls “High Humanist stance”,

which holds that the humanities are a sui generis and autonomous field of inquiry, approachable only by means of special sensibility produced by humanistic training itself [... and the ...] conviction that only trained humanists can seriously engage in humanistic inquiry. (Slingerland 20108:2-3)

Not all authors start from this stance, but there are instances of an open or covert feeling of superiority over the natural sciences and over social sciences that pose as natural sciences. An example of the claim that “humanities disciplines are best equipped to supply the critical faculties that we need” (Watt 2011:202) is:

Environmental change, with its thousands of consequences, demands that the humanities take their task seriously. Science alone, which played a decisive role in causing the problem, is no longer capable of solving it. Any ideas of tackling environmental change with major technical projects should be approached with skepticism. Above all, there should be a dialogue between the advocates of this solution and the experts responsible for the results and unintended consequences of previous major projects, in order to show the supporters of technical progress the potential fallibility of their own position. There is plenty of historical evidence. As environmental change will fundamentally alter human society, it is time for the humanities to take over their role within scientific analyses. (Zimmerer 2011:217)

So far, the strategy of The Public Value of the Humanities is to demonstrate its own value and negate the value of other sciences. The third point the book makes is at first glance somewhat at odds with this and I will summarize it as “Rule Britannia.” Although the title suggests a universal public value and a time-spaceless academic field called “the humanities”, both are very particularly Britain as the authors present themselves in service of the United Kingdom. This gives some chapters an unexpected patriotic tone: “the internationally acclaimed tradition of British theatre” (Beard 2011:22); “the Victoria and Albert Museum [...] as an international centre of excellence” (Breward 2011:171); “our national culture [...] is one of the UK’s most valuable assets” (Howard 2011:85); “Our literary heritage still wins friends for us overseas, and our writers are important cultural ambassadors” (Hampson 2011:71); “Manufacturing industry will remain vital to the UK’s competitive future” (Press 2011:161); “the marketing of Britain’s past has gone from strength to strength” (Parker Pearson 2011:37); it produces “active citizens [...] and a healthy democratic society” (Hampson 2011:43-4) and is “is a valuable corrective to simplistic and short-term interpretations” (Wolffe 2011:53) which results in “a vibrant, lively and inclusive definition of what it is to be English” (Johnson 2011:118). All the more reason why “arts and humanities research should now be seen as a sound investment in the future of Britain” (Howells 2011:234). The patriotic tone continues when the authors compare UK academia with its peers, as they write that “UK researchers are playing a leading role internationally” (Kelly 2011:262), they “lead the world in their discipline, and [...] the quality of their research and graduate education in British universities attracts overseas graduate students” (Bate 2011:7), they “are among the very best of the world, leading their counterparts [...] the envy of colleagues the world over” (Parker Pearson 2011:40-1); that the “British academy [has] high status in the international scholarly community” (Howard 2011:85) and “UK [...] scholarship is to remain as strong as it is today” (Overy 2011:192), “internationally unique within its field” (Press 2011:160), “an example to our international peers” (Breward 2011:183), in sum: “the UK now clearly leads the world” (Press 2011:156). There is more to say about this book but I will leave it at that. The point that I am trying to make, is that the strategy to arm and attack, of which the discussed book is emblematic, results in a self assessment of the humanities that is very unlike the humanities. It polarizes between the good humanities and other, potentially harmful sciences, between a well-intended research agenda and an unwilling or hostile public (either vague or personified in real policy makers and managers), even between nations and within the humanities themselves. This polarization takes over the usual sensitivity for othering, the broad historical and cultural perspective, and the custom to bracken to the extend that it is hard to draw any conclusions at all. But what if we were to bracken university life and ask ourselves: “What if there were no universities? How would we organize our knowledge as a society without them? And would would the humanities have to offer such a society?”

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References (all in Jonathan Bate (2011). The Public Value of the Humanities. London: Bloomsbury Academic)
Bate, Jonathan, Introduction, 1-13.
Beard, Mary, Live Classics: Or ‘What’s the use of Aeschylus in Darfur?’, 17-29.
Breward, Christopher, A Museum Perspective, 171-183.
Davey, Nicholas, Philosophy and the Quest for the Unpredictable, 303-312.
Hampson, Robert, Custodians and Active Citizens, 68-75.
Howard, Deborah, Architectural History in Academia and the Wider Community, 76-86.
Howells, Richard, ‘Sorting the Sheep from the Sheep’: Value, Worth and the Creative Industries, 232-243.
Johnson, Matthew, Making a Home: English Culture and English Landscape, 118-130.
Kelly, Michael, Language Matters 2: Modern Languages, 259-271.
McDonald, Rónán, The Value of Art and the Art of Evaluation, 283-294
McMahon, April, Will Barras, Lynn Clark, Remco Knooihuizen, Amanda Patten & Jennifer Sullivan, Language Matters 1: Linguistics, 247-258.
O’Gorman, Francis, Making Meaning: Literary Research in the Twenty-first Century, 272-282.
Overy, Katie, The Value of Music Research to Life in the UK, 184-193.
Parker Pearson, Mike, The Value of Archaeological Researchs, 30-43.
Press, Mike, ‘All this Useless beauty’: The Hidden Value of research in Art and Design, 155-170.
Szreter, Simon, History and Public Policy, 219-231.
Watt, Gary, Hard Cases, Hard Times and the Humanity of Law, 197-207.
Wolffe, John, Why Religious History Matters: Perspectives from 1851, 44-55.
Zimmerer, Jürgen, The Value of Genocide Studies, 208-218.

Other references
Slingerland, Edward (2008). What Science Offers the Humanities. Integrating Body and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Jonathan Bate

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London: Bloomsbury Academic