Thursday, July 21, 2011

Humanities under Threat?

Last evening, I attended a seminar at the British Academy under the title 'Humanities Under Threat?' which was immensely interesting. This was organized by the University of Cambridge and Arizona State University, and was attended by a great panel. Among the speakers was Jonathan Cole, whose Great American University I have read earlier. There was Stephan Collini too, whose history of intellectuals in Britain is an immensely interesting read, as well as Michael Crow, the President of Arizona State University, Robert Post, the Dean of Yale Law School, the famous British Cosmologist, Lord (Martin) Rees and Adam Roberts, the President of British Academy. Altogether, it was a greatly distinguished panel of depth and diversity, and the discussions adequately reflected that.

My impression after the listening to the lectures is that there is indeed a great divide between science and humanities. Most speakers, with the possible exception of Adam Roberts and Stephan Collini, denied that the humanities are facing any threat at all. Indeed, that's what it seems on the ground, with the economic argument dominating the education discourse, but the panel looked at it differently. A number of speakers, Robert Post most eloquently, spoke about the lack of a sense of discipline in the humanities: He pointed that most humanities scholars tend to see themselves as charismatic artists rather than experts of an academic discipline. His criticism was pointed and argued with eloquence and reason, but perhaps unfair, because if someone claimed that he had discovered the final word in history or literary criticism, he would be regarded mad. The 'expertise' in science is distinctly different what could be expertise in humanities. Dean Post did acknowledge this difference, but did overlook the fact we, as in public, go by a fixed notion of expertise, that of scientific experts. Instead of changing the notion of expertise among humanities scholars, a task which will have serious disciplinary challenges, an effort must be made to explain what humanities do.

Stefan Collini's point that the current mechanism of resource allocation, particularly the tyranny of external funding, runs counter to the spirit of humanities. Adam Roberts pointed out various other challenges that humanities face, not least as the hegemonic argument about education centers around economic competitiveness, and not social advancement. It was interesting to note the distinctive British-American divide, particularly in the speech of Michael Crow: Whereas the British discussion always centers around what the government is doing, the American universities receive less than 15% of their money from the government and therefore, couldn't care less. Michael Crow was explaining that the American universities will typically see the state as an investor, one of the many: This is indeed distinctly different from how the British will see things.

Lord Rees talked about the great convergence of science and humanities, as was Jonathan Cole. Lord Rees was indeed talking about the great scientists like Darwin and Einstein, and his points were well received. However, Jonathan Cole's suggestion that scientists need humanities and would help preserve it may not have many British supporters; if anything, the attitude in Britain is that the scientists are doing everything they can to undermine humanities. And, indeed, while most speakers took issues with the 'humanities under threat?' label, humanities are indeed struggling in Britain, particularly under the weight of scientific take-over of humanities agenda.

I found it interesting that none of the speakers decided to address the impact of humanities on the political systems and vice versa. This being a British-American event, it was possibly assumed that democracy is the only political system possible in the world. However, one could argue that while humanities studies are critical in preserving and advancing democracies, democracy as a system undermines humanities: This is because, at least in the modern times, the governments are trying to find justifications of public expenditure constantly, and within the framework of justifications, that of economic well-being, it is hard to see how humanities could be of any value.

Finally, my one take-away from the evening was this interesting, though as an aside, point made by Jonathan Cole about the decline of German universities in 1930s. The question in my mind is why did the German university system proved so fragile in the face of Hitler and his thugs: Is the same problem threaten the modern universities? This is something I would love to explore at some point of time.

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