25 July, 2011Issue 16.6Politics & SocietySocial PolicyThe Humanities Debate

Email This Article Print This Article

Impact Assessment

Gabriel Roberts

The Public Value Of Humanitiesed. Jonathan Bate
The Public Value of the Humanities
Bloomsbury Academic, 2011
288 Pages
ISBN 978-1849660624


Amid the articles, blog-posts, lectures, and shouting matches which have comprised much of the recent debate about the humanities, this collection of essays, a project initiated by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and edited by Jonathan Bate, stands out as a weighty and sober defence of their importance. But whilst many of the essays offer convincing justifications of the research and the research-fields which they describe, the collection as a whole reveals that the task of justifying the humanities is much more difficult than we might like to believe.

The 24 essays which comprise the collection are grouped under four headings: “Learning from the Past”, “Looking Around Us”, “Informing Policy”, and “Using Words, Thinking Hard”. The breadth of these categories is reflected in the impressive range of topics which the essays consider and the variety of perspectives from which they explore the idea of value. But the heterogeneous nature of the humanities and the complex ways in which they affect society are also a hindrance. The most successful essays are those that provide the most straightforward examples of useful humanities research.

A case in point is Simon Szreter’s engaging account of his foundation of the History and Policy website, which provides a forum for historians and policymakers to enter into creative dialogue. He describes how historical research can help policymakers think more imaginatively and provides empirical evidence of the effectiveness of particular types of policy. Szreter strengthens his argument by describing how his own research on poor laws in Elizabethan England has influenced the formation of poverty legislation in Sub-Saharan Africa, demonstrating that a surprising range of historical research may constructively inform political decision making.

Many of the other essays are similarly convincing, but suffer from the absence of any definition of the term “humanities” or any explanation of what the various subjects which the term designates have in common. Jürgen Zimmerer’s detailed explanation of how the study of past genocides may help to prevent future ones is extremely compelling. However, the clear practical application of research on genocides and its widespread use of quantitative analysis provide reasons for reclassifying it—and funding it—as a form of social and economic research. Indeed, one might conclude that genocide studies are threatened more by their classification as part of the humanities than by any uncertainty about their value. Somewhat similarly, Michael Kelly’s essay in defence of the study of modern languages makes an excellent case, but fails to explain why languages need to be taught in university faculties, rather than in language centres and other similar environments. Kelly does not attempt the more ambitious and more urgent task of justifying the study of the history, politics, and artistic productions of foreign cultures.

The problem of how the humanities should be defined also arises in the essays defending sociolinguistics and art and design courses. The first of these simply demonstrates that trained designers are needed in a variety of professional contexts, whilst the latter describes how a broadly scientific study of language can have numerous practical applications. These essays show that the term “humanities” can encompass a surprisingly diverse range of practically and professionally useful activities. But they leave serious questions unanswered about the value of subjects such as history, literary criticism, and philosophy, which have traditionally lain at the centre of the humanities.

A similar explanatory gap can be found in Iain Borden’s essay on architecture and Stephen Daniels’s and Ben Cowell’s essay on the management of landscapes. Both essays demonstrate the importance of historical knowledge and theoretical thinking to many practical and creative endeavours, but provide no justification for the large body of research in the humanities which is read only by other researchers. These essays also seem inadvertently to support the conclusion that more humanities research should be dictated by those who use it rather than by those who conduct it. Such a change in the structure of the humanities would no doubt be unpopular and would limit intellectual freedom, but the essays contained in the collection present few arguments against such a move. In focusing on practical applications rather than the subtler ways in which we benefit from the humanities, the authors, perhaps inadvertently, present a case for making the humanities’ principal function the provision of knowledge and skills at the behest of private business and the government.

The organising principles of the collection also seem questionable. The anecdotal approach which has been adopted, in which most chapters provide a description and a defence of a particular piece of research, was presumably intended to grapple with the diverse and unexpected ways in which humanities research can be valuable. It achieves this to an extent, but by presenting the benefits of humanities research as the results of happenstance and luck, risks reinforcing a “research first, think later” attitude. There is nothing to convince the ambivalent reader of the importance of the humanities as a whole or of its underlying ethos, just the demonstration that they sometimes work. Neither ex post facto rationalisations of research nor anecdotes about gambles which paid off are likely to convince the policymakers whom Bate identifies as one of the work’s intended audiences.

There are also some moments of embarrassment. Gary Watt boldly begins his essay by stating a simple syllogism: “law has significant public value; law is a humanities discipline; so the humanities disciplines have significant public value.” One doesn’t have to be a terrific logician to see that this argument is false. The correct conclusion to draw from these premises is that at least one humanities discipline has significant public value, something which, in the case of law, most readers will be willing to concede. Equally embarrassing is Catherine Leyshon’s divulgence that after a trip with school children into woodland around Falmouth, conducted as part of research into the link between landscapes and creative writing, most of the children wrote stories which were inspired by Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and the Pirates of the Caribbean films. This rather depressing evidence against a link between landscapes and creative writing is conspicuously ignored in the chapter’s concluding celebration of the importance of landscapes in our creative lives.

There are also some dangerously poor arguments. A case in point is Jonathan Bate’s contention that research in the humanities is “the only activity” which can “establish the meaning” of the questions “what is the value of research in the humanities?” and “what is the value of research in the sciences?” The reason for this, he argues, is that the terms “value”, “research”, “humanities”, and (presumably also) “science” can “only be answered by means of the tools of the disciplines of the humanities”. This is false on several counts. A scientist (or anyone else who is not a student of the humanities) can simply define these terms and then perform an activity which involves them. Nor is it necessary to define these terms in order to use them effectively. More worryingly, Bate’s argument seeks to establish that areas of study outside the humanities are dependent on them. It is difficult to know exactly what this means. It is certainly not true that other disciplines would fail to operate or to answer questions of value if the humanities ceased to exist and neither have they been thrown into disarray by the humanities’ current plight. Bate would have done far better to argue that the humanities are uniquely equipped to deal with certain kinds of enquiry, and to point to more serious philosophical arguments about the limitations of scientific thinking, than to demarcate the realms of the humanities and the sciences through a lazy distinction between facts and values.

The involvement of the AHRC in the production of the book—we only are told that they “initiated” it and “made it possible”—casts a long shadow over its contents. Although the title of the work purports to defend the humanities in general, the essays are in fact overwhelmingly interested in defending research. It is a serious mistake to neglect the importance of teaching, and not just because teaching is a vital means by which academics communicate their findings. There is, to say the least, a compelling argument that the current fixation on research in the humanities is connected with the difficulties encountered in defending their public value. To ignore this argument, and with it any suggestion that the future of the humanities might best be served by reforming or renegotiating their current institutional structure, speaks of a defensive and inflexible attitude which may ultimately do more harm than good. These essays’ presentation of the humanities as a coherent, stable, and self-confident institution paints a brave face, but does not welcome criticism or change. Their attitude, in short, is conservative in the wrong way.

Gabriel Roberts is studying for a DPhil in English at Worcester College, Oxford.