W(h)ither the humanities?

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.

16 Responses to “W(h)ither the humanities?”

  1. Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » W(h)ither the humanities? Says:

    […] “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 …” (more) […]

  2. Caoimhe Says:

    Hmmmm. On the other hand, it is arguable that it was their very eagerness to engage with ‘the neoliberal status quo’ that drove the AHRC’s disastrous Big Society/Connected Communities initiative. (At least, that seems to be what has happened if you unpick the series of events.) How does academia engage without becoming entirely craven?

    On the REF, impact and metricability, it might seem possible to play the game and emerge victorious, at least in the short-term, but I would suggest that we are all – academia (both sciences and humanities) and society – the losers in the long run. (Stefan Collini has a whole series of great pieces on this by the way, going back to the initial imposition of the RAE.)

    Having said that. I think Dublintellectual is a great idea!

  3. thelittlereview Says:

    I think the key point – as I think Kevin is saying – is that we need to define impact on our own terms. In principle, I think the idea that we should try to communicate our work to a wider public is fundamental to the survival of the humanities. Why should people be happy to fund such research if they don’t know what humanities researchers do or what their researchers for? And if we are not engaging in humanities research so that we can communicate it, engage in wider debates etc, then what are we doing it for? Certainly the way that impact is define by the REF (and likely in the Irish context too) is reductive and damaging. However, if we as researchers and academics try to engage as much as possible with wider audiences, broader debates etc, showing how what we do does impact on society in many different and in themselves, modest ways, then perhaps we can preempt the policy-makers and redefine impact in a way that works for us as academics.

  4. Kathleen Says:

    Nice cheery image, Kevin.

  5. Turlough Says:

    Excellent post Kevin; not many academics are engaging with the reality of economic contraction – instead railing against an inevitable decline in public funding for a whole range of educational, vocational and social services that cannot be avoided, only managed. It always struck me that the 3rd level sector became hugely bloated in the last decade, partially in numbers being funded (which encouraged many to implicitly think of themselves as possible ‘academics’ in the long term – when there futures probably lay elsewhere) and partially in the throwing around of money to all and sundry, alongside extravagant building projects. Unfortunately the next decade will likely root out and repress so much of what is good about Irish humanities research. Your call for a positive engagement with the status quo (however it is defined and labelled – ‘neo-liberal’ might not wholly apply to Ireland as much as the present Anglo-American consensus; however I have never seen a strong argument refuting the fact that Ireland for the most part is naturally a centre-right country, with strong conservative and reactionary tendencies – despite my own political identities lying elsewhere) is admirable; realities must be addressed and the contraction must be managed. The relevance of independent, critical, and evidence-based thinking and analysis to Ireland’s current plight could not be more obvious. At the same time there are great opportunities to shake things up, refuting and replacing dominant, established, but wholly wrong-headed orthodoxys across society. Time will tell.

  6. eoin magennis Says:

    Very interesting post and discussion. The hope of pre-empting policy-makers may seem like wishful thinking but is probably the only game in town (as has been said about other things). That said a question that has to be asked is how humanities academics might interact with policy-makers in times when people are increasingly specialised. Certainly blogs like this one is a very good way to do this, as is the Dublinintellectual. Keep up the good work.

  7. Brian Hanley Says:

    Re Niall Ferguson et al, Richard J. Evans had an interesting article on this recently:


  8. Caoimhe Says:

    Brian: Yes, that piece by Richard Evans was interesting. Even more interesting was that, the following week, he added his name alongside Niall Ferguson to a petition by some well-known historians advocating a No vote for AV – in the name of ‘preserving ancient rights and liberties’. See the letter in question and a response from some other historians here:

    Eoin: Why should humanities academics, particularly historians, feel obliged to interact with policymakers? This is a really common assumption/belief, but is rarely interrogated. Does it not run the risk of making all research subject to short-termist, overtly political, utilitarian principles? That’s exactly how the AHRC got into so much hot water.

  9. Brian Hanley Says:

    Thanks Caoimhe, I hadn’t seen that- surprised at some of that line up against AV. Somewhat off topic, and on the subject of well known historians, a few school teachers of my acquaintance have been less than impressed by David Starkey’s performances on Jamie’s Dream School – not the best advert for academic’s teaching abilities.

  10. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks for all the comments and interesting asides folks – I’ll have to search out Starkey’s teaching abilities Brian.

    Just a few comments on the above:
    You’ve hit on the big question here: ‘How does academia engage without becoming entirely craven?’ It’s one that I have no definite answer to, other than to say that we need to find some way of engaging, otherwise we’ll simply be locked out with no way of changing the odds in our favour.

    On your second point, and related to @thelittlereview’s, @Turlough’s and @Eoin Magennis’s comments, while I agree that the metrics in place for measuring impact are far, far from ideal, I do think that there is a need to engage with the system in some way – if only to change their ways from the inside. The simple fact is that there is an ever-shrinking pool of money out there for the humanities that we, by staying out of the game, are simply losing out on ourselves. There is, of course, a risk that by playing up to policy-makers we devalue our own work and become beholden to that system. But there’s also the corollary possibility: that once they have been persuaded of the use and importance of the humanities, it will be more strongly built in to their understanding of how society and academia works, and afforded the importance it deserves as a result. I’d also come back to John Tosh on this one: the reponsibility on us to make sure our research is used for the greater good is too compelling to ignore, and we should not shy away from trying to change just because the rules are wrong. The History and Policy website (www.historyandpolicy.org/ ) has a lot of interesting things to say about this.

    Yep, the death of Socrates – quite uplifting, no?

    @Brian and @Caoimhe (again!):
    Thanks for these links – more to add to the debate.

    Finally, on Dublintellectual:
    I went along to last night’s event, out of curiosity as to how it would proceed, and have to admit that I left decidedly underwhelmed. The idea of engaging the public, articulated on the group’s website and in the short piece in the weekend’s Irish Times, was certainly extremely admirable, but the execution, I felt – and some of my colleagues agreed – was less so. Two papers presented by academics to what appeared to be largely a crowd of academics, with little or no discussion about the concept of public engagement, all in the basement room of a pub, does not to my mind public outreach make. That said, everything has to start somewhere, and the palpable energy and desire of the organisers to actually do something, combined with the fact that they appeared more than open to ideas and suggestions and aware that this was a first run-out, so to speak, was extremely encouraging, and I would definitely go back to see how it pans out. Their next meeting is on 27 April – check their website http://www.dublintellectual.ie for the location, etc.


  11. Juliana Says:

    On Dublintellectual: It seems to me that they overlooked a couple of potential barriers to real public engagement. I suspect calling it ‘intellectual’ put some people off. Not that I think it should, but it’s not exactly the most welcoming of terms. Indeed, even being in the Irish Times might not have boosted their cause. And one wonders why they only asked academics to give talks? That implies that ‘we’ are bringing something to ‘them’ instead of engaging in a real dialogue. I would have thought that finding someone with a popular culture blog, for example, or an author might have been another way in.

    Finally, although it is completely unfair to criticize something I did not attend, I personally am bored of just hearing people talk. And I am trying to make a career in an arena where what most of us do is listen to each other talk so I imagine that most people who have NOT chosen this career don’t get very excited about listening to people talk. Haven’t we been yammering on for ages in universities about how dissatisfactory the lecture format is for student learning? Why on earth should it be the format of default, then, when approaching ‘the public’?

    I do agree with Kevin, though, that there is the kernel of something very worthwhile. I’ll go the next one and stop my complaining.


  12. Brian Hanley Says:

    I agree in part at least. I think a lot of people find terms like ‘intellectual’ off-putting and maybe a bit pretentious. I think it’s something you should never call yourself-hopefully someone else will label you as one and it will stick! I’m joking, sort off- I once saw a journalist being introduced at a conference in America as ‘Ireland’s leading public intellectual’: I’m not sure he would have described himself as such. And next to the entry for ‘Middle class’ in the Oxford Dictionary is a photograph of the Irish Times Saturday Magazine. (I made that one up).
    But on the other hand if you look at the audiences for things like the History Ireland hedge schools, and the turn-outs at local history society events and summer schools etc, you do find there are lots of people (usually from outside academia) who do want to listen and talk about a whole range of issues. How to make historical research relevant to them is perhaps the question.

  13. eoin magennis Says:

    @ Caoimhe
    Perhaps should have been clearer that ‘engagement’ does not necessarily mean ‘agreement’ with policymakers. On the AHRC ‘big society’ funding perhaps the evidence will show that Victorian philanthropy does not have that much to recommend it to modern-day supporters of this notion – perhaps not. I think that Brian is right that finding ways of making often quite specialised research accessible is a good thing.

    And I wouldn’t despair as there are plenty of young scholars out there doing great work in this way. As an example, I was at an excellent lecture in Armagh the other evening by a postdoctoral fellow from NUIM about Wyndham’s Land Act. Not very interesting you might think but the audience were very engaged with the issues of compulsory purchase, paying annuities and what it had meant to their predecessors. The best thing about it was that the lecturer listened and explained what he was trying to do with the research. That does seem the best way forward.

  14. Escaping the ivory tower: academics and the city | The Little Review Says:

    […] makers and the public continually voice their doubts about the value of what we do. While there is some debate about how much we should engage with policy makers who have a reductive idea of what we do, and should be doing, I’m convinced of the need to […]

  15. Stephen Littleton Says:

    What do students themselves think about the quality of their lectures/lecturers? How many can say they really learnt a lot by doing a certain course, or was it taught by someone going through the motions, who didn’t give a shit about the class? Some highly regarded academics cannot string two words together! others just want to show off how clever they are. What value do they add that you cannot get from a book or a newspaper?

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    A way to the greatest achievement is just brightened with each line of this book. Tremendous-easy trick to use and is so useful you will use it each solitary time you ever perform. Video Poker can be played by one person.

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