Unruly humanities scholars threaten the discipline, event hears

July 28, 2011

An ill-disciplined bunch? Academics in the humanities were wrong to claim that their work is 'inherently disruptive' (Picture credit: Kobal)

Academics who celebrate "indiscipline" over basic disciplinary competence could be endangering the future of the humanities, scholars from the US and UK have argued.

The suggestion was made during a discussion at the British Academy in London last week, titled "The Humanities under Threat", which opened a conference organised by the University of Cambridge and Arizona State University.

For Stefan Collini, professor of English literature and intellectual history at Cambridge, there was a danger of defensiveness implicit in using words such as "threat". Nonetheless, he was unhappy with what he called "the tyranny of outside funding", since it was now "essentially a requirement to incur expenses, whereas much good work in the humanities only needs a stimulating intellectual environment, good libraries and time".

A trend for "scholars in humanities departments to be penalised for not securing external funding" seemed likely to be just as damaging as the changes in fees structures, he added.

Although there were external dangers, argued Robert Post, dean of Yale Law School, the humanities also faced a number of "internal threats". Many scholars in the field claimed that their work was "inherently disruptive" and possessed "the charismatic authority of art rather than mere disciplinary competence". This, suggested Professor Post, was a huge error.

With the US academy "decidedly tilted to the Left", it was unrealistic to expect a Right-leaning electorate to "support the charismatic authority of those they disagree with".

Furthermore, academic freedom was essentially a bargain with the public about "the rights of scholars to make judgements in the name of the scholarly standards of their discipline". Those who undermined disciplinary professionalism were likely to regret the consequences, he suggested.

Sir Martin Rees, master of Trinity College Cambridge and former president of the Royal Society, noted that everybody accepted that scientists spoke in different ways to fellow specialists and the public. But the fact that much work by historians, for example, was "not completely incomprehensible" was unfortunate to the extent that it could "hide the depth of work required in serious humanities research".

Sir Adam Roberts, president of the British Academy, concluded the discussion by expressing his astonishment that at a time when the authority of bankers, MPs and the media had been seriously called into question, it was "a sector which has worked tolerably well that is being radically restructured".

Although the changes to the funding of teaching were themselves "subject-neutral" and should not be seen as a calculated assault on the humanities, he was still wary of the "possible unintended consequences".

With mistrust between ministers and universities running high, Sir Adam was concerned about "the setting of agendas for research".

Higher fees might lead to students selecting "fashionable or short courses" at the expense of "the strategically important and vulnerable subjects" the government claimed to value.

And the likely costs of postgraduate education for debt-laden graduates posed serious questions for "the renewal of our profession".


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