Leader: Blasting the rust off the canon

The humanities should celebrate what they are becoming rather than dwell on what they once were

February 14, 2008

Stray into any student bar in the country and amid the sonorous tinkling of the slot machines you might be able to pick out the conversations of undergraduates discussing Kant's categories, Hegel's dialectic and Heidegger's Dasein. After a few sips of your lager top, you realise that what you first assumed to be a graphic endorsement of Berlin's Love Parade was actually a passionate dispute about the usefulness of the Sonderweg in explaining Germany's destructive path. Three pints and far too many Goethes, Fichtes and Remarques later you leave, appalled that no one seems concerned about poor Britney ...

That scenario is as unlikely today as in any student gathering in the past 50 years. But the absence of such discussions outside seminars or the pages of campus novels does not mean that the humanities are in crisis. The statistics tell a different story. Student numbers in philosophy, English and theology are rising. Sales of history, Latin and philosophy books are buoyant. And while language departments have been cut, they are hardly alone - consider the brutal pruning inflicted on chemistry and physics.

But if the humanities aren't in crisis, they are experiencing a period of self-doubt. This malaise springs from three related sources: the feeling that they have lost the respect they once had, especially in comparison to the sciences; the perception that this may have a lot to do with scholars' indulgent departure from the canon; and finally the fear that both practitioners and public do not know what the humanities are for any more.

A century ago, the sciences were the poor relations of the humanities. Now the tables have turned. Where the sciences seem consistently relevant to modern life, the humanities appear tangential to it. The fact that most academic activity in both disciplines is similar - thinking indirectly about things rather than the direct application of that knowledge - is rarely acknowledged. More obvious is academics' reluctance to make a case for the humanities - a legacy of the culture wars at the end of the last century.

After a generation of continental philosophy, textual warfare and general patricide, the canon's certainties have been trashed. The defenestration of canonical giants has left many scholars feeling that not only have the baby and the bathwater been chucked out but the tub has been too. Even those outside the thickets of deconstruction must be wary of standing among so much reputational wreckage and advocating anything at all. But the consequences of not doing so are grim: marginality fossilising into utter irrelevance.

What claims should be made for the humanities? What are they for? The idea that they make people more moral seems naively Edwardian after a century of inhumanity. To laud their economic contribution seems absurdly thin, though their role in making students aware of their cultural heritage, however contested, is as justifiable now as it always was. Perhaps the humanities should celebrate what they have become rather than dwell on what they once were. Are they the poorer for becoming more questioning, more restless, more demotic and less comfortable with the idea of bestowing greatness?

Armed only with Tacitus, Virgil and Macaulay, legions of Ruperts, Henrys and Basils were equipped with the notion that large chunks of the globe would be a lot better off if they could be made to look a lot more like Surrey. It is hard to conceive of a generation that dallies with Derrida, gets pickled with Hirst and soaked in the sounds of the Kaiser Chiefs and Amy Winehouse occupying anything unquestioningly, apart from a few sodden feet of ground at the odd music festival. And where's the harm in that? Glastonbury mud is infinitely superior to Flanders dirt.


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