'The Value of the Humanities'

April 28, 2014

While there exists a long tradition for defending the study of the humanities, in recent years the tone of such arguments has become rather more urgent. In an era of retrenchments and increased focus on immediate employment outcomes, those in disciplines whose vocational relevance may seem less than obvious have become increasingly outspoken about the value of their work (often in this very publication).

In her recent book The Value of the Humanities (Oxford University Press), Helen Small considers what she sees as the five primary claims made in defense of the humanities, laying out the historical background for each argument and considering its strengths and weaknesses. In Small's view, "There is no... all-silencing justification to be had"; rather, the case for the humanities must be made in different ways on different fronts.

Small, who is professor of English at the Univerity of Oxford and Jonathan and Julia Aisbitt Fellow of English at Pembroke College, Oxford, answered Inside Higher Ed's questions about her book in an email interview.

Q: What are the key ways in which your book differs from previous defenses of the humanities?

A: I didn’t use the word “defense” in the title because I wanted to make the case for the value of the humanities without assuming that the audience is hostile, or that the field (higher research in the humanities) is gravely endangered. Most writing about the value of the humanities in recent years has been conducted in the defensive mode, and my sense of that literature, even before starting to write on the subject myself, was that defensiveness is not the most persuasive tone in which to communicate value. The assumption of hostility too often leads advocates for the humanities to overstate the case for the public importance of the humanities (implicitly or sometimes explicitly devaluing work in other faculties of the university, and exaggerating the cultural or political significance of humanities scholarship); or it leads to special pleading or the appearance of special pleading. I wanted to work out what the most persuasive arguments are for funding higher research in the humanities without raising the emotional or rhetorical pitch.

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So, the book is deliberately cooler in tone than most “defenses”; it is not a polemic; and it approaches each of the claims most commonly made for the value of the humanities in a skeptical manner — trying to fathom what the basis of the claim is, what assumptions it rests on, what the presumed opposing view might be, and whether its credibility is historically durable (as pertinent today as it was when first articulated). Several of the claims I examine are very longstanding (the claim, for example, that we do a distinctive kind of work, and that this work has value for its own sake); others are much more recent (the argument for usefulness, and the argument that the humanities, as distinct from a liberal education, have a special contribution to make to the good functioning of democracy).

Q: What is your intended audience for this book? What do you hope the book might accomplish?

A: The book seems to have found a variety of audiences, which is what I might have hoped but could not have predicted: it has been read by a few politicians, some Whitehall policy makers, people involved in the higher administration of universities, people involved in the work and administration of humanities centers (which have grown enormously in number over the past decade), as well as academics and students. While I was writing, I had in mind throughout that the book would ideally find audiences with quite different interests in it or needs from it: those involved in policy articulation (who I imagined reading it very selectively), and those with the time and interest to pursue the detail of the arguments chapter by chapter (in the main a more academic audience). The book found its own length, as it were, but I hope that its compactness makes it a more attractive and viable proposition for the reader who does not have the time for detail but wants the clarity of a taxonomy and the main lines of each argument’s articulation.

As to what I hope it can accomplish: I would be glad if it could help advocates for the humanities to think self-critically about the claims we make for our work and its wider social and political effects; I am sure that advocacy for the humanities, and for any social good, can comprehend a wide range of styles and tones, but I would like to think that this book can demonstrate a form of confident advocacy that will give those looking to support the funding of the humanities robust reasons for doing so.

The simpler answer to your question is that I wrote the book in order to sort out my own thinking on this subject. When the value of humanities research started to be debated (again) as a topic of immediate political importance around the time of the introduction of higher tuition fees, I found myself not very happy with the conventional pieties that came most easily to hand when I was asked, conversationally, for my own sense of why the humanities matter. It seemed to me that it was reasonable to expect someone working in the field to be able to give a substantive account of its value, so (as I’ve said near the start of the book) The Value of the Humanities is, in large part, the outcome of my trying to get my own head in order on this subject. I hope the effect for the reader may be something like overhearing that process.

Q: Why do you believe that "any persuasive account of the humanities' contribution to public life has to be ... plural"?

A: Because the value one attributes to the humanities is to a large degree circumstantial and contextual: it depends upon the field in which one looks for value to be expressed. Is the value of the humanities to be found in the kind of work it does (by contrast with other kinds of intellectual work)? or in the instrumental uses to which it may be put? or in the contribution it makes to individual or general happiness (which is how utilitarianism would encourage us to describe value)? or in its political consequences? or does that value reside, primarily, in the objects of study or the activity of studying them?

All of these ways of thinking about value are viable and none of them, not even the last, is exhaustive. To a degree the field of advocacy for the humanities has been reactive to pressures from outside — most obviously, political and economic pressures to define and quantify the usefulness of higher education in humanities (as in all) subjects; also pressures, primarily from within, to reanimate the humanities’ sense of their political and cultural importance (the ‘democracy needs us’ argument). Structuring the book taxonomically allowed me to give each argument a place without allowing any one claim to dominate. I chose to begin, however, with the description of the “distinctive kind of work” claim (not strictly a value claim) because if you do not have a sense of the specific objects of study and the modes of intellectual inquiry brought to them, you run the risk of talking in merely theoretical or abstract terms, and losing contact with what students and scholars of the humanities actually do.

Q: The book explores five different arguments for the value of the humanities. Which strike(s) you as the most persuasive, and why?

A: It’s of a piece with the pluralist approach of the book that they all strike me as persuasive, though I think they all need careful delimitation. If you are asking which means most to me, it depends what facet of my life, work, commitments, pleasures, I have most in view at any given time. Sometimes that’s the political ramifications of the work in question (though the “democracy needs us” chapter is the sharpest in tone of all the chapters, given that this argument seems to me the most commonly overstated line of our defense); often the argument I find most intuitively close-to-hand is a version of the utilitarian argument: it increases the kind and quality of the pleasures available in a culture; it can also give us a better grasp on what may be meant by happiness. There are great pleasures in exercising one’s intellect in the humanities — which doesn’t mean that studying them will make you happy, but does mean that pursuing understanding of them at the highest level is an intellectually demanding and deeply rewarding form of work.

Q: Can you briefly summarize your opinion of the last of these five claims -- that the humanities matter for their own sake (i.e., are intrinsically valuable)? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this argument?

A: If you do not have some version of this claim at your disposal when advocating for the humanities, it seems to me that you will be in trouble. With the exception of the “distinctive kind of work” claim, all the other claims locate the value of the humanities in their consequential effects: the instrumental benefits they provide for society, the gains to happiness they enable, or the political benefits they create. And in every case, it is likely that the skeptical listener will reply that other public investments would achieve the same benefits more directly, or to an equal extent. The most common articulation of the ‘for its own sake’ relies upon the term “intrinsic value.”

References to “intrinsic value” are commonplace in the research funding body literature, now, and a mainstay of political rhetoric when the intention is to reassure those working in the humanities that those overseeing the funding of research have a proper sense of the value of the subject matter, independent of how it is being studied. In the book I have pursued a fairly technical line of thinking about why it might be better to let ‘intrinsic value’ go (there are numerous problems with it, starting with the most obvious – the difficulty of removing subjectivism from value judgments). I prefer the “for its own sake” locution, in part because it is less fetishizable; and in part because it is easier to clarify the grounds for describing that value as attaching to longstanding cultural agreements and evolving local settlements about what in our culture has more and less durable worth for us and (not always the same thing) what will reward study.

Q: You write that "the potential of higher education to encourage the evolution of democratic structures and to assist democratic practices has been very greatly enhanced by the arrival of massive open online courses (MOOCs)." What, if anything, have MOOCs contributed to the discourse on the value of the humanities? Do they show long-term potential in that realm?

A: This is the one aspect of the subject that seems to me already to have changed substantially even in the short period since the book was completed. I had some suspicions then, and they are increasingly being confirmed, that the democratic potential of MOOCs was greatly overstated by many of their loudest advocates in their early years. The economic models have come in for some sharp criticism from critics, including Christopher Newfield, who have given us some hard data on just how far from democratic the teaching structures and student participation experience of MOOCs are. If I were to restate the claim now, I would put more emphasis on the effect of free online educational resources provided by research universities because, together with the better MOOCs providers, they are making up-to-date scholarship and critical inquiry in the humanities available to huge audiences globally. That is a great educational good, and to a degree it has been accompanied by much easier access to informed conversation about cultural objects and practices — though I remain skeptical about how genuinely democratic the conversation can be when the student-teacher relationship is in the frame.

Q: What do you mean when you write that "the American and English traditions of defense for the humanities are much less readily compatible than I had expected to find them"? What are the reasons for this?

A: I mean primarily that American advocates for the humanities and English advocates for the humanities are typically not defending the same kind of education. Most American participants in the debate are defending liberal education models that require exposure to the humanities as one component in a foundational higher education, before concentration in a major subject that may be in social sciences or in the sciences rather than humanities. In Britain, we have seen some moves toward “liberal arts” foundation years, but in the main university education remains concentrated in one or two specialist subject areas. It is in some ways harder to defend higher research when the educational focus is so narrow; on the other hand one can put more emphasis on the depth of knowledge acquired, even if it is at the expense of cultivating the qualities often associated with liberal education (breadth of knowledge, comparative ability, open-mindedness).

I also meant to draw attention to the degree in which the politics and economics of American higher education continues to be dominated by the role of the state (in the US sense) and the particular institution, whereas UK higher education policy is much more centralized. There is no US equivalent to the role of our research funding bodies or to the processes of funding justification they oversee.

So, while I have been influenced by several important contributors to American debates about the value of the humanities (including John Guillory, Amanda Anderson, Michael Bérubé, Bruce Robbins), I have been acutely aware that we are responding to different kinds of pressure to articulate our social purpose.



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