Social R&D

My post on the New College of the Humanities had far more readers than usual, and I imagine that some of them found it less worldly than viewpoints expressed on other blogs. Going easy on the bile, I instead worried about whether the college would teach the ‘right kind’ of English degree—one that balanced intuitive and critical reasoning.

It wasn’t written in spite of social considerations, though. How English is taught is wholly connected with questions about how the humanities contribute in the public and private spheres. As many have pointed out, the New College of Humanities threatens to drag subjects like English literature further towards privatization, rather than protect its place in public life (i.e. in state-funded schools and universities). Removing humanities research and teaching to the private sphere would probably hurt accessibility badly (I don’t know enough about the American system to comment much on this). It would not only suggest that humanities have no industrial or economic benefits to society—incorrect, given the still-prestigious education system in the UK—but would disparage the humanities’ contribution to quality of life in general. It would argue, for example, that there is little value in training specialists in language and reading within a highly literate culture.

So this follow-up post unpacks the social dimension of my argument a little. Subjects like English teach analytical skills that are valuable in a whole range of careers; they also nurture creativity, which has social and economic benefits that are often underplayed by comparison. I write ‘social’ because there’s need for continual remodelling of our preconceptions about such life issues as health and how we interact with people who aren’t like us (see my thoughts on ‘Libraries and the NHS’ for an example). Put another way, there’s a need for some Research and Development work on aspects of human experience because society and the world around us are always changing. We need people who play around, explore, experiment with different ways of thinking, and draw on how people have spoken and written about each other in the past to find ideas that will promote a healthy society in the present. This doesn’t mean that English professors should intervene directly on social affairs (and it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t). A liberal democracy does, however, have a use for people who spend time thinking freshly about where our ideas come from and how we can express them. These people can inspire others to question their assumptions, and to come up with alternative descriptions of how society can work—ones that are more thorough and comprehensive than a simple term like ‘Big Society’ allows taken alone.

That R&D metaphor was loaned from Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. I attended a lecture she gave yesterday in which she argued that children are the R&D department of the human race, and adults are the publicity and marketing people. She means that children are better at exploring unusual possibilities than adults, but less good at exploiting them. This intellectual play generates approaches that might otherwise never appear, and from them come methods and approaches that adults start adopting too and which come to benefit the human species as a whole. Extended immaturity is something distinctive to humans—it makes us smart, and Gopnik made the playful analogy that studying and working in ideal research conditions (e.g. Oxford) could extend that development indefinitely.

Academia, like childhood, is a natural home for intellectual flexibility, adaptability, and challenges to the ways mature people see the world. Sometimes new mathematical or zoological or literary insights have a delayed impact on society, and sometimes they remain esoteric: in the long term, however, learning keeps the intellectual reservoirs fresh. Research (and childhood) creates variability and innovation that feeds into otherwise stable societies with their customs and traditions, and means that those societies doesn’t become a North Korea or Turkmenistan. Research needn’t have the end-product always in mind, any more than children should always focus on becoming adults—both children and academics reinvent what it means to be an active adult who engages (socially, culturally, economically) in society. There is a problem about pinning down what research (or a child nibbling on a plastic cup) actually achieves, but this doesn’t diminish its contribution. If the British education system promoted these aims it would fulfil the Archbishop of Canterbury’s desire (expressed in this week’s New Statesman) for ‘a long term education policy at every level that will deliver the critical tools for democratic involvement, not simply skills that serve the economy’.

This social role for the humanities in academia becomes something sinister if certain sections of society are excluded from the conversation–it’d be positively harmful if it’s just the rich and privately-educated who are driving it. Public support encourages creativity and vibrant, diverse participation in the arts. Experimentation in the humanities and arts equips more people to reassess how they relate to each other and the world with respect and tolerance. I stress that this is a general goal of education, not restricted to certain subjects. Education in natural and social sciences clearly plays an important part in this too, but there seems more need to clarify the part that the humanities play in all this. And if you’ve gained anything from this post, then thank the UK government, who are funding my academic research and so allowing me to develop and promote my perspective.


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