I don’t work in Higher Education, and, while I try to avoid it, it isn’t quite possible to read history blogs without encountering the discussion about the current climate of cutbacks, particularly in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately most of that “discussion” consists of ever more strident demands “give us money!” and the sense of entitlement is enough to make any normal person feel sick. It’s my taxes that they are discussing, after all. Some of us are net contributors to public funds; most of these people are net gainers, intent on looting funds which they do not supply.
So it was a pleasure to read a piece here by Martin Rundkvist, Hope for the humanities?
Yesterday I had been invited to speak at a seminar organised by the Forum for Heritage Research, a network sponsored by four Swedish organisations in the field. The headline was “Hope for the Humanities”, and I must admit that I gritted my teeth at the idealist, anti-market and downright unrealistic perspective presented in the invitation copy. Here’s a piece based on what I said at the seminar.
Conan the Barbarian, or Aragorn son of Arathorn, or Ronia the Robber’s Daughter all represent something of central importance to the heritage sector and to the humanities in general. At the same time, on the one hand they embody something we must always seek to achieve, that is the wondersome excitement of discovering a fantastic past – and on the other something we must avoid if we are to fill any independent purpose at all, as these characters and the worlds they inhabit are fictional. Historical humanities, excepting the aesthetic disciplines, deal with reality. This is our unique competitive selling point that we must never lose sight of.
“How can humanistic and historical scholarship contribute to a better society?”, asked the seminar’s hosts.
The humanities won’t mend a leaky roof. They won’t put food on the table. They won’t cure polio. They won’t create peace or prosperity. And taxpayers know this perfectly well. For these reasons, I believe that we absolutely cannot market ourselves in terms of any indispensable societally structure-supporting utility. We will only makes fools of ourselves. Because the raison d’être of the historical humanities doesn’t lie in any practical utility, but in their enjoyment potential. In the joy of learning something interesting about the past that is true. In the joy of seeing something for real that has survived since antiquity.
This suggests a kind of punk-rock attitude where a defiant humanities scholar says “I’m not gonna provide anything measurable or manageable or trivial or popular!” And sure, that is up to the individual. But if we are to expect a monthly salary from the taxpayers, then I think we will have to accept that they want to be able to measure and manage our product. How else are they supposed to know if it’s worth it to continue paying our salaries? And they want us to produce stuff that, within the realm of solid real-world humanities scholarship, is at least as much fun as a TV game show or Conan the Barbarian.
Martin goes on to discuss various false justifications, with much acuteness.
I have written before on how state “funding” is not free. It is exacted by men in uniforms from ordinary people. After all, the rich man pays hardly any tax, and the higher the tax rate is, the less he bothers to pay. The rich will never pay taxes, because all countries are run by rich people and always will be. Every bit of funding for patristics, therefore, is exacted by force from people who perhaps do not have enough to live on, and most of whom will certainly not have enough to retire on, and who gain no benefit from it. It means forcing the poor and the powerless to work long hours for no reward, so that some official somewhere can “grant funding” to some academic for some purpose. I am in favour of patristics. But … phew! That’s a lot to justify. We must always remember that taxes are not a good. They are a necessary evil. Every tax diminishes us all, bleeds life from us all.
This does not mean that the humanities must be thrown away. In war time we did not close down all the orchestras! But it does mean that the humanities do have to justify their receipt of money exacted from the poor. It is, admittedly, pleasant to read Aeschylus and to learn to quote Horace. But at someone else’s expense? I’m not sure about that.
I think Martin has put his finger on a real truth. The humanities serve the community. They are a luxury item. But the community is glad to contribute something, so long as it gets something. Indiana Jones is a popular figure. Archaeology there should be.
But … the sense of entitlement needs to end. No society has a duty to support a caste of people contemptuous of those to whom they owe everything and who consider communicating with the public beneath them.
Papyrologists and Coptologists … this means you! Get out there and start earning your salary by engaging with the public. After all, if the public love you, the politicians will find a way to keep you going.