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A New Voice in Defence of the Humanities

Bryn Jones Square

The Value of the Humanities
Helen Small
Blackwells Bookshop, Oxford
Book Launch: 15th October 2013

There have been a number of impassioned defences of the humanities in recent years, Martha Nussbaum’s powerfully-stated argument that the humanities cultivate “compassionate citizenship” being one of best known. The tonal quality of the defences has typically been polemical in nature, with defenders arguing their cases forcefully and, at times, emotionally. In her recently-published book, The Value of the Humanities (2013), Helen Small, Professor of English at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Pembroke College, strikes a new tone, distinguishing herself from her fellow humanities defenders by her more tempered voice and pragmatic response to the longstanding debate.

Indeed, Small’s defence is all the more cogent for being a practical and measured contribution to the dialogue. As Small herself noted in her hour-long talk at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford on 15 October 2013, the polemical mode has not served the humanities well, with enlarged claims about the value of the humanities doing little to persuade detractors. The self-aggrandisement of the “democracy needs us” argument can, for example, be off-putting and therefore potentially hinder rather than help the ongoing and necessary crusade for public funding for the humanities. Small’s defence is meant to bring something new to the debate: a pluralistic, and unbiased, account of the value of the humanities.

Small’s fivefold account considers the following claims: that the humanities do a distinct kind of work; that they are “useful to society in ways that put pressure on how governments commonly understand use”; that they play a role in our personal and social happiness; that they contribute to a well-functioning democracy; and that they “matter for their own sake”. The first and fourth claims, which carry the most weight, fittingly received the most comprehensive focus in Small’s talk. Significantly, she did not shy away from dissecting these pro-humanities arguments: she put them under the microscope, only to reinforce their merits.

According to Small, it is in their “study [of] the meaning-making practices of the culture” and in their focus “on interpretation and evaluation with an indispensable element of subjectivity” that the humanities differ from other disciplines. Interestingly, and equitably, she notes that skills generally cited as uniquely applicable to humanities scholars—”historical interpretation, rhetorical analysis, the cultivation of style, creativity, imagination”—are employed by scholars in other disciplines as well, evidence of Small’s careful, and sometimes cautious, response to the debate about the humanities’ value. Although this pragmatism left some audience members longing for more passion, Small’s objectivity is exactly what is needed in the current climate. When preaching to the converted (to fellow humanities scholars), defenders of the humanities can afford to animate their arguments with a bit of emotion. However, when addressing the very people who need to hear these arguments—government officials, for example—defenders should mimic Small’s intelligent moderatism, whereby she is able to see, and sympathise with, both sides of the argument but still provide a clear and strong defence of the humanities.

Small’s interrogation of the “democracy needs us” claim was a welcome breath of fresh air, given that the argument has received little criticism. According to Small, humanities scholars oversell themselves if they think they are more democratic than those in other disciplines. Moreover, she contends that we have to be clear why the “democracy needs us” argument, “when adopted by higher education professors and students”, does not “commit us to a guardianship model”, whereby humanities scholars are responsible for democratic wellbeing. Yet, Small nevertheless concedes that the humanities, “centrally concerned as they are with the cultural practices of reflection, argument, criticism, and speculative testing of ideas, have a substantial contribution to make to the good working of democracy.” Small’s brilliance lies in her confidence and critical competence: she is not afraid to scrutinise arguments for the value of the humanities because she is aware that such self-criticism actually bolsters the credibility of the humanities.

During the question period, Small dexterously fielded often difficult questions from audience members. Her response to the question, “How can we measure the ways in which the humanities help democracy?” underlined her desire to distance herself from moral claims such as Nussbaum’s (that the humanities cultivate humanity by stretching “the boundaries of imagination and perspective”, thereby expanding our sphere of ethical consideration). For Small, the humanities foster a certain kind of speculative thinking that is attentive to rhetoric; she is wary of arguments such as Nussbaum’s, which pitch very high what humanities scholars are doing and in turn breed unwanted resistance. Yet, the case could be made that extravagant claims about the ethical function of the humanities have the very opposite effect, that they inspire and mobilise, as evidenced by Neil Gaiman’s recent lecture, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming”, given as part of The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series. An unabashed celebration of reading, Gaiman’s lecture—replete with claims about the moral import of literature—is demonstrative of how compelling such defences can be. That being said, what is needed in the public debate for funding in the humanities is a voice as balanced and collected as Small’s. James Dowthwaite, a DPhil student in English at Oxford, summed this up, stating that Small’s “clear and methodical approach to dealing with the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments we use is not only a useful but in fact a vital tool if the humanities are to be taken seriously.”

Bryn Jones Square is reading for a DPhil in English at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.