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The Value of the Humanities

Small, Helen


 The humanities might ideally find justification simply in our doing them.The act of justification has seemed to many humanities scholars to beg more than one question: that the value of their subject area is in question, and that the value is capable of being expressed in the mode of justification. The particular form of justification that involves articulat­ing reasons why we should consider the higher study of the humanities (university teaching and research) a public good is a modern undertak­ing, driven by institutional, political, and economic pressures. Its practi­tioners can look for inspiration to two related genres with a distinguished history: 'the defence of poetry' and advocacy for 'the idea of the univer­sity'. The second of those genres is often now seen as imperilled, discred­ited, or (in its liberal forms at least) entirely defunct; the first is in rather better shape, but its concern is with only one aspect of the broad range of practices that have come to be grouped, since the 1940s, under the term 'humanities'. The value of the humanities certainly includes qual­ities associated with poetry and with liberal education, but the dual comparison highlights a problem of scale: any claims made for 'the humanities' must be rather less specific than in the case of poetry, rather more specific than in the case of the university. Given the difficulties, there is a serious temptation to insist that ongoing practical commit­ment is enough. And yet, there remain situations in which it is, obviously, necessary to respond to demands from government, and from university administrators who have to answer to government, that those who study and teach the humanities should be able to articulate the public value of their work: giving reasons why their subject area matters comparatively with other subject areas, and why it matters in its own right.

The hardest of those situations involves justifying the humanities' claim to a share of the public budget for research. This book was written against a background of intense public debate about successive British govern­ments' incremental retreat from the idea that the state should bear most of the economic cost of higher education. The state still pays, however, for research in the humanities, as it pays also for research in the social sciences and sciences; it underwrites the cost of every undergraduate's education, and it subsidizes graduate education for many. The most politically press­ing question, at the point of writing, is what the state thinks it is paying for, in the case of the humanities, and whether the people who make decisions about public spending can be helped to recognize the distinctive nature of humanities scholarship (a more accurate word than research), and distinctive contributions to the public good.

The primary aim of the following pages is to examine the most commonly proffered reasons why the study of the humanities has distinctive purpose and value for us as individuals and as a society. My hope is that, insofar as the approach here is taxonomic, it may assist those tasked with making decisions about the respective claims on the public purse of incommensurable, but not incomparable, goods. (The Conclusion to this book explains in greater detail what I understand to be involved in the problem of comparing incommensurables.) In such practical decision-making circumstances, it is desirable, for the sake of accuracy and clarity, to understand that there are multiple distinct ways in which the humanities can be said to have public value, to be cogni­zant of the different senses of the term 'value' involved, the different contexts in which they hold good, and the quite different kinds of con­tribution made to the public good. The dual ambition of The Value of the Humanities is that it may, to borrow a phrase from the American critic Amanda Anderson (in turn reworking a title of Trollope), improve 'the way we argue now'—as academics, debating among ourselves, and as representatives of our universities or our disciplines facing outwards to the general public; also that it may improve the way 'we' as a society debate the public good of the humanities. However public the book's external prompts and hoped-for effects, I would not have written it had the subject not seemed attractively difficult.The taxonomic approach is, at base, a sign of someone trying to get her thoughts in order on a subject no less tricky for being very well worn, and no less personally involving for having to do with the public good.

The following chapters identify five arguments for the value of the humanities that have been influential historically and that still have persuasive power. Each of them can yield more specific arguments, which I treat here as logically 'subordinate' or attendant, but which others might want to treat as distinctive and deserving of more notice in their own right. Together they offer a pluralistic account of value. One of my assumptions, throughout, has been that any persuasive account of the humanities' contribution to the public good has to be so plural, and that pluralism (at this level) does not entail incoherence. It is an understandable consequence of the political pressure to produce compelling justifications that many advocates for the public value of the humanities have sought to locate a single claim that will over­power all imagined resistance. Hence, in part, the popularity in recent years of the 'Democracy Needs Us' defence. There is no such all-silencing justification to be had: rather a number of distinct defences, each arising out of particular ways of thinking about value, purpose, and the nature of the implied opposition. A defence is, after all, a defence against a perceived threat, which may be a defined set of alter­native needs and values (economic utility, for example; or an exclusive empiricism; or a narrowly quantitative estimation of human happi­ness), or it may be the more impersonal threat posed by an inhospita­ble economic climate in which all public goods are subject to much tougher demands for justification. In all these contexts, not just the last, the threat to the humanities will be one facet of a threat to the good working of the university as a whole. A defence that pits one area of intellectual activity against the others risks becoming 'a raft of Medusa', as the historian John Burrow once animatedly observed: 'a boat-load of castaways cannibalizing each other to survive.' 'Ironic high comedy', he suggested, may be preferable, under really unfavour­able conditions, to the default temptation towards 'lament', or the 'tragic dignity' of defending 'a last bastion': 'the prospect of death by starvation', he added with comic exaggeration (and more optimisti­cally than not),'concentrates the mind'.