Curiosity knows no bounds

Policymakers focusing on science's utility have consigned the humanities to a supporting role, but scholars in each of the 'two cultures' understand that they share a love of discovery and capacity for wonder, says Martin Willis

September 13, 2012

I thought that we had, at last, left behind the "two cultures": that phrase which, ever since C. P. Snow's 1959 Rede Lecture, has served as shorthand for a divide between the sciences and the humanities. But everywhere I look in the broad bureaucracies of academic life I see its return, and not in any way that I find productive, even though this was certainly possible. The keynote of Snow's lecture was, after all, to promote cooperation in an effort to improve society.


But isn't this exactly what is happening? Aren't the sciences and humanities being asked to collaborate as never before? Surely government initiatives, research councils' interactions and the research excellence framework's impact agenda all suggest a renewed dedication to cooperative and connected cross- disciplinary research? Don't be fooled. There might have been efforts to make more robust the interactions between these fields, but the methods and philosophies that underpin such efforts are drawn only from the sciences.

There are numerous examples of this implicit acceptance that both human understanding and social transformation are the preserve of scientific knowledge-making. The REF's impact agenda, driven by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, places at its heart data collection: of concrete evidence of research-led change beyond educational parameters. Similarly, the Arts and Humanities Research Council-led Connected Communities programme, which aims to foster further understanding of the changing nature of communities and their role in enhancing quality of life, promotes both data collection and active interventions in community issues, often oriented around health or the environment. Then there are the statements that government ministers actually make about the humanities.

David Willetts, in an address to the British Academy in 2011, attempted to allay fears that the humanities were being undervalued by highlighting their singular contribution. In an Arnoldian discourse of public good, the universities minister argued that "your disciplines are fundamentally worthwhile in and of themselves. They are deep sources of human satisfaction, helping us to navigate our way through the world - both as individuals and as a society". He proceeded, however, to point out that their key public value "comes across most clearly when we see how the natural and medical sciences find themselves needing to draw on insights from arts, humanities and social sciences". Surely I am not alone in thinking that this is a classic example of being damned with faint praise?

In fact, it seems to me that Willetts' speech replays, with crucial inversions, the debate over the relative value of scientific and humanities education held by Thomas Henry Huxley and Matthew Arnold in the early 1880s. Huxley called for the promotion of scientific learning over the publicly valueless classical education that had held a monopoly in the universities for centuries. His argument favoured utility over morality, although it was as much a pragmatic attempt to gain social prestige for science as it was an ideological opposition to men of letters. Arnold, with considerably less ferocity than Huxley, upheld the public value of language and letters while recognising that scientific knowledge had its place in modern society.

For Willetts, I would argue, the roles are reversed: it is the humanities that are reminded of their (moral) importance and thrown a small crust of public value in the shape of their useful support for the sciences. What is clear in his speech is that the humanities are presently positioned as a handmaiden to the sciences, offering titbits of insight that scientific knowledge-makers transform into utility.

It would be easy, and appealing, for those with sympathy for the position of the humanities today simply to denigrate current higher education policies and vilify policymakers. But the shift in power from the humanities to the sciences has been a process of long historical evolution. At the third meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in Cambridge in 1834, one of the most valued guests was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lay in bed in his old college rooms as various scientific luminaries made their pilgrimage to him. His cultural value lent lustre to the association's desire for greater authority and attention.

At the 2012 British Science Festival held in Aberdeen earlier this month, one keynote speaker was the psychologist Richard Wiseman. Scientific credentials are clearly at the heart of this choice, but Wiseman's dramatic performances indicate that reaching into disciplines more obviously associated with the humanities remains a consideration. Nevertheless, where once it was the status of the humanities that made Coleridge such a prize delegate, now it is the supporting role to science that the humanities might play that is key to an invitation.

More pressing for the humanities than its unwelcome role as supporting act to science's headliner is that this has come about because knowledge itself has been ring-fenced by the sciences. Methods of truth-telling have been transformed since the rise of modern scientific practices in the wake of the enlightenment. When John Keats argued, in his 1819 poem Lamia, that the new sciences of physics and chemistry might "unweave the rainbow", he was lamenting the fact that these new, apparently rational methods of investigation could undermine the poetic truths about natural phenomena. Now, emerging ways of studying literary texts, such as literary Darwinism, claim that evolutionary theory is a better way of understanding Keats' work than the well tested methods of literary theory and criticism.

In such transformations we can see the shift from "scientific method" to "knowledge" and, at the same time, the reduction of a series of available different truths to a more singular truth premised on reasoned, objective, neutral observation and evidence-gathering. Put simply, humanities disciplines no longer appear to offer access to the truth about our world, its cultures and societies. Their methods are under attack and their commitment to "address the messy, debatable and unquantifiable but essentially human dimensions of life", as Jonathan Bate wrote in a recent defence of the humanities, is both undervalued and unrecognised as a vital component of knowledge-making.

Disastrously, it has been at this point in the history of the humanities' relationship with the sciences that the two cultures have re-emerged. Ironically, it is partly in response to the recognition of the sciences' pre-eminent position that this has happened. Engaging with the sciences was supposed to make the humanities appear more relevant; but what it has actually achieved is to make their research practices look ever more esoteric and to force them into working to paradigms that do not suit their complex responses to particularity.

As far as I can see, the sciences have played a very canny game in all of this. They have embraced interdisciplinarity while keeping it, so to speak, in the family. This has allowed the sciences to sell a new idea of interdisciplinary work that suits present solution-focused agendas. A couple of global examples of what I would call the new interdisciplinarity show us this very neatly. Many different scientific disciplines now, in their language at least, believe interdisciplinarity is the best, indeed the only, way towards new knowledge. So we find the US Geological Survey saying that "single-discipline science is no longer sufficient to address the issues our world faces" and the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, announcing its agendas for 2010, said: "Many of today's most critical public health challenges are too complex to be addressed from the perspective of a single discipline."

What should be apparent is that this new interdisciplinarity is not about the cross- fertilisation of knowledge nor the breaking of boundaries nor even the disruption of static ways of thinking, but rather is all about utility. There is an easy sell for the sciences in promoting this new interdisciplinarity, for all they need do is point to its values - it is, in present jargon, policy-relevant, fit for current challenges and, of course, solution-driven.

Sadly for the humanities, this new interdisciplinarity has become the collaborative way of working. Yet in my opinion, this is not what humanities research is, or should be, about. The great strength of humanities-based interdisciplinarity is its ability to deal with an ever-changing, diverse, human world. This is because the philosophical foundation of the humanities is in critique and interpretation, and importantly the acceptance that critique and interpretation might vary when different disciplinary perspectives are employed. It means, of course, that answers emerging from interdisciplinary humanities projects are often heterogeneous, partial, modest and self-reflective about their limitations. This is a good thing. It does not mean a failure to find answers but rather reflects the complexity of human knowledge.

But it is much harder to make a case for this kind of research product, which has none of the beautiful simplicity of a clear solution or the active-seeming go-getting of an intervention. While the humanities can show us that, rightly, there is more than one kind of truth to be discovered, this takes longer to articulate and does not have the immediate inspiration of, say, the most recent "breakthrough" in fossil-fuel reduction.

A further irony is that while there is a clear undervaluing of the humanities at policy level, many scientists continue to recognise their important contributions. Evolutionary biologists and zoologists understand the relevance of the history of their discipline and its role in constructing varying ideas of society and community. Medical researchers and clinicians value new insights from narrative research on patient stories and case histories. Immunologists have learned from art that there are productively imaginative ways of understanding the human body.

Indeed, it is not uncommon for the sciences to recognise and acclaim the same spirit of curiosity that drives both them and the humanities. At the University of Alberta in Canada, the newly built Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science has as its centrepiece a mosaic floor designed and executed by the award-winning American artist Scott Parsons. For Alberta's scientists this was not a superficial form of public engagement designed to make their scientific work more "human". Rather, it was their belief that "art, like science, shares a deeply rooted bond in an emotional, if not spiritual, sense of awe, and artists, like scientists, often begin their work from careful observation".

What is being articulated here is the joint enterprise of imagination - which begins with wonder, awe and curiosity but is then managed into action and discovery. This is exactly the kind of "prepared imagination" that the physicist John Tyndall spoke about at a BAAS meeting in Liverpool in 1870. It is an imagination that is shared by the humanities; indeed, it is an imagination that the humanities have spent far longer investigating and about which they can speak with much greater authority and experience.

It is the responsibility of representatives of the humanities to defend the importance of studying such abstract and singular experiences, and to make clear that such study is as vital to the sciences as it is to the humanities. Policymakers and funders should be reminded that Snow's "two cultures" lecture supported cooperation, not disciplinary dominance. To continue to demand that the humanities dance to the sciences' utilitarian tune is not only to demean the humanities - it is also a horrible stereotyping of scientific work.

In fact, it's my view that the humanities can learn a great deal from what the sciences have achieved in recent years. Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, is a case in point. There is probably no single interdisciplinary scientific enterprise that has had as much influence (or funding), or has inspired the imagination as much, as the search for the Higgs boson. Yet the approach of scientists working there is neither solution-driven nor interventionist. Rather, they defend the importance of curiosity and imaginative enterprise. Could the humanities make a similar case? Well, what about this as a "mission statement":

"Why Humanities? Some areas of humanities research, such as medieval history and Anglo-Saxon linguistics, seem remote from everyday life and unlikely to bring immediate practical applications. Are they worth the effort in human and material resources?

"This research may take us far away from the conditions of everyday life but because it continually pushes at boundaries in thinking and in methodology it is a springboard for many new developments.

"Scholarship in the humanities is where new ideas and methods begin that later become commonplace - from our understanding about postcolonial nations, which originated in 19th-century curiosity about the history of empire, to the digital book, which was influenced by work in book history and publishing practices. No amount of abstract thinking about empire would have brought us postcolonial theory; no amount of research on text would have brought about the digital book. Humanities needs the space for curiosity and imagination."

I wish I had written this myself but actually it's a straightforward bit of plagiarism, with a few tweaks, from Cern's own statements about the importance of the scientific work it does.

I believe that there is room in the humanities for real and valuable learning from the sciences. In particular we could learn to live it large a bit more. We need some "big humanities" to match the "big science" work of the Large (note that!) Hadron Collider. There are efforts to do this, and I would say they have been pretty successful. How many of us did not know it was the Dickens centenary this year? But too often at the moment we are being hamstrung by a restrictive and unimaginative view of what it is that academic work in the humanities should do. It's high time we brought to a halt this obsession with utilitarian responses to current challenges and allowed space for the inspiring business of being curious.

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