‘Something needs to be done – urgently. We are agreed – right? But what?‘ stands the heading introducing a recent issue of the journal Arts and Humanities in Higher Education. We are given a peak at Robert Garland’s contribution, ‘The Humanities: plain and simple‘, in which he proposes that all humanists ‘have a duty to be active in exporting our expertise beyond the gates of the academy’ as part of assembling a ‘coherent justification’ for the importance of our fields to society. The ways he suggests contributing to the ‘quality of human life’ are writing for popular journals or magazines, offering pro bono online and outreach courses and participating in humanities-related festivals.
All good stuff and a debate that we need to have – to which I’d add a couple of comments (disclaimer: admittedly based on the summary rather than the full article – the irony of a debate about public intellectuals conducted behind journal paywalls).
First: the case for the public value of the humanities is often premised on ‘outreach’. We take our expertise out into the world, make it accessible, engaging and relevant for a range of audiences. Important work – and Garland’s call for ‘the application of knowledge in the service of the public good’ is well-made (it’s also remarkably close to definitions of public history – I recently tried to line up academic citizenship and public history for reasons similar to Garland’s).
But the basic model that divides ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the university remains. We still hold the authority. The universities are still the knowledge-generators and the wider world the beneficiaries. In the case of public policy, for example, I’m not convinced that’s enough – we can’t expect to influence it (or convince policymakers of the merits of the humanities) on an outreach basis. Policymakers may listen, but will they (or should they) think historically or philosophically as part of the decision-making process once the historian or philosopher has left the building? Can we really ‘export our expertise’ or do we need to be integrating it in active ways with other forms of expertise inside public institutions? And what does an academic career look like if we ‘do time’ outside the university as part of a mission to serve the public good?
Second: we tend to accept the marginalisation of the humanities as an inevitable state of affairs. Policymakers ‘naturally’ want ‘hard’ evidence and prioritise economic growth over any sense of cultural value. They certainly seem to, but it this really an inevitable state of affairs?
One of the most important characteristics of the humanities disciplines is self-consciousness – we inspect our assumptions, attend carefully to our terms and appreciate complexity and ambiguity. But the need to defend the humanities seems to have left us little space for practising our crafts to examine the context in which they need defending. How can we, as humanists, understand the emergence and persistence of a political culture that privileges such narrow notions of value?
Each discipline has a distinctive perspective to bring to this effort. If we can recognise, for example, these beliefs about the value of different forms of knowledge as historical phenomena rather than self-evident truths, we can free our intellectual imaginations to conceive of other, future, contexts in which different beliefs are possible – and how we might contribute to bringing such contexts into being.
I absolutely agree with Garland’s call for academics to take on public roles. The question is: and then what?