I believe the academic humanities require radical reform - not just in their institutional framework but in their intellectual self-conception, their sense of purpose, of mission even; in their habits of mind, their modes of admiration and the direction of effort. Ironically, such reform is needed to return the humanities to their grandest, most longstanding ambitions. Wisdom should be powerful in the world: that is why we teach, research, and engage the public.
Reform is needed in order to accomplish something magnificent and serious. There is a tendency in the humanities to hear a call for reform as a threat. Calls for reform always seem to come from people who don’t especially care about the humanities. I want to change that association and to connect the idea of reform to the pursuit of great educational endeavours.
Taken one way, ‘the humanities’ is the traditional name for a group of academic disciplines, of which the core members, identified by subject matter, are philosophy, history, art history and the study of literature. (It’s an imperfect nomenclature. There are subject areas such as music, fine art, architecture, religious studies and politics that have much in common with the humanities, although they are not usually covered by the term.)
Looked at from a distance it seems obvious that the humanities would, almost of necessity, occupy a central, highly valued place in the collective life of a society. In principle, the academic disciplines called the humanities are concerned with the study of basic human issues: what can we learn from the past that is important to know today; how should we think about experience; what is valuable and why; what is the meaning of life; what is justice? In addition, the humanities are the repositories of all the best stories, the greatest narratives, the biggest adventures in thinking, the finest creative works.
The political and institutional difficulties of the humanities should be puzzling - even disturbing. How can it be that the keepers of so much that is self-evidently important and interesting have arrived at this situation? And is there anything that can and should be done to put things to rights?
There are different ways to tell whether the humanities are thriving, just coasting along, or in trouble. An institutional yardstick would assess things like the ranking of schools or departments in national and international league tables. It would measure the number of staff employed, or the number of papers published in journals which are well regarded by academics, or the number of competitive grants won - in competition against other humanities academics, and awarded on the assessments made of proposals by high-placed humanities experts.
These are internal assessments. They measure department against department, university against university. Such assessment is fine if you think that overall things are going well, for in that case you can spot local weaknesses or pockets of special success, and set about remedial action or imitation.
But such assessment is fatal if there is drift or decline in a whole field of activity. It gives far too much weight to the views of insiders - in fact, this is all that it measures. And if you think - as I have come to think - that there is a problem within the humanities, then just measuring the view from inside may not be helpful at all.
In politics, one of the most damaging things that can happen to a party is to be captured by its activist base. Their party conferences are euphoric, the activists praise one another and push for policies which thrill them. But the task for a party isn’t to delight its activists; it’s to earn the trust of the wider world. And it may happen - we know it can happen in politics - that a dangerous gulf opens between the preoccupations of a devoted group of insiders and the concerns of the wider population.
If you want to know how a field of human endeavour is faring as a whole you have to look outwards. You have to look at the need for that endeavour and the potential of the enterprise. The question cannot be: how do the humanities regard themselves from the inside? The question must be: how are the humanities flourishing (or not) everywhere else? This is a question the humanities owe it to themselves to ask; it is a noble question, a confident question - one that springs from a conviction that the humanities ought to be judged in such grand terms.
A quality of mind can be seen as both ability and a disposition. An ability names something you can do. A disposition names something you tend to do. The aim, then, of humanities education - in this sense - is to cultivate dispositions: the reliable, intelligent deployment of abilities in real-world situations. It is the ability to think carefully - when under pressure, when there are strong countervailing forces, when there is a need to do so, in the service of an important purpose.
What would be the consequences for the humanities if they took the cultivation of such dispositions of mind as their central purpose? It would mean radical revision of teaching. If the point of studying the French Revolution is not so much to accumulate knowledge about that event as to develop abilities to think effectively about complex processes, the emphasis in teaching and assessment should be on those qualities of mind as needed in other situations. If we’ve learned something about a complex process, let’s try using it on something other than the French Revolution. And in research, qualities of mind would stand as the principle of evaluation.
This is an edited extract from Griffith REVIEW 31: Ways of Seeing (Text Publishing) www.griffithreivew.com.