Something needs to be done – urgently. We are agreed – right? But what?

(Robert Garland, AHHE v 11.3, ‘The Humanities Plain and Simple’)

His answer, below:

‘If more of us could commit to having a public, extra-curricular role, we might even stare down the specter of humanistic decline.’

Some provocations:

‘The Janus face of the public value of arts and humanities research’

from the Special Issue: Public value of the Arts and Humanities Research ed Belfiore and Benneworth 14.1


The Humanities: plain and simple

Robert Garland

Something needs to be done – urgently. We are agreed – right? But what?

From this starting point I mean to ask hard questions about the humanities, even at the risk of appearing subversive, because I seek answers, plain and simple, to questions I am struggling to answer myself. These questions have been troubling me for some time: it has only been the invitation to write this article that has stimulated me to perceive them as part of a unified whole.

What is intrinsic to the humanities in contradistinction to other branches of academic inquiry?

What goods or effects do we who teach the humanities claim to impart to our students?

What should be the purpose of research undertaken in the humanities?

Should a humanities curriculum implicitly or explicitly emphasize values?

And finally, what is the role of the humanities in society?

This article raises a number of questions that the author believes need to be addressed in order to defend and justify the teaching and practice of the humanities in an age when they continue to face swingeing cuts and unreasoned attacks from many quarters, both inside and outside the Academy. They are questions that have to do with the uniqueness of the humanities, its role in teaching values, the objectives of research, the connection between research and teaching, the value of an education in the humanities for society overall, and the ways in which humanists can play a useful public role. In sum, the author advocates for a coherent justification for what the humanities, plain and simple, are (or is).

Has, as Bronowski claimed in the 1970s, moral leadership passed to the sciences? If we, rather than the scientists, have in our arsenal the language to evaluate values, why are we so consistently otherwise engaged?

My next question has to do with the issue of the role of the humanities in society – a particularly urgent one in an era when economic growth is seen by a majority of politicians as the ultimate goal and when subjects taught are assessed by their usefulness in the job market. How pertinent is it that the humanities should occupy a space within the arena of public debate and, more bluntly, what is it of genuine value that the humanities in primis have to offer?

I increasingly feel uncomfortable in participating in conferences and colloquia if the issues under debate have absolutely no bearing on the quality of human life. This is partly because I myself have benefited so richly from being permitted to engage in my passion without ever being held accountable. For me, it’s payback time. I believe that all of us, as humanists, have a duty to be active in exporting our expertise beyond the gates of the academy.

There are several ways in which we can do this, both to the benefit of society and to the health of the humanities. One is to contribute to a popular journal or magazine that reaches the educated reading public. Writing for such a readership can be as challenging as writing for experts. In addition, it may have unexpected benefit for one’s research, not least by making one think afresh about a welltrodden line of inquiry. If, moreover, a subject of research engages one’s attention for several years and yet has no interest for the educated public at large, then there must at least be a question as to whether those years spent were worthwhile.

Alternatively one might offer a pro bono course on line for anyone who chooses to sign up for free under a growing number of initiatives.

Another avenue is to engage in outreach to one’s local community by offering introductory courses in one’s area of expertise, tailored to the specific needs and interest of the community – a particularly valuable exercise in rural areas like Upstate New York where I reside; or to explore ways in which a social or political dimension to one’s discipline and research interests might help inform public debate, rather along the lines of the conference on ‘Lessons from Antiquity for the Obama Administration’ that I mentioned earlier.

Yet another avenue is to participate in humanities-related ‘festivals’. One such is the annual Chicago Humanities Festival. This hosts over a hundred events connected to humanities-related disciplines, not only literature, philosophy, and arts and architecture, but also history and public affairs. Even science and technology are included, in cases where they are seen to have a particular connection to the humanities. Another Chicago initiative is called the Public Square, which in the words of its home page ‘fosters debate, dialogue, and exchange of ideas about cultural, social, and political issues with an emphasis on social justice’. Typically the debates take place in coffee shops and barber shops. I think it would be eminently worthwhile in any community of intellectually engaged citizens for humanities faculty to engender debates on similar topics.

It might not be inappropriate to consider redefining ‘service’ as the application of knowledge in the service of the public good. In all these ways the humanities have a special part to play. If more of us could commit to having a public, extra-curricular role, we might even stare down the specter of humanistic decline.



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