Sage concern

Managerialist attacks on the humanities must be resisted if public thinkers are to flourish in our universities, Peter Geoghegan argues

February 3, 2011

Credit: Marcus Butt

The crisis in the humanities is not a recent development - the eminent historian John H. Plumb diagnosed the "shattered...confidence of humanists" as long ago as 1964 - but the current situation is undeniably grave. Even before the Browne Review, many humanities departments were barely treading water: in the brave new world of British higher education, some will struggle to stay afloat at all.

The arts' socio-cultural benefits are frequently wheeled out in their defence: history teaches perspective, philosophy sound judgement, literature appreciation of beauty, and so on. However, among our humanities faculties' many noble functions, one is oft-forgotten. More than any other facet of our university system, the arts have provided the financial and institutional support to sustain many of our brightest, most influential public minds.

Public thinking is protean, but at its core is the ability to combine a concise analysis of contemporary events with deep-rooted academic and theoretical insights to produce ideas that genuinely shape the public sphere. While not all public intellectuals have been academics - Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci and George Orwell were hardly demure dons, nor is Booker Prize winner John Berger - many have found their niche in the academy.

Writers and thinkers as diverse as cultural critic Richard Hoggart, urban theorist Jane Jacobs and sociologist Richard Sennett seldom respected disciplinary boundaries, but all found productive homes in campuses on both sides of the Atlantic. That they did so in humanities departments - broadly defined - reflects the breadth of learning and inquisition that, at its best, has characterised the liberal arts.

The need for public intellectuals who can engage with the big ideas of our age, shape debate and envisage new directions has seldom been greater. As Dougald Hine, an innovative thinker working in the interstices between the UK's formal and informal higher education sectors, writes in a blog post on the nascent New Public Thinkers website: "Given the speed at which history seems to be happening right now, there's an urgent need for better public conversation. We need critique and analysis of WikiLeaks, the 'Big Society' (and) the student protests from people who have an intuitive understanding of how networks change things, but who are also able to bring longer historical and theoretical perspectives to the conversation."

Public thinkers are linchpins of democracy and social change, providing a crucial connection between the (relatively) methodical world of ideas and the messy realm of action. Unfortunately, their importance has seldom been recognised by the arbiters of academic value: over the past 25 years we have witnessed the advancing marketisation of university life. The focus on outputs, refereed papers and research excellence framework ratings place increasing strains on intellectual life. The negative impact of this transformation has fallen most heavily on the humanities, where "outcomes" are rarely tangible or easily quantifiable.

Arguably, the research councils' emphasis on "public communication" has not helped matters. Of course, philosophers and historians, anthropologists and classicists should be encouraged to engage with the wider public - and the popularity of expert-fronted radio and television attests to the appetite for such programming - but increasingly, public thinking and public communication are being conflated, to the former's detriment.

The crisis in the humanities, and indeed the whole university sector, is not all bad news though. Previously marginalised intellectual circles, especially outside or on the fringes of the academy, have enjoyed something of a renaissance, with much exciting writing, thinking and learning going on beyond our formal classrooms.

The breakdown of the academy's traditional boundaries seems certain to accelerate and penetrate further in the coming years - yet this need not mean that intellectual life as we know it is moribund in higher education.

Our universities are still the bedrock of public thinking. Many academics are already transcending their institutions to engage with creative ideas and people outside the academy; this should be encouraged. Meanwhile, the managerial logic that has, in part, precipitated the crisis in the humanities - and across the academy - must be resisted.

In a time of almost unprecedented global flux, we need to recognise and support the next generation of public thinkers. If we really want these new intellectuals to remain within our universities, a healthy, vibrant humanities is a sine qua non.

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