Between Technicolor and Tweed

The Public Value of the Humanities is a new collection of essays commissioned by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It is edited by the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, who also wrote the introduction. Bate begins by alluding to the biblical Joseph (he of dreamcoat fame) as a precursor of a ‘secular clerisy’ (i.e. bunch of scholars) who devote their energies to studying culture and making forecasts about the future. He has Samuel Taylor Coleridge in mind here, who described ‘an endowed class, for the cultivation of learning, and for diffusing its results among the community’. Bate is quoting John Stuart Mill writing about Coleridge and Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that measures happiness and benefits in numbers to work out which alternative provides ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’: it’s the end result that matters. When seeking knowledge, a friend of Bentham would ask ‘Is it true?’ and a friend of Coleridge would ask ‘what is the meaning of it?’.

Either Mill or Coleridge or Bate or all three raised the following question: ‘How can society foster those dimensions of human life that Benthamite utilitarianism cannot account for—the ethical, the beautiful, the cohesive force?’ The implicit answer is that we can only appreciate the unquantifiable by protecting a group of individuals—i.e. religious clergy or non-religious scholars—who search out and communicate those truths. This is non-utilitarian because it doesn’t make a fixed contribution to society, but it has a public value in searching out these suprarational unifying truths. There is something to this old argument, though different people will baulk at some point when it comes to giving institutional authorization to an elect group of the bespectacled.

Sandwiched between these thoughts, Bate records the answers he got when he asked some of his academic buddies to come up with an answer to the following question: A cabinet minister explains to you that she doesn’t mind ploughing lots of the budget into medical care or international aid, but she does have a problem subsidizing humanities research and teaching. Why should the state pay for the study of literature, when it wouldn’t contribute to costs of other hobbies like horse-riding? ‘I like riding my horse, but I don’t expect the taxpayer to pay for me to do so’. Bate lists ten defences (from scholars in many different fields) for why humanities are  different from horse-riding:

1. Britain is a major world centre of publishing and intellectual life, and it’s necessary to support the humanities to sustain that reputation.

2. Humanities subjects foster critical thinking.

3. History can help improve global security by reminding us, and policy-makers in particular, about the lessons of the past.

4. ‘Bibliotherapy’: books and the arts make a genuine contribution to public health.

5. If the horse-rider was of an international standard, then it’d seem far more reasonable to provide public support. In this regard univerisities, like sport, are a matter of national prestige and so deserve public support (cf point 1).

6. The formation of a ‘cultural identity’ benefits from analytical and historical perspectives.

7. The humanities help sustain cultural heritage and cultural value.

8. An academic discipline aren’t about private hobbies but the public good: research is about disinterested endeavour that helps us understand ourselves and each other.

9. Just because research is driven by curiosity, it doesn’t mean it’s a hobby.

10. It promotes cultural exchange and understanding between different traditions.

A French reader of this blog explained to me the other day that he found it fairly ‘utilitarian’, and that in France it’s more readily assumed that the arts should be promoted for their own sake—’l’art pour l’art.’ The list above tends to emphasize the public benefit of the humanities: what tax-payers get out for putting money in (1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10). The other items (2, 8, 9) are more purely intellectual, suggesting ways that the humanities contribute to understanding the world. Two common features of academic disciplines in most universities are that they offer expertise, and that they contribute to society. Conversations, teaching, lectures, publication and similar activities are the ways that expertise spreads. A ‘secular clerisy’, a unit of authorized experts on human culture dressed in technicolor tweed, might have its supporters (Matthew Arnold, F.R. Leavis and their followers), but would also rile many people with its exclusivity.

A larger issue here is the nature of the vital relationship between gaining expertise and diffusing it to others–the existence of a community of learning, and its relationship to those outside.  An important starting point is the attitude scholars take: research carried out within and for the benefit of society will have a public value, often the more powerful and sustained for not being created to be shouted about. The basic point to emerge from all this is that one function of the humanities is to examine and uphold non-utilitarian aspects of human activity (e.g., ones without a defined economic benefit), and prompt wider society to think about them too.

Thinking about Teapots

I spoke at a humanities outreach day for Year 9 students in Oxford last week. My question was ‘How is English different from Maths?’, and my answer was that Maths is more about learning systems of thought that make things seem simpler, whereas in English you more often learn to ask new questions about the world, and so make things seem more complicated. I also argued that in humanities subjects you always deal with human culture and the world around us, but in maths you start with abstract ideas, then apply them to particular situations. Yes, there are lots of interesting exceptions here—but I stuck to making this point to the audience with three examples.

First, I showed that learning English requires more than mastering rules and methods. Spelling bees test this kind of knowledge, but spelling champs don’t necessarily make amazing English language and literature students. It takes more life experience and exposure to culture to thrive at English, and I suggested that this is why you hear of Maths prodigies but not English prodigies. Point Two was an exercise in appreciating historicity (historical quality or character). I showed the audience a series of BBC homepages from 2011, 2008, 2004, 2001, 1997, and finally the first BBC homepage from 21st December 1996. My aim here was to provoke questions about how a webpage is specific to one moment in time. What methods are being used to attract our attention? How different will the webpage be in fifteen years’ time? Would someone looking at the website in 500 years’ time conclude that we’re weather obsessed given that the central box on the current homepage (i.e. in July 2011) shows the weather forecast—and would our futuristic friend be correct?

Then I looked at different ways to think about teapots. I showed the students the following complete poem by the American poet Samuel Menashe (the recordings on the linked page are great):

A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout.

With a little bit of critical jiggery-pokery (e.g. note that the letters ‘p-o-t’ appear three times), I suggested that the poem makes you think again about something so simple as a teapot, about its existence, and what is fulfilling about being ‘ful-filled’. The physical object of the teapot is essential to the poem, just as in English studies generally you can’t get away from lived experience, whether it’s society, the media, different cultures or what’s on your breakfast table. These thoughts are expressed using extremely controlled use of language (if you think this poem is absurdly simple, try writing another). In its odd little way the poem challenges common sense.

I drew a contrast with a mathematician who could tell you about the teapot’s volume or rate of cooling by applying analytical techniques to the object. And I asked a quick-witted philosopher who gave a presentation later about how a philosopher might think about a teapot. In reply he asked us to imagine a moderately warm teapot and two people, one of whom has lived his or her entire life in the Arctic. The teapot would seem very hot to that person, but merely warm to someone else. So does this mean that hot and cold don’t really exist? The teapot was a good example of the different types of question that each subject raises. Maths and science can quantify and suggest practical improvements to how a teapot is used; philosophy asks basic questions about what we do and don’t know, and English…well, English shows you how different people see and think about the teapot, which makes you appreciate how different people look at the world, and use language to express that viewpoint, and so English challenges your established patterns of thinking, and helps you appreciate language, culture and the world around you with fresh eyes and ears.

The Art of Concentration

Great art requires concentration from the artist, and demands concentration from those experiencing it. Artists concentrate their minds and energies for years in order to compose, paint, write or otherwise create work that reveals unusual sensitivity and mastery. Artists tend to have the talent and training to experience ‘flow’ or be ‘in the zone’. Education teaches concentration. Self-control is often said to improve your long-term career prospects (think of the Marshmallow Test). Concentrating fully on a single task is often more difficult than multitasking: it requires the whole body to move towards a single goal.

Literature demands and rewards concentration too. I was asked to talk about the following passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (Chapter 20) in an admissions interview at Cambridge. In what I now (but not then) understand as a deep, almost mystical insight into concentration, the narrator says that ‘keen vision and feeling’ allow you to push at the horizons of reality, to experience the world more fully:

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.