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.

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