advocating for the humanities, British-style

As a follow-up to Laura’s post, I wanted to pass along some links to responses from British scholars and academics to the proposed cuts in Humanities funding, first from Gavin Robinson’s history blog Investigations of a Dog, then from economist Will Davies’ Potlatch.  I could try to synthesize their very disparate analyses, but I think the most important convergence between the two is their emphasis on the importance of historical knowledge as a mode of critical reasoning.

In Davies’ terms, this amounts to a picture of social and economic relations that in their historical complexity cannot and should not be reduced to present-day market valuations, because any “form of justice [should be understood as] extremely path dependent and fragile. Different spheres of inequality [understood as rival elites and the values maintaining them] must be allowed to emerge organically, and then be kept strategically separate.” Davies’ concerns about Britain’s emulation of American neo-liberalism perhaps makes him a little too sanguine about the effects of these ideologies in the American context, but I think it’s necessary to conceive of academic values as he does, as working alongside marketplace values in a necessarily pluralistic ideological environment.

For Robinson, the conflicts between the humanities and the marketplace are perhaps more prosaic, but well worth keeping in the forefront:

It seems obvious to me that independent critical thought, textual analysis and the ability to construct and destroy arguments are all very important skills, not just for individuals but for society as a whole. It’s equally obvious why politicians, businessmen and journalists might be hostile to those skills. When humanities departments ask for funding, they’re effectively saying “please give us your money so we can teach people to see through your lies”. That’s going to be a hard sell, and probably explains why defenders of the humanities tend to use vague euphemisms rather than putting it so bluntly. The paradox is that the humanities have to cover up their main selling point so as not to appear threatening to the people with money and power, but that makes it easy to represent the humanities as useless.

So the problem faced by humanities scholars nowadays is not so much the uselessness of what they study, but the fact that their authentic use automatically puts one at odds with both the governmental and business interests that dominate the operations of the modern-day research university.

Davies is concerned, as I am, that this season’s political attacks on the university amount to a concerted political assault on the Enlightenment.  But to what extent does the modern research university reflect the values of Enlightenment?


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5 responses to “advocating for the humanities, British-style

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Dave,
    Thanks for passing this along. The alternative to Robinson is a case that I heard made by Carol Geary Schneider, President of the Association of American Colleges and Universitiy that, in short, employers are looking for exactly the skills and capacities that a liberal arts education provides. This was based on research done by the AAC&U interviewing business leaders on the one hand and compiling liberal arts learning outcomes on the other. The results are available on their web site:
    I don’t think liberal arts education is being assaulted out of an accurate perceptive of its ability to undermine business. The Enlightenment GAVE us modern, global business, after all. Of course it also gave us multiple lines of critique thereof.

    BTW, I’m not actually sure that we can say that the humanities per se are under attack based on these budget cuts. Aren’t most of these really arguing that liberal arts education, or at least the humanities sector thereof, is under attack? I was confused about this issues as well at the “4 Humanities” cite.

  2. Hi Laura,

    You’re raising some good points, but I’m not sure I have good answers to them.

    As for the actual vocational possibilities of English or more generally humanities majors in the job market, the managers have been described as being more receptive to the liberal arts majors than their HR offices. This means that resumes of the LA types might get tossed in favor of more directly “qualified” candidates with business etc. degrees.

    There is also a huge difference between the value of LA degrees from more or less prestigious institutions, and those differences matter when candidates are sorted out with business majors in the pile.

    From my perspective, the assault on public higher ed is of a piece with the ongoing attacks on every conception of a post-New Deal public good, from health care to environmental regulation to the politics of immigration and “diversity” and now K-12 and higher ed accountability schemes. I never had much patience with the term neo-liberalism, but I can’t find a better term to describe those who are lining up to dismantle whatever remains of the welfare state.

    As for humanities vs. liberal arts education, I suppose the question becomes, what happens when the _only_ public support for such activities occurs through an educational system that is increasingly at odds with such values? Are we going to allow the present-day values assigned by markets the power to wipe out whole sectors that have come to us from the past? I suppose this is a Burkean argument that can now be directed towards the advocates of capitalist “creative destruction,” and the main reason why I think markets are a terrible metaphor for what happens in education.

  3. Laura Rosenthal

    Yes, I agree that “the assault on public higher ed is of a piece with the ongoing attacks on every conception of a post-New Deal public good, from health care to environmental regulation to the politics of immigration and “diversity” and now K-12 and higher ed accountability schemes.”

    The larger argument, then, is that this infrastructure supports the public good. While a liberal arts education does indeed teach students to challenge received ideas, this training also supports the public good (in ways discussed in the report, for example) and is not in itself the natural enemy of business, politics, and journalism. To say this, however, is not at all to support education on a business model.

    So like most forms of infrastructure-destruction, the attack on higher education is short sighted.

    I do think, though, that there are sectors that are aggressively hostile to education itself and rely on the ignorance of constituents. (Sarah Palin comes to mind). But I think Palinites, etc., have created a false dichotomy between “elite liberals” or whoever who supposedly teach the radical destruction of America and regular people who want their kids to learn practical things. I think we need to resist this false dichotomy. To suggest that a liberal arts education creates enmity toward politics, journalism, and business it to accept this false dichotomy.

    • The neglect or destruction of essential public infrastructures has to be seen as a feature, not a bug, of contemporary conservatism: this is how we get Katrina and other foreseeable disasters. This kind of deliberate neglect destroys public confidence in the ability of government to respond to their needs, and helps to produce the atmosphere of economic crisis and public alienation that conservatives benefit from. I am not surprised to hear Haley Barbour talk this way, but I am depressed when those who consider themselves progressive reinforce this view of the world. To some extent, this kind of myopia seems an inherent danger in any kind of democratic governance, but I believe that this kind of myopia, or short-sightedness is now getting strongly reinforced by the market interests that have more or less captured most of our political institutions, with fewer and fewer opportunities to resist this drive. And where does the resistance come from?

      The other side of this is the lie that the liberal arts teach nothing useful (just reading and writing and thinking), while we see whole sectors of society dependent upon the most “socially worthless” (and socially destabilzing) activities imaginable: investment banking. So reminding other people of our usefulness may demand that we unpack the assumption that things like investment banking are obviously more useful than what we do.

  4. Dave Mazella

    I just discovered another benefit of the course-blog: easy access to student work from previous semesters. I had a number of last-minute rec requests, and having access to previous WordPress course blogs made those letters easier to write (though I’m not sure I want to encourage students to keep requesting letters on such short notice). But this becomes another way to preserve not just individual course work, but interactions between individuals.