Devil's in our detail

May 9, 2003

To survive in the new academy, the humanities must refocus on the 'big issues', argues Eric Gould

Despite some nasty scrapes, "humanity" in the singular has managed to survive. But in the plural? That's a different story. The humanities are having a hard time. For one thing, it is remarkably difficult to define what they are without just resorting to listing disciplines - history, literature, philosophy and so on - each with specialised aims. Yes, uplifting generalisations repeat that the humanities are about what it is to be human. But the term does not resonate as it once did.

We in the humanities often hear that we are obsessed by the meaning of meaning and the theory of theories - or that maybe no worthwhile theory is possible. Our professional societies complain that we are not attracting the best minds. In short, we're overprofessionalised, under-funded and self-obsessed.

Actually, the challenge is even more serious. As Peter Drucker, business guru and a major theorist of the "knowledge society", says, our world "needs a different kind of educated person from the ideal for which the humanists are fighting". He argues that it requires people who see knowledge as capable of being organised, made effective, pragmatic and economically viable. Dale Neef, the knowledge-economist, adds that we have missed "the unique combination of focused market incentives" that emerges from the natural and the social sciences.

Simple barbarism? An argument so crude that we should ignore it? Well, the "barbarians" have long been inside the gates of academe - and in many places, they've locked the doors behind them. The corporatisation of the US university was inevitable given the close link between academe and the development of a liberal capitalist democracy. And it is almost complete.

The real challenge to the humanities is that the post-modern university is business-like in its management practices and in the organisation of its intellectual capital. This shapes knowledge as having primarily an exchange value and needing economic relevance. Tempering that is some rich language about excellence, diversity, civic responsibility and concern for the public. But where are the humanities in all this?

Coursework in the humanities is too often focused on the disciplines rather than public issues. Why wait for corporate theories of global democracy to coopt the heart of civil society?

The humanities don't stand a chance of survival in the new academy without reform. But they have a long history of being flexible and have shown abundant talent for self-adjustment. Just trace all those clever mutations from the Roman artes liberales to the disciplines created 100 years ago to focus research.

The solution is complex, but it has something to do with getting the symbolic and exchange values of knowledge closer together, as Bourdieu might have put it, which only the humanities can do. They might have a more humanistic influence if they address large topics of social and public concern jointly and, with the social and natural sciences, approach topics such as democracy, civil society and ethical issues raised by science. They might also internationalise their curricula, becoming the focus for ideas about a new ethical (and not simply economy-based) globalisation, related to the growing concept of a multicultural civil society. They should also become more rhetorical and argumentative, and better story-tellers.

The humanities must get back to their mythical role, telling more powerful public narratives about themselves and ourselves. For the great narratives of learning have always been in the humanities and have always had something to do with the "big issues" such as love, death, power and ethics.

We need the humanities as a whole to be less professionalised and more able to lead a revival of a genuinely public education, which is an education that derives from democratic values and democratises learning itself, willing to dissolve its academic elitisms and narrow boundaries.

That kind of learning is not determined by markets but by the intrinsic, symbolic value of knowledge told in strong narratives. Back to rhetoric we must go. For, as even Milton's angelic hosts must have realised, if you don't tell good stories, the devil gets all the best lines. And he has some pretty damn good ones right now.

Eric Gould is professor of English at the University of Denver and author of The University in a Corporate Culture , published by Yale University Press this month (£25.00).

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