Francis O’Gorman (University of Leeds)
The question of the public value of the humanities has risen in the UK to new prominence with speed. And rather than providing an opportunity for scholars to talk about the values of the arts and humanities, the topic is now fraught with discontented, and discontenting, politics. It is plagued by emotive and poorly understood terms including ‘elitism’ and ‘democracy’. It is plagued, too, by the problem of scholars acceding too readily to politicians’ comprehension of the ‘public value of the humanities’. This peculiar situation is the result of a crude mutation of the question ‘What is the value of the humanities to the public?’ into ‘what will individuals/groups pay for the humanities?’ or even: ‘the only humanities that have value are ones that individuals/groups will pay for’. With distinguished exceptions, we have been slow to resist this. And for Victorianists, that is a particular surprise, since in the disputes of, and between, thinkers including Matthew Arnold, Henry Cole, Benjamin Jowett, Robert Lowe, John Henry Newman, Mark Pattison, John Ruskin, and very many others we have had some of the debates already explored with vigour and gravity.
The privileged sense of ‘value’ today is—as it was for some Victorians—financial. UK academics are encouraged to assess how we can make money from what we do: grant income, uncapped student markets (international students and PhDs); outreach and commercial activity; ‘impact’. Certainly, we have ‘impact’ categories for applications for external funding and, in the Research Evaluation Framework (REF 2014), ‘impact’ is a significant category of assessment (20 per cent of the total). REF defines impact as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’.[i] A significant portion of research funding, that is to say, will be targeted in the UK after REF at those whose work has been judged to have had demonstrable consequences on or for, among other things, the economy.
It remains to be seen how ‘effect on, change or benefit to […] society, culture or quality of life’ can be quantitatively assessed. But it does not remain to be seen how quickly many in the humanities believe they should transform themselves and their disciplines to answer these new government requirements for what happens in universities, and how value can be demonstrably quantified. In Victorian studies, we have long been interested in the connection between the arts and social practice, between the humanities and communities: such relationships are distinctive subjects for the Victorians themselves. But those are quite different matters from thinking the social benefits of literary or historical study are both plainly quantifiable and a major purpose of thoughtful, rigorous research and teaching in the universities.
Are there any worrying motivations behind the rapid embrace of some new subject areas? In English departments in the UK, for instance, we have seen the remarkable development of medical humanities; digital humanities; eco-humanities; and more generally ‘the new humanities’. Much work here is valuable and important. (And hard: I am trying to do a little of it myself.) Much is long-standing and distinguished. But the merely strategic embrace of such developments, the ones without intellectual integrity, play into government-led notions that distort value, threaten the intellectual integrity that is the foundation of rigorous thought, and risk substituting quality for what is fundable.
The question of ‘impact’ also risks privileging, like the National Student Survey, what is merely popular. It is a strikingly limited way of judging significance by asking what measurable consequences an idea or a piece of research has had within a limited timeframe. For a start, it must be an idea or research that appeals widely—so it is less likely to be radical, challenging, provocative, and counter-cultural. The economist—and reader of Anthony Trollope, as it happens—John Kenneth Galbraith has written powerfully of the way in which the significance of ideas is culturally circumscribed by often out-of-date modes of thinking. The Affluent Society (1958) is worth reading again. And why should measurable, quantifiable ‘consequence’, ‘impact’, or ‘influence’ be an index of real intellectual significance anyway? Sometimes ideas have unintended consequences; sometimes the consequences follow simply from a misunderstanding of the original idea. Sometimes, indeed, the really interesting ideas are the ones that no-one listens to. In the nineteenth century, one does not have to look far to see that contemporary metrics of impact—‘effect on, change or benefit to […] society, culture or quality of life’—do not provide us with a precise index to the meaning, achievement, and intellectual and aesthetic purposes of, say, Algernon Charles Swinburne or John Henry Newman or—crossing the Atlantic—Emily Dickinson. John Ruskin, indeed, came to think that he had been principally influential in the wrong way; that his intentions had been distorted and his arguments misunderstood. Judging his significance on impact was dramatically to mistake what he had actually meant.
What is ‘fundable’ has become accepted with astonishing rapidity as a proxy for quality. We seem to have forgotten the simplest arguments of the nineteenth-century critics of commercialism that value is not defined by money. The importance of a research activity in the humanities is now increasingly judged, not least for promotion purposes, in terms of income generated. Humanities scholarship is being changed through privatization and marketization. But has the academy really found a new faith in the notion that the market creates value? Have Victorianists stopped reading the debates of the nineteenth century or decided they have been concluded? Certainly, all this has happened simply too quickly for the academy to know what it thinks. But there is no doubt how readily some university managers have accepted the terms of the market with hardly a protest. Some really do think that fundability and excellence are the same thing. Some, I suspect, really do think that money is the principal aim of a university.
Within the UK, the privatization of the humanities has to be set in the broader context of the decision to privatize Higher Education itself by withdrawing national funding in England from teaching except in the form of student loans. To the question ‘what is the value of the humanities’ for many an undergraduate from England there is now a straightforward answer: £9000 a year. A faith in the market as the guarantor of quality has been diversely launched into HE. Many may believe but none can know what will happen. For us as Victorianists, we may be invited by university managers to ask questions such as these in the light of privatization: ‘How much can you sell Victorian studies for?’ ‘How much will students pay to be taught on this MA or do this PhD?’ ‘How can you make your undergraduate module on Victorian literature more popular so it will, in effect, be more financially “profitable”’? Being so questioned, Victorianists find themselves in the most peculiar relationship with some of the most trenchant ideas in the nineteenth century about what can and cannot be sold. Whether we agree with Victorian arguments or not, we are certainly—with pungent irony—being asked to behave as if we have not read core texts of the period.
We should say more about that, I think. One of the most striking weaknesses in the defence of the humanities is academics ourselves. The relevance of the wisecrack that academics will do anything for money is uncomfortably apt. Consider the apparent readiness of UK humanities scholars to embrace radical changes in the nature of their intellectual endeavours – ‘impact’ in REF being merely one –simply with grumbling. We need a better body to represent us locally and in Europe. But academics in the humanities must make it clearer that they care about the humanities themselves—and rigorous, clear-eyed research in them.
Often enough we take up intellectual activities that suggest we are trying to get away from that. And as a profession we waste far too much time on things that are not the humanities. We fill in forms; we struggle with some new piece of poorly-designed software; we pursue often ill-fated collaborative schemes to chase grants that we hardly stand a chance of getting; we are asked to undertake tasks (like careers advice and counselling, employability sessions and public outreach events) for which we have no skill or knowledge; we pursue initiatives that are temporary. And we spend far too much time in meetings. No one in the medical, legal, or teaching profession, for instance, can understand why academics spend so many hours each day sitting around talking to each other with impossibly long agendas in front of them. It gives the impression that we think our work is not important. It gives the impression that the real work of an academic is actually a spare-time activity.
At one level the problem we as humanities scholars are having is with that age-old mythic terror, the fear of the serpent: the serpent that brings knowledge into innocence. We are always wrestling with a cultural objection to knowledge, expertise, thoughtfulness, whether it is within the university or without. We will not overcome that easily. We are coming too familiar with the assumption, within a university and without, that superficiality, speed, and eye-catching headlines based on neither sufficient knowledge nor rigorous thought are in fact virtues. We need to be more confident in our own beliefs in what we do, and in the integrity of what we profess. And we Victorianists could, alongside that, be more energetic in reminding readers, university managers, and students of the debates about economics, education, community, values, and about the humanities themselves that were probed in the nineteenth century with such energy and commitment. When we as scholars and teachers are being asked by managers to sell the past, it would be as well not to forget the past at the same time.
Studying the humanities is a more-than legitimate activity; the aesthetic is a more-than wholly acceptable object for rigorous and attentive study. We should not be embarrassed to admit that. And, like practitioners of every other advanced discipline, we need to talk to each other, however much we talk to those outside the academy. Everything we say does not need to be made accessible to the public, ‘popular’, or merely eye-catching. That is no way to rigour. It is a troubling metamorphosis of the notion of value that something as precious as the humanities should now, once again, risk being measured primarily by what money it can make. Recasting the essence of the humanities and of a national education system, the UK academy seems bizarrely ready to transform itself overnight into a business with merely a mild protest. Money matters. I like my salary as much as anyone. But the oldest of human wisdom reminds us of exactly what happens when we put money first.[ii]
[i]<http://www.ref.ac.uk/media/ref/content/pub/assessmentframeworkandguidanceonsubmissions/GOS%20including%20addendum.pdf, 3.3.140 (accessed 21 March 2013).
[ii] This essay draws on some material from an Afterword in a forthcoming collection of essays from the Four Courts Press, Dublin, on Restating the Value of the Humanities, ed. Jane Conroy and Margaret Kelleher (2013). Thanks to those who attended the IRHSS conference on this topic in April 2012 (see http://www.irchss.ie/sites/default/files/programme_restating_the_value_of_the_humanities.pdf, accessed 2 April 2013); and on my lecture to the annual BAVS conference at Sheffield, 30 August-1 September 2012, now forthcoming as ‘“Influence” in the Contemporary Study of the Humanities: The Problem of Ruskin’ in Carlyle Studies Annual (2013). My thanks also to Dr Katherine Mullin, Professor David Sorensen, Professor Andrew Thompson, and Dr Jane Wright. The views here expressed though are my own, and are not a statement about any individual or single institution.