By Kevin O’Sullivan
The outlook – to borrow a typically understated phrase from our friends in Met Éireann – is changeable. Academic discussion in the last two months in Ireland has been dominated by comment (informed and less-so) about changes to university structures and the future of the humanities in a period of deep recession. In the UK, the frightening prospect of diverting state funding through the Arts and Humanities Research Council to the study of the ‘big society’ has prompted a strong defence of academic freedom. At the same time, a parallel debate has been raging at secondary school level, where commentators like Niall Ferguson bemoan the ‘ruination’ of history, hemmed in by national boundaries while the world – and academic profession – becomes transnational. At each turn, the image of the good ship humanities listing violently in an economic storm has become increasingly difficult to ignore.
A little over two weeks ago, Ireland’s own Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the source of funding for so much that is positive about research in Ireland over the last eleven years, hosted Martha Nussbaum, the University of Chicago-based philosopher and author of Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, in the second in its lecture series on ‘The Public Intellectual’. At the heart of her address was a plea for recognition of the importance of the humanities to democracy: to develop the skills of deliberation and critical thinking vital to good citizenship; to encourage reflection not only on the individual good, but that of the nation as a whole; and to develop the ability to empathise, to understand, and to have concern for the lives of others – so critical to the establishment of a properly functioning society.
Nussbaum’s words carried strong resonance in a country suffering from a dearth of leadership, and one in which the language of economics has come to dominate public and political debate. The nation, she warned, should not be seen simply as a ‘gain-generating machine’. If we ignore the individual’s right to make laws and have a voice in constructing his/her own society, we risk ‘moral man giving way to commercial man’ (paraphrasing the twentieth-century Bengali intellectual Rabindranath Tagore), with short-term gain given precedence over all else.
It is a compelling argument. But it was Nussbaum’s call to action for the humanities that proved the most enduring. Practitioners of the humanities, she argued, must write about how we do things, why we are involved, and to explain to public and policy-makers alike what, exactly, it is that we do. Above all, she added, ‘don’t give up’.
Mine is not the first, nor will it – by any stretch of the imagination – be the last contribution to the debate on the future of the humanities in Ireland. Yet listening to Nussbaum, and reading the many contributions to the debate over the last six weeks or so, I felt compelled to add my voice, simply because of the gravity of the decisions that we – as academics, but also as a society – now face.
It is important, first and foremost, that this issue has been brought into the open, that the future of the humanities is discussed and debated outside the internecine grumbling that sometimes pervades the corridors of our higher education institutions, and the relatively insular world of our blogs and journals. If we really believe that the public are misinformed about academia and the worth of the humanities, then it is our duty to use our talents – we haven’t gotten this far without being able to articulate our thoughts – to persuade them otherwise. That is why tonight’s meeting of the Dublintellectual group, with its emphasis on championing ‘academic discussion in the public sphere through events that take place in informal settings across the city’ feels like a step in the right direction.
Yet it too needs to move quickly from being a Dublin-based enterprise, and to shift from an academic gathering to open engagement with the wider public. But that does not mean simply the readership of The Irish Times (though even that would be a start). At the most basic level, we must reach out to the millions who read our history books and novels, who visit our museums, monuments and galleries, who watch Time Team or trace their genealogy in our archives, and persuade them that what we in higher education do has a direct bearing on their enjoyment of all of those things. To call for humanities for humanities sake – while commendable in spirit – is simply not an option.
But what good, I hear you say, is it for practitioners from the arts to try and articulate their essential worth when all the public and policy-makers wish to hear is the sound of euros and cents? This is an important issue, and a complex one. At its heart lies a dilemma: however little we may like playing the role of salesmen and women, we have been cast into a game in which the rules are dictated by the language of economic development. Sticking our collective heads in the sand or moaning amongst ourselves of the terrible situation that we face – and I will hold up my hands and plead guilty, at times, to both – is simply not an option. If we truly wish to change the rules, then it is our responsibility not only to engage with the economic game, but to play it and win. Only by persuading our leading businessmen, scientists and politicians of the merits – and economic benefits – of producing well-rounded men and women equipped with the tools that only the humanities can provide will we alter the way in which our disciplines are viewed by the leaders in those important sectors.
Which brings me to the final stage of my argument. If, in Nussbaum’s words, an exercise like the British research excellence framework (REF) has distorted the humanities by making academics into ‘pitchmen for a product’, it has also opened up at avenues for illustrating the essential worth of humanities research. It is, to return to my argument, about playing the game that we are stuck with – and emerging victorious. The REF’s emphasis on ‘impact’ may sound anathema to the humanities, but it simply presents a challenge to us to be more creative in the way we present and project our work. Inspired by the outspoken advocate for the relevance of history, John Tosh, for example, I recently wrote an article on the use of history in understanding the contemporary aid industry. And while research into foreign aid may have a more readily visible and accessible audience of practitioners, it is far from unique. The much-cited 1641 Depositions project is an obvious, and important, reference point: an illustration of the kind of profile that quality, inter-disciplinary research combined with an excellent public relations campaign can achieve.
Not everything, of course, can have a policy or economic value. Nor should it. But if we are to engage with the neo-liberal status quo, to win our eternal argument, and to secure a future and a better playing field for the humanities, it at least behoves us to try.