In the Kitchen

I moved into a temporary room last week in a house with a large kitchen. I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations there with people passing through. One was with a pilgrim who’d just travelled to World Youth Day in Madrid—it sounded like a true pilgrimage, memorable for the modern-day hardships of overnight coach-trips and traipsing round the city in blazing heat. While in Spain, the Pope gave an address to young professors at Spanish universities. Christianity has for centuries pursued truth, goodness and beauty through education, and the current Pope was himself a professor at the University of Bonn. His address was particularly relevant to the British situation when he spoke of the dangers of shackling universities to short-term economic and political ends:

We know that when mere utility and pure pragmatism become the principal criteria, much is lost and the results can be tragic: from the abuses associated with a science which acknowledges no limits beyond itself, to the political totalitarianism which easily arises when one eliminates any higher reference than the mere calculus of power. The authentic idea of the University, on the other hand, is precisely what saves us from this reductionist and curtailed vision of humanity.
In truth, the University has always been, and is always called to be, the “house” where one seeks the truth proper to the human person.

Intrinsic good provides a robust philosophical defense of university education (incorporating sciences and humanities), and not just for people of faith; the philosopher M. M. McCabe spoke on this topic during a recent discussion on ‘The Future of the Humanties’ (she starts speaking at 16.10). Some fly-sheets reprinted during the Cambridge vote of no confidence in the government (which ended in a dead heat), sing a similar tune. One headlined ‘Education is a public good’ states (I’m quoting from page 1132):

The current administration [government] understands universities, essentially, as auxiliaries to commerce. Its notion of higher education is that it is or should be a market; that students should be shoppers in this market; that scholars should be salesmen and saleswomen in it. Students have protested forcefully against this idea of what they are and should be. By declaring, collectively, that education is a public good, not merely a financial asset, we [academics] can repay the public’s trust in us and demonstrate that we continue to deserve it.

The second kitchen conversation was with a pure mathematician who is well-read in world literature and was cooking some pork. Our conversation kept coming back to the problem of literary canons. He was arguing that it’s perfectly valid to defend great literature—Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, writers whose first names I don’t need to write—that clearly come closer to expressing essential human truths. Slicing some green beans, I responded with general liberal arguments about the social construction of canons, the need to discover unrecognized achievement, and that as a Renaissance scholar I’m reluctant to insist that you’re a better person if you read Shakespeare as well as I can.

My friend pointed me to an interview with the American critic Harold Bloom that rails against declining standards in American literature departments due to the mingle-mangle of political niceties: ‘I do not give in to political considerations, however they mask themselves. All this business about gender, social class, sexual orientation and skin pigmentation is nonsense. I’m 81. I’m not prepared to temporise any more. I’ve been prophesying like Jeremiah since 1968, warning the profession that it was destroying itself. And it has.’ He pointed me towards a couple of other bracing reads: Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind (1987) and a polemic by Alain Finkielkraut called The Defeat of the Mind (La Defaite de la Pensée¸ also 1987). I’d not read either of these, but I quickly tracked down the latter. Finkielkraut shakes his fist at a liberal multicultural agenda that dilutes the definition of ‘culture’ from affirming pinnacles of human thought to any recognizable social practice:

In effect the term ‘culture’ now has two meanings. The first asserts the pre-eminence of the life of thought; the second denies this: from everyday gestures to the great creations of the human spirit, is not everything cultural?’ Why should we give pride of place to the latter rather than the former, to the life of thought rather than the art of knitting, or the chewing of betel nuts, or the ancestral custom of dunking one’s buttered toast in the morning cup of coffee?’ So there is a malaise in cultural life. True enough, no one from now on is going to draw his revolver when he hears the word ‘culture’. But there are increasing numbers of people who, when they hear the word ‘thought’, reach for their culture.

Elsewhere he defends Shakespeare’s importance over a pair of boots, and envisions a dystopian scenario in which fanatics (believing in high culture) combat the zombies (brain-dead consumers). I’d agree that multiculturalism has its problems. I’m particularly bothered, as Finkielkraut and others better informed than me are, that it can assign cultural identities to people artificially, and hinder genuine interactions between individuals, all the more so in a world where technologies, trade and travelling bring people into contact with one another. The argument goes that you don’t protect collective identities by defining them as fixed entities—identity must be based on individual freedoms and rights. All the same, I’d counter the dichotomy drawn here between judicious prejudice and mindless tolerance. Respect from diversity doesn’t have to be a pre-agreed pact of non-aggression signed by officials who have precious few everyday interactions that really generate culture. Equality should be thoughtful and lively.

Based on my personal experience, I’d also want to disagree with those who solely defend a literary canon, or rationality as an objective: I’ve learnt a great deal from engaging with others who don’t fit easily into traditions of high culture. Some might object to my drawing the analogy, but there’s a similarity in my defence with an old argument used against Richard Dawkins: I wouldn’t assume that evolution gives me a superior knowledge of natural processes if I met an illiterate forest tribesperson, because that person has just as much real-world experience to draw on as I have, and my sophisticated mental designs don’t necessarily equate to a deeper understanding of reality. My rational idea do have practical benefits, such as providing the aeonautical technology  that allowed me to fly there, but the whole question here is about non-utilitarian forms of knowledge. Time is another good example: I can use a watch to devise an efficient schedule for my life, and make complex calculations about past and future plans, but someone who cannot tell the time, but can accurately tell you what time of day it is from the height of the sun possesses genuine awareness of how the world works. And I see that the same goes for literature too: canonical works have been successfully tested as providing rich insights into life, but this doesn’t mean that they provide our best definitions of what it is to be human, or that I can’t find insights in other books that are less cherished by my immediate society. Political correctness isn’t the only reason to listen for neglected voices.

So how do my two kitchen conversations relate? My argument in the second is against rationality as an objective criterion for greatness, and for holistic appreciation and understanding of the world in the pursuit of truth. Both of these arguments tend towards faith-based belief systems, and both are threatened when materialist or pragmatic concerns dominate an educational environment. A separate institutional factor in play here is that literary studies have become more specialized as more work is done, and there are greater numbers of academics; consequently, literary appreciation and intellectual grandeur have become amateur pursuits somewhat separate to professional work. The literary canon, as my friend quite reasonably saw it, remains a natural home for deep humanist thinking, and from this viewpoint inclusiveness leaches away this transcendental energy. But I read the canon more as a meeting-place where people discuss and contest issues, and is itself mobile. Sensitive, committed, opinionated engagement gives energy to these interactions. Being inclusive helps literature retain its special status as a point of contact between different people, different lives—but such interactions need to be genuine and whole-hearted, not based on a vague sense of correctness.

To complete the circle. The Pope imagined what an ‘authentic teacher’ looks like: ‘Young people need authentic teachers: persons open to the fullness of truth in the various branches of knowledge, persons who listen to and experience in own hearts that interdisciplinary dialogue; persons who, above all, are convinced of our human capacity to advance along the path of truth.’ Such teachers are committed, passionate and humble. They do not accede to relativism—and especially not officially-sanctioned relativism based on artificial sense of inclusiveness—but are willing to relate whole-heartedly with their subject-matter and with their students. There is much to take heed of in these sentiments. A public good of education is, as I see it, to facilitate such direct encounters. The Jewish philosopher and educator Martin Buber is a guiding light on this topic, as on this post in general.

In literature, those works (e.g. Shakespeare’s) which have proven a valuable resource for concentrated engagement between reader and text are likely to still be read and to encourage profound cognitive and emotional engagement. But this doesn’t automatically exclude unexpected discoveries that we can make by corresponding with marginal voices and listening to aspects of reality beyond our reach. A political spin on this is that minorities should not be restricted either from gaining empowerment by studying the canons, or the methods on which the West thrives. Literature develops ‘our human capacity to advance along the path of truth’ by encouraging meaningful relationships that allow us to look outside of those systems—political, economic, institutional—in which we exist, and this is something that can be genuinely liberating.

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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.


English Literature at the New College of the Humanities

‘The New College of the Humanities (NCOH) is a new concept in university education.’ For Britain this is probably true. It is also far too early to come to any judgements about it: it’ll take several years to see how successful or self-standing the college is, and whether it is the first of several new private undergraduate institutions in Britain. There’s probably a market for it, though I’m far from sure whether it’ll do more good or harm for safeguarding the humanities (instinctive reservations about inequalities and ‘elitism’ loom). The founding Master, A.C. Grayling, makes some fair points in a letter to the Birkbeck Student Union President about the need for a system of financing arts education closer to the US model now that the government have abdicated most responsibility for it, though there’s still much to learn about how it will operate.

The project has the backing of a dream-team professoriate, and I’m looking forward to hearing them speak about the College. Mary Beard helpfully pointed out that NCOH is not a ‘New Oxbridge’ because it is not a research institution—the College doesn’t currently look like it’ll foster research in the humanities. The ‘highly distinguished’ professors are distinguished because of their academic work and, in several cases, their general, popular works that made them famous: Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson aren’t famous teachers, which is relevant when the college is a teaching-only institution. In short, there’s more to learn about how the teaching will work. NCOH also won’t be a liberal arts college, which is something I’d be very interested to see attempted in Britain. Some more discussions of the institutional impact and significance of the NCOH are available here and here.

NCOH offers the same English literature course as the University of London International Programmes. The course descriptions have been cut and pasted without being updated, which explains an odd fixation on Helen Gardner’s editorial work: her Penguin edition of the Metaphysical Poets has been updated since, and, weirder still, her New Oxford Book of English Verse
is prescribed when you might think that Christopher Ricks (the only literary scholar named on the website so far) would prefer teaching from his new edition, the Oxford Book of English Verse. I was surprised to see that the course makes no mention of learning a foreign language, though it prescribes texts in several different languages (Greek, Latin, Italian, Middle English).The course is similar to that taught at that especially artsy college, Goldsmiths (see page nine of their undergraduate prospectus), but the NCOH bolts on its distinctive diploma subjects (logic and critical thinking, science literacy, applied ethics and professional skills). So classes on the Alexander Pope’s poetry might be followed by a session on microeconomics. For the extra cost students supposedly leave better prepared (and better connected) for the world of work than their ripped-jean colleagues at Goldsmiths.

So its English course is fairly standard. In Christopher Ricks, the college has recruited a critic renowned for his sensitive, non-theoretical readings of literary texts (including Bob Dylan). But given that the company’s name was previously ‘Grayling Hall Limited‘, it seems likely that some of the founders will (as founders tend to do) put their intellectual mark on the institution. Although the diploma subjects are kept separate, and Richard Dawkins probably won’t be teaching Gawain and the Green Knight, a strong emphasis on scientific and critical reasoning is potentially detrimental to English teaching. Creativity, emotion, sensitivity, intuition, diversity, empathy, creativity and holistic thinking are important in an English degree: they don’t become wishy-washy when faced with critical thinking, reason, and analysis. The University of London degree, like all English degrees I know of (including those mentioned in my previous post) balances analytical and imaginative approaches. It’d be a strange English course that didn’t promote feeling as well as thought.

[Update 10th June 2011: see my follow-up post ‘Social R&D’ for more on this]


Prospective English Concentrators

I was speaking to a Professor of English at Harvard last week about literary studies. He talked about how the humanities teach us self-knowledge, as opposed to science studying the objective world. He spoke about the place of literary studies in a general education, and the value of learning to appreciate great works.

This discussion set me wondering about English at Harvard, so I went over to the department’s website and found a page intended for ‘Prospective English Concentrators’. My sketchy idea of Harvard’s intellectual principles is that it is influenced by pragmatism, which stresses knowledge gained through action in the everyday world rather than unworldly, abstract ideas. You would expect the Harvard department to emphasize method and practice of literary interpretation, and sure enough, the department chair talks about gaining skills to discover how we communicate and generate meaning in language:

‘We read literary texts because literature is where the meanings are. So how do we get at those meanings? We teach students what imaginative works mean, by teaching how they mean, by teaching how meaning is embedded in form. Accordingly, we transmit the skills of interpretation.’

What about other departments? Well, the page directed at potential undergraduates at the Oxford English Faculty talks more about ‘getting to know’ our cultural heritage:

‘You will get to know the writings of particular authors, movements, and periods in great detail and develop your own interests in English literature and language – interests that we hope will remain with you for the rest of your life. This kind of study affords a unique way of appreciating the cultural history of England and other countries in which English has been a major literary medium.
An English degree will equip you with analytical and writing skills that are readily transferable into many other situations and many professions.’

Finally, I jumped across to the Cambridge English Faculty:

‘The Cambridge English Tripos [i.e. degree] has the following aims, among others: to stimulate in its students original thinking and critical habits of mind; to develop the ability to construct an argument, both oral and written; to foster an unusual sensitivity to language; to provide a broad knowledge of the development of English literature which will enable students to understand how writers work within and against literary traditions; to create awareness of the historical dimension of literary works; and to provide a comparative dimension for the study of literature in English, by study of literature in other languages, or of philosophical works which handle ideas in a non-literary mode.
All students of English acquire knowledge that enriches their lives forever.’

You could find equally fine descriptions of studying English at other British universities like York, Manchester, Queen Mary or Glasgow. The reason I pick on Oxbridge here is partly because that’s where my experience is, and partly because they have large departments that are generally thought to have distinctive principles of studying literature (not that other departments don’t): Cambridge is traditionally associated with close reading and ‘practical criticism’, while Oxford concentrates on historical fact and what literature teaches us about the world (i.e., is more scientific). This contrast is useful when thinking about the research output of different universities. But in these descriptions there is more agreement than disagreement about literary studies: reading and arguing closely, gaining a life-enhancing skill using in the working world and learning about English-language culture are common to each. This makes for a challenging undergraduate course, but it is what is going in school English lessons too. Academic research helps support these activities.

One lesson from all this is not to exaggerate differences between institutions. Although one department may specialize in a particular approach, the subject remains basically the same. Debates within the subject don’t mean that the discipline itself is on uncertain ground: studying English at school or university makes you better equipped to assess and appreciate language and culture.


Fees Discussion in Oxford

I was pleased to hear David Norbrook, a Professor of English I know, speak out at an Oxford Congregation meeting earlier this week (he speaks at 35.40 in this recording). Professor Norbrook speaks about how the university needs to ‘stop apologizing’ for what it does, and stand up for its core values of promoting ‘truth, honesty and independent-mindedness’. Against political and market pressures exerted on universities, he reminded those present that universities are vital cultural institutions (like the BBC or the British Museum), regardless of how their existence suits the current political agenda.

This argument does not entail that univerisities should ignore what’s happening in the outside world. Far from it. Universities are institutions that nurture and cherish important democratic ideals, such as critical judgment, disinterested inquiry and pluralism. They do this by establishing a supportive scholarly community in which individuals pursue their own course of learning and research that has purpose and relevance initially within that community. Neuroscientists write papers that neuroscientists will read, and art historians write papers for other art historians. And by circulating ideas, methods and discoveries, universities become a beacon for these values.

There is no need to apologize, then, that research in English studies won’t immediately create jobs, and won’t be something that secondary school students or broadsheet readers will always want to hear about first-hand. Doctoral students in English at Oxford–all two hundred of them–pursue diverse and highly specific topics: see here and here for research topics. At some point these will become available online at the Oxford Research Archive, but many won’t be widely read, and certainly not by those outside universities.

This is just as it should be. English studies, just like every other discipline, is becoming more specialized as people learn more and employ new research methods to understand literature. There aren’t many scholars today who could hold forth professionally on a wide historical range of topics, as older and still active critics like John Carey and Christopher Ricks can. Today the usual way to promote the values Prof. Norbrook talks about is to have advanced students research small areas with great rigour, discipline and careful analysis. Established scholars can branch out, but not as much (it seems to me) as they once could. This research can become ‘useful’ to others later down the line: it’s good for scholars to communicate their ideas to a general audience, but this is not the primary purpose of scholarship. Research projects the high standards that went into its creation, as well as its discoveries about nature and culture.

* Note: the discussion is now available to read on the Oxford website.