The humanities under fire (2)

In my previous post, I wondered whether we should we defend the humanities in terms of their value — even non-economic value, or whether we would then be adjusting ourselves to the neo-liberal view of academia that has become prevalent.

I turned to the ideas of Stefan Collini, historian at Cambridge Universitybecause of a quotation in Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit. That quotation read: “Academics in the humanities must insist, he argues, that their research is ‘a collection of ways of encountering the record of human activity in its greatest richness and diversity,’ and is valuable for this reason” (130). It is important to note that the word “valuable” here is Nussbaum’s and not Collini’s: what interests me in his writing is that he does not argue for value, whether economic, social or otherwise.

In the TLS of November 2009 Collini wrote a piece in response to the new “Research Excellence Framework” then introduced, which measures 25% of “research excellence” in terms of the research’s “impact” outside academia – an impact which is mainly formulated in economic terms in the new framework. Collini worried about the lack of objections against this redefinition of research funding in the humanities. He wrote:

One reason why measures such as these do not now provoke more vociferous opposition is that over the past three decades our sensibilities have been numbed by the proliferation of economistic officialese – “user satisfaction”, “market forces”, “accountability”, and so on. Perhaps our ears no longer hear what a fatuous, weaselly phrase “Research Excellence Framework” actually is, or how ludicrous it is to propose that the quality of scholarship can be partly judged in terms of the number of “external research users” or the range of “impact indicators”.

Instead of letting this drivel become the only vocabulary for public discussion of these matters, it is worth insisting that what we call “the humanities” are a collection of ways of encountering the record of human activity in its greatest richness and diversity. To attempt to deepen our understanding of this or that aspect of that activity is a purposeful expression of human curiosity and is – insofar as the expression makes any sense in this context – an end in itself.

“An end in itself”: Collini does not claim here that the humanities are “valuable” because they examine the record of human activity. Rather, he argues that no explanations of value or impact are required – the state should fund humanities research because it is part of human curiosity.

He makes this point more clearly in his keynote lecture at the conference “Why Humanities” at Birckbeck last week. I am thankful to Infinite Thought for publishing uncorrected notes taken during the talks, and will quote from them below. In his lecture, Collini stated explicitly that the humanities should not take up a defensive position at all. Instead, we should be more confident about the work we do, and not try to defend it in terms of economic or other value.

Shakespeare industry may generate GDP of small country, but even if it didn’t, these are precisely the wrong terms to justify its existence. […] We do not need to t[ake] up this defensive posture. […] Our best defence is to say: ‘see, this is what we do. Terrific isn’t it?’ we shouldn’t try to re-describe the activity in terms of economic success. I offer no help to those whose jobs or departments are under threat, but we should remember that the Arts & Hums are a counter to the market individualism of contemporary democracy. We are merely custodians of an intellectual heritage that is not ours to destroy. We need to think of tone and confidence.

One of the questions asked what an individual should aim for in order to be an asset — a question that Martha Nussbaum answers in her book in terms of the critical mindset and empathy required to be a citizen in a democracy. Stefan Collini had a different answer: “SC: I am not a philosopher! We should be suspicious of large goals. We are not trying to inculcate virtue. I don’t have a general moral formation argument about the Humanities.”

In this week’s London Review of Books, Collini presented a devastating analysis of the consumer logic of the Browne Report. In the final paragraph, he urges Liberal Democrat MPS to resist following the logic of the report. Just as students and staff in the humanities should not be forced into a defensive position that takes up arguments of economic value, MPs who want to argue against the Browne Report should not enter into the discussion about the height of student loans, but should take a broader perspective on the matter:

What is at stake here is not primarily the question of whether this or that group of graduates will pay a little more or a little less towards the costs of their education […]. What is at stake is whether universities in the future are to be thought of as having a public cultural role partly sustained by public support, or whether we move further towards redefining them in terms of a purely economistic calculation of value and a wholly individualist conception of ‘consumer satisfaction’.

UPDATE: Audio recordings of the papers presented at the “Why Humanities” conference at Birkbeck are now available at Backdoor Broadcasting.

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