The Public Value of the Humanities

March 24, 2011

This book provides a top-notch tutorial on the current states of humanities research in the UK. The Shakespeare scholar, Jonathan Bate, has imaginatively arranged 24 essays commissioned by the Arts and Humanities Research Council into four parts: Learning from the Past; Looking Around Us; Informing Policy; Using Words, Thinking Hard. The essays pursue innumerable sub-plots, however, so this grouping is always rather loose.

In disciplinary terms, The Public Value of the Humanities begins with more traditional disciplines (Classics, archaeology, religious studies, history) and ends with more traditional disciplines (such as linguistics, languages and philosophy). In mid-course it explores the areas of greater novelty beneath the humanities umbrella: architectural history, film studies, human geography, computing, music, creative industries and some aspects of law. You could well debate just how much some of these studies are really beholden to the social sciences, but the authors wisely refrain from throwing themselves into that bear pit.

These short essays approach the core question of value from the different vantage points expected of the different disciplines or disciplinary amalgams. Some start from the polarities of intrinsic and instrumental, others with a more practical social or "lessons learned" approach. Virtually no one seriously takes on the case for economic value, and only a few look at the question from the perspective of employability: what do trained humanists actually do in life, and how does that add value?

The most comprehensive schema, provided by Iain Borden in "Thinking about architecture", recognises seven potential areas of value: economic, functional, professional, environmental, social, aesthetic and cultural. And he finds a contribution from architectural research in each category. Borden, too, articulates the broadest frame for research, through identifying more traditional research about, of, upon and into a subject, but also research for, and research through - a formulation well known also to those in the creative arts.

The Public Value of the Humanities is misnamed, however. It is about the value - only sometimes, the public value - of humanities research. Although humanities education does gain frequent though superficial mention, the volume is one of research cameos. Only one essay, "Language matters 2: modern languages", by Michael Kelly, takes an implicitly education- and-research approach, as it powerfully argues the case for languages' contribution to knowledge, their enrichment of culture, their fostering of a more open society, and their contribution to prosperity and public policy.

This essay culminates with a specific justification for research, in the guise of the value it adds to language learning. Kelly's, however, is an essay of advocacy rather than scholarship. (The recent success of the languages' advocacy in gaining recognition as an especially funded "strategically important and valuable" subject area will help to sustain their undergraduate teaching in the coming years.)

From Bate's roll call I formed three strong impressions. First, these essays are, for the most part, beautifully written. They well demonstrate the continuing importance of the fusion of idea and expression in the humanities, and hence the continuing importance of sole authorship and strong authorial control. The arts and humanities are still fields rich in individual interpretation and personally motivated enquiry. As Onora O'Neill reminds readers in her foreword to the volume: "cultural objects are not self-interpreting".

Second, in methodological terms, the many humanities disciplines are un-normalised. Bucking the strong pressures for methodological convergence in many scientific disciplines, the humanities continue to celebrate their difference. Of course, they start out from different visual, sonic, kinaesthetic or verbal bases, and so naturally have different outputs. Hence, it is natural that they will provide value in so many different ways - ways that are sometimes hard to document or to measure, but thereby no less influential upon the public. In a wonderful essay, "Philosophy and the quest for the unpredictable", Nicholas Davey simply articulates the accumulative nature of the humanities. Rather than "overcoming problems" and moving on, humanities research "thickens and extends an understanding of the issues involved".

Third, the humanities are very messy. This is because life is messy, and complex, and difficult. A study of the human condition therefore strives to represent that complexity, sometimes that contradiction, in all its fullness. These essays show the continuing relevance of the humanities in trying to address the really big questions: from global warming to human rights, from terrorism to the value of life.

My favourite essay in the volume is Gary Watt's "Hard cases, hard times and the humanity of law". Watt sees his own legal discipline as being complicit in the artificial abstraction of "bright line certainties from the fog of life". Law needs a greater infusion of the critical thinking of the humanities, he argues. Referring to a recent banking pension scandal, he leaves us with the challenging question of our age: when is it wrong to enforce a legal right?

The Public Value of the Humanities

Edited by Jonathan Bate.

Bloomsbury Academic.

288pp, £60.00 and £20.00.

ISBN 9781849664714, 660624 and 660631 (e-book).

Published January 2011.

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