Thursday 30 September 2010

Not worth knowing?

'Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences: why should we care?', British Academy, London, 20 September 2010

In the mid-twentieth century a public intellectual was waiting for a cab. When the taxi driver recognised him, he remarked, ‘I had Bertrand Russell in the back the other day. I asked “So what’s it all about then?” And do you know he couldn’t tell me.’ This anecdote told by Professor Peter Hennesley, Chair of the recent British Academy debate ‘Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences: why should we care?’ was intended to illustrate how difficult it has been historically for the humanities to make their case in the face of demands for utility and easy answers. But it also illustrates a time when the humanities had their sights raised high. The cab driver, in his naive way, was expressing a cultural expectation that philosophers, social scientists, and experts in the arts considered the big questions of life. These days the humanities and social sciences are expected to demonstrate how they fit into the rather narrower political concerns of today.

Of course, given the treasurer’s axe precariously hanging over our universities, it is not surprising that non-STEM (not science, technology, engineering or maths) disciplines are working hard to demonstrate their relevance, and if the British Academy’s booklet ‘Past, Present and Future: The Public Value of the Humanities and Social Sciences’ is anything to go by, there is a rich seam of examples to mine. But while the traditional view of the irrelevance of the humanities has always been something of a caricature, I found myself nostalgic for the cloistered ivory towers of the past.

Dame Hazel Genn QC pointed out that the social sciences have a ubiquitous role in formulating government policy. From climate change to health to family policy, the insights of the social sciences are crucial to understanding why people behave the way they do, which policy interventions work, and which don’t. Someone objected that the demand to be relevant to government policy destroys the space that is necessary to maintain a critical view of government priorities. Dame Genn, however, was not arguing that social scientists should slavishly adhere to government policy. A central part of her point was that social science could identify where bad policies were being implemented, perhaps justified by anecdote or a ‘wave of emotion’ following a disaster. But the issue does raise questions about the need for academic subjects to maintain their autonomy. David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said the ‘two cultures’ distinction between the arts and sciences was out of date. He wasn’t keen, though, on the ‘obscure’ research that goes on in arts subjects, nor the requirement to learn the canon rather than engage in cutting edge research like the sciences do.

Nevertheless, canon learning and ‘obscure’ research are necessary to mark out the boundaries of a subject, and subjects must have autonomy if they are to maintain a critical distance from political fads. Most of the examples Dame Genn gave concerned the question of how to promote behaviour change. The notion that behaviour change should be central to government policy comes from areas like behavioural economics or even neuroscience rather than, say, sociology. However, a probable reason that something like behaviour change gets a free pass from some sociologists is that the interdisciplinary approach taken by policy-relevant social science research takes certain assumptions for granted that perhaps would be subjected to closer scrutiny within a discipline. Sociology, for example, has its roots in an understanding of the social world that is not reducible to individual behaviour.

The problem is even more acute in the discussion of the arts and humanities. While there were arguments made about the importance of the arts in the creative economy, the representatives of the British Academy found it rather more difficult to defend the more esoteric areas of research. The ‘Humanities for Business’ programme with its modules on ‘The wisdom of crowds: Rousseau’s impact on modern marketing’ and ‘Inspirational leadership: ethics and deception in Shakespeare’s Henry V’ may provide business leaders with insights that allow them to break with the rigidity of conventional practices (1), but the bulk of humanities work will involve the kind of study that will probably never yield insights that can be used in the worlds of politics, business or anything else outside of academia. Such study helps to build up the knowledge base of that discipline however, and this is unquantifiably important.

On one level, the British Academy recognises this. The introduction to Past, Present and Future says ‘there is no simple way of demonstrating the subtle and unexpected ways in which academic disciplines “contribute to the vitality of society”’ (2), but this also implies that academic disciplines should be defended on their own terms and not those of policy makers.

‘Past, Present and Future: The Public Value of the Humanities and Social Sciences’ by the British Academy is available at
‘What is the Point of the Social Sciences?’ will be debated at the Battle of Ideas, 30-31 October at the Royal College of Art in London
(1) Past Present and Future: The Public Value of the Humanities and Social Sciences’ by the British Academy, pp 20-21
(2) ibid, p5

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