Sunday, April 5, 2015

What Are the Humanities Good For?

SMAGby , Pop Theory:

There is, apparently, a ‘war against the humanities‘ going on in British higher education, according to a piece in The Observer this weekend.

The piece cites as its primary evidence for this ‘war’ the perspectives of scholars from the humanities, of course, lamenting the effects of changes to funding regimes but also the culture of management in British Universities on the proper pursuit of scholarship.

I always worry when ‘the humanities’ is used as a catch-all to encompass the social sciences as well as more ‘arts’-type fields.

It is true, of course, that both arts and social sciences disciplines have suffered from the same funding changes since 2010, but I’m not quite sure that the standard ‘whither the humanities?’ style of criticism of higher education policy over this period necessarily sheds much light on what is really going on, or on how best to evaluate it.

The piece in The Observer shares various features of a broader genre of criticism of higher education transformation in the name of ‘the humanities':

First, as already noted, it conflates a range of different disciplines, but presents next to no insight from anyone who looks or sounds like a social scientist. No doubt we could argue about whether the social sciences counts as ‘humanities’ or not, but in this sort of piece, it turns out that ‘the humanities’ really means literary and arts-based fields and forms of analysis.

Therein lay the values most under threat from funding changes and top-down management styles and impact agendas. Amongst other things, one effect of this elision of social science is a tendency to present ‘the sciences’ as the more or less unwitting bad guys in the story. Two cultures, all over again, one of which is always a bit too uncultured.

Second, the lament about the squeezing of ‘humanities’ is often enough made in the name of the values of criticism and critique, but I do wonder whether we should really look for our models of these practices from ‘the humanities’ anymore?

To be fair, there is a ‘social science’ version of the same lament. John Holmwood, for example, has written in much the same vein recently about the apparent marginalisation of the critical voice of social sciences in British public debate. Holmwood worries that social science is being shaped too pragmatically, in such a way as to displace attention to social structures.

I dare say that an appeal to the value of social science as lying in access to knowledge of structures and possibilities of change bears some structural similarity to the form of discerning insight that ‘the humanities’ are meant to have. In both cases, ‘critique’ is the magical practice that is best able to articulate with public worlds by maintaining a certain sort of distance from them.

The genre is remarkably resilient, it seems, even resurgent. Unhappily, it turns on quite conventional oppositions between (bad) instrumental knowledge and (good) critical knowledge.

Somewhere in between, the scope for thinking about different versions of instrumentality gets lost, and the critical voice gets snared in its own contradictions, being forced to disavow various public entanglements (the impact agenda, most obviously, or treating students as adults, rather more implicitly), in the name of a weakly expressed ideal of the worldly force of ‘really useless knowledge’.

There is much to lament about the state of British higher education. And there is, of course, a ‘campaign for social science‘, which has recently managed to produce a deeply embarrassing representation of the value of social science that might well confirm all one’s suspicions about the selling-out of social scientists to ‘neoliberal agendas’ (we are in ‘the business of people‘, apparently).

Social science is, of course, a divided field, as Holmwood implies. So too, one might suspect, are ‘the humanities’. The resilience of the ‘two cultures’ genre has been evident since 2010, at least, when arguments in the defence of the ‘public university’ took off in response to Coalition policy changes.

It was evident, for example, in the controversy around the AHRC’s alignment with ‘the big society’ agenda (remember that?). That episode illustrated the division within the humanities I just mentioned, rather than an impure imposition of pernicious instrumentalism from the outside.

It turns out, of course, that the humanities are really good at being instrumentally useful, at knowing how to ‘sell-out'; not least, humanities fields have been at the forefront of legitimizing the impact agenda both in principle and in practice (as evidenced by evaluations of impact submissions and indicators in the 2014 REF exercise).

The ‘two cultures’ genre is always a trap, not least in the current conjuncture when the defence of ‘the value of the humanities’ is made alongside sweeping references to neoliberalization of higher education.

Like it or not, the restructuring of higher education in Britain, and elsewhere, is explicitly made in the name of public values like accountability and social mobility; as a result, the defence of ‘the humanities’ always already suffers from a populist deficit when articulated from within the confines of the two cultures genre, however refined that has become in the hands of Stefan Collini or Martha Nussbaum.

‘Neoliberalism’ is, of course, a social science concept, but not a very good one, especially in this context, because in its most sophisticated varieties, it doesn’t allow you to recognise that contemporary political-economic processes involve the reconfiguration of the means and ends of public life, rather than just a straightforward diminution of public life (here represented by ‘the humanities’) in the face of privatisation, individualism, and competition.

Herein lies the real problem with the elision of social science into a precious view of ‘the humanities’ as the repository of irreducibly qualitative values: the defence of the humanities is generally made via a simplistic conceptual vocabulary of ‘the market’, ‘the state’, ‘bureaucracy’, and other hoary old figures of the forces of philistinism.

There is a critique, certainly, to be made of trends in higher education in the UK, but it probably requires better social science, better social theory, than the prevalent defence of ‘the humanities’ seems able or willing to muster. It would require, amongst other things, giving up on the idea that critique is a special preserve of ‘the humanities’, or indeed that it requires discerning access to structural analysis.

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