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The Utility of Inquiry

Nicholas Canny

The Value of the Humanities, by Helen Small, Oxford University Press, 216 pp, £20, 978-0199683864

To the extent that it is a response to the increasing demand being imposed by governments and by university administrators (all too frequently serving as uncritical conduits for the demands of government), upon academics in the Arts faculties of universities to demonstrate the “impact” and “social benefits” that follow upon the investment in research in humanities disciplines, this book is very much a tract for the times. Yet it is very much an English literature creation in that Helen Small, an English professor at the University of Oxford, assumes that “literary studies”, by which she seems to mean studies of English literary production, are “the representative discipline of the humanities”. The book can also be considered Anglocentric in that it always to be addressing a British academic audience, being particularly concerned with the Research Assessment Exercise (the RAE), and its successor the REF, a peculiarly British inquisitorial institution which she dismisses as one of the most “ill-thought-through, grossly expensive, and time wasting systems of accounting for the receipt of public money” ever devised. The contemporary and near-contemporary experts whose opinions are invoked and discussed are, with few exceptions, fellow British academics. Among the exceptions are Foucault and Derrida, to whom she makes occasional passing references, and Martha Nussbaum whose Not for Profit (Princeton, 2010) she curtly dismisses primarily because it devotes excessive attention to the support that a training in the humanities can provide to democracy and because it relates to experiences in private universities and colleges in North America. The Value of the Humanities verges also on being a Eurosceptical tract in so far as it fails to acknowledge both that the European Commission has become a major source of research funding for British academics and that its research portfolio includes the European Research Council, which attaches no premium to the societal “relevance” that Helen Small finds problematic, and from which British academics derive enormous benefit.

This rather chauvinistic outlook mars what is otherwise an excellent book dedicated to a subject that is of concern to humanities scholars in almost all countries of the western world. For me, the most appealing aspects of Professor Small’s study are its pragmatism and its optimism. It is pragmatic in that she considers it in no way unreasonable that governments of today should require humanities scholars, no less than their counterparts in other university faculties, to render account of the use to which they are putting the public monies granted to them. This, she asserts, is neither surprising nor innovative because academics of every generation have had to justify their existence since the first universities were established in medieval times. Her book is optimistic in that she remains confident that scholars of today can prove themselves as able as any in previous generations in confronting the particular challenge that faces them. She obviously wants to lead that effort and her evangelical mission is to ensure that “those who study and teach humanities should be able to articulate the public value of their work”. Moreover she is hopeful that if those who hearken to her call succeed in communicating her message to the wider general public it will be well received.

Professor Small distances herself from those of her contemporaries who cry in despair that “all we can hope for now is that we can persuade governments that the humanities are important to the market place”. Instead, she considers that there is a limit to the amount of “marketization” that the public will bear, and she discerns good will towards peer- reviewed humanities scholarship among students and their parents, teachers, and many politicians and civil servants.

As she sets about her task, Helen Small adopts a historical approach: she has discerned that many of the challenges to humanistic scholarship being put forward by contemporary government functionaries are not unlike those advanced by the utilitarian political economists of the nineteenth century. And as she does so, she finds that these challenges had been addressed, and partially answered, by British defenders of the humanities of that same century. The challenge presented in the nineteenth century had been put most crudely by Jeremy Bentham ‑ best remembered for his aphorism that the purpose of government is to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number ‑ who, in responding to the view that artistic production was making a unique contribution to human happiness, pronounced disparagingly that “the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry”.

Such exchanges inevitably lead Helen Small to revisit (sometimes in considerable detail) the writings of major nineteenth century defenders of poetry and of the university, including Matthew Arnold, John Henry Newman, John Ruskin and, surprisingly, the utilitarian John Stuart Mill who, despite a spartan upbringing by a utilitarian father, began in later life to find great solace in poetry, particularly that of Wordsworth. Helen Small resuscitates the writings of these nineteenth century figures not to debunk them but to identify and to improve upon the arguments that they, and their twentieth century successors, adduced to defend the humanities.

While obviously admiring several of these Victorian figures she is not satisfied that any single one of them provided a comprehensive rebuttal of the arguments of the detractors of the humanities, and she therefore sees the need to refine and elaborate upon the arguments they formulated. Such improvement is with a view to developing what she describes as some “abstractly philosophical” propositions designed to justify continued public investment in humanities research. In doing so, Small suggests that those, whether in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or more recently, who have sought to defend continued public investment in the humanities have failed to mount a comprehensive argument because succeeding combatants have pursued but a single argument of their opponents. The defence to be mounted must be plural, she asserts, and, after careful cogitation, she identifies five core grounds on which to sustain an argument that the humanities have public value.

The prerequisite she insists upon is that humanities scholars continue to produce a distinctive type of work, which she associates with the interpretation, reinterpretation and critical evaluation by the individual scholar of the cultural and artistic achievements of society. If they remain confident in their ability to do this, she believes that humanities scholars will then come to appreciate that the work being undertaken by them is useful to society, particularly in the matter of preserving, curating and interpreting the cultural achievements of various human societies. Further, she believes that the confidence of humanities scholars, and appreciation by the wider public of what they do, will be further boosted because the skills acquired by early stage researchers in the course of their training are highly transferrable and will be readily seen to benefit society. The third ground on which the work of humanities scholars may be considered beneficial is in its contribution to the happiness of individuals and of groups and in explaining how education can enhance the quality and range of pleasures available to the individual person. The fourth justification (the one previously advanced by Martha Nussbaum) is that study in the humanities can contribute to the maintenance and enrichment of democracy and civic culture because such study cultivates the critical intelligence and oratorical and expositional skills of the individual student. She concludes that each of these four justifications for public support of humanities research is contingent upon a fifth vital consideration, which holds that the objects and cultural practices which are studied and examined by humanities scholars have value for their own sake and that research on them can thus contribute to the human good. As she elaborates upon this final point, Small acknowledges that providing public support to scholarly work in the humanities cannot be thought of as equal to the provision of food and shelter, which are vital to human subsistence. Rather, she contends, investment in humanities research will help sustain the finer things of life and it therefore essential to any society wishing to consider itself prosperous, stable and educationally and culturally rich.

Both the structure of Helen Small’s argument and the evidence she cites underline the Anglocentricity of her work; nor is it always clear when she is defending the merits of an undergraduate training in the humanities and when she is advocating continued investment in research in humanities disciplines. However, notwithstanding such confusion and the narrowness of her approach, the five propositions she has thoughtfully teased out will prove essential to anyone anywhere wishing to defend whatever tenuous support continues to be provided for research in humanities disciplines in this age of austerity. As I say this, I can think of no western country today where humanities is in more need of being defended than in Ireland, and I can especially commend The Value of the Humanities to an Irish audience because Helen Small makes a point of not revisiting the two cultures arguments (associated particularly with CP Snow) so popular in the middle of the past century, given her recognition that researchers in science and those in humanities are united by their common quest for truth.

This proposition is particularly pertinent to the Irish situation because, in the aftermath of the economic collapse of 2008, successive governments in Ireland have been directing the public funding of research towards areas in “applied research” where, according to some research strategists, investment today will result in high-tech jobs tomorrow. Relatively few academics, and even fewer thoughtful ones, have been persuaded that Irish research planners are gifted with the powers of clairvoyance to which they lay claim, and the fissure that is becoming increasingly discernible within the university community in the Republic of Ireland today is not a divide between researchers in arts and science disciplines but one between the few who are being granted privileged access to research funding, still supposedly on a competitive basis, and those, whether in science, social science or humanities, who are engaged upon what is being increasingly described as pure research and whose access to research funding is diminishing steadily. Given the open-mindedness of Helen Small towards scientific research, I am disconcerted by her suggestion that those within the walls of academe today who present the principal threat to the humanities are social scientists. She may have private reasons for thinking so (some of the university strategists with whose opinions she disagrees are economists), but speaking as a historian, I have always found interaction with anthropologists, economists, folklorists, lawyers, political scientists, and sociologists to be enlightening and stimulating for me and beneficial for my subject. I like to think that most historians, and scholars in several other humanities disciplines, are of like mind, and my recommendation for the crisis of today is that all, whether scientists, social scientists or humanities scholars who believe that the purpose of research is to reach after truth however elusive that may be must remain united against those who believe that research investment should be harnessed to providing some quick fix to economic dislocations.

This suggests that the challenge facing academics in Ireland today ‑ and Ireland can be no different in this respect from Italy or Spain or perhaps even France ‑ is more fundamental than that confronting Helen Small and her colleagues at Oxford and that the counterattack must therefore be on a much broader front than defending the humanities alone. While this may be the case, The Value of the Humanities will nonetheless serve both as an inspiration and as a template for authors wishing to take up the challenge of defending research in a broad spread of disciplines from the short-sighted but ultimately ruinous plans of today’s utilitarians. If we follow the lead of Professor Small we will be able to say that investment not only in humanities research and in humanities infrastructure (which includes libraries, museums, art galleries and music conservatories), but also investment in research in core scientific disciplines such as mathematics, physics and chemistry is vital to any country wishing to consider itself prosperous, stable and educationally and culturally rich.


Professor Nicholas Canny is a historian and a member of the European Research Council.