It is only through imagination that men become aware of what the world might be; without it, ‘progress’ would become mechanical and trivial.(Bertrand Russel)
This question, “And your relevance is…?”, has become a common thread in the life of a scholar coming from the Humanities field. As the author of last week’s post rightly highlighted, the Humanities are faced today with the challenge of justifying their existence, first and foremost in front of the policy-makers. In the context of harder economic times, the question: “And your point is?” has become compulsory for any grant application, and it is even the case that entire disciplines are threatened with extinction and departments closed down.
There have been two common reactions among the scholars: the strive to find an appropriate answer to the question, or to completely ignore it (either due to ignorance, or by considering it futile). However, the question would be who are these policy-makers, is the general public really in need of a more in depth view of our disciplines, and more importantly can there be any appropriate answer? I think not.
Firstly, as a recent research by the New College of the Humanities showed, “60% of the UK’s leaders have humanities, arts or social science degrees” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2012/jan/11/defend-humanities-graduates). I would say that even in the case of other countries, a significant number of top level politicians fit in the same category. From this point of view, things start to appear in a new light: at least some of the policy-makers are already familiar with the Humanities. In the same time, for example in the case of Archaeology, there is definitely no lack of public interest.
The problems I think start when one needs to establish the frame of reference for this “justification”: if what is deemed as “socially relevant” or with social impact is quantified in terms of material things/results, then this is very far from the purpose of these disciplines. I am afraid the question comes out of a world-view very different from the one in which Humanities work, so there can be no “appropriate” answer from the Humanities that will fit in it. Therefore, by trying to answer the question inside the parameters set by the expectations of the stake-holders betrays the very essence of our disciplines. To quote Nicholas Davey, in a recent collection of papers on the public value of the Humanities, “It is a poor view of research activity that defines it solely in terms of advancing knowledge in a specialism” (http://www.bloomsburyacademic.com/view/PublicValueHumanities_9781849662451/chapter-ba-9781849662451-chapter-0024.xml;jsessionid=C11B4E9A33ADBDDA86ACE3CD6A9CB91A).
Of course I do not advocate for a retreat in the Parnassus of science, and I do believe that the Humanities are in a major need of self-evaluation, but from a different point of view. What I do think is needed is a reconsideration within the disciplines themselves of what their value/point is. It seems that there is very little interest left in reflective approaches on what it means to be human, on values, virtues and things related. And these are the fundamentals of what makes us and our disciplines. It would be as futile to answer the question “Why is poetry needed or opera” (see for example a well reasoned argument on a related topic: http://www.contributors.ro/dezbatere/despre-secularism-cu-calm-%C8%99i-voie-buna/). It is obvious that even by asking it, one has failed to grasp its very essence. However, we are responsible for establishing inside these disciplines what it is that we are aiming to do. As a consequence of the inter-disciplinary approaches, deconstructivism and relativistic stances, the disciplines (or at least some) seem to have split in sometimes contradictory approaches: from almost positivist based ones to those that are looking “from within” the subject of the research. But there seems to be no dialogue between these various branches, no common ground, and no evaluation of the narratives created, in terms of: What deeper question are we trying to answer? Why? Should we even bother anymore about looking for the Truth? (and I do not mean it here as a single, prescriptive way of doing research, but in the way of a quality pertaining to the essence of the world around/within)
What the Humanities can do in this context of General crisis (and not just at an economic level) is try to re-evaluate the notion of evidence and proof, to re-phrase the question in terms of “What does relevance mean?”. By following the spirit of Bertrand Russel’s quote, “Will this make us happier?”. Our goal is to meditate on the sense of our experiences, not to provide facts and figures. And I think this might be a way of starting to explore the notion of value, which is too often missing from the broader dialogue, and from the societies we live in.
*the title of this post was inspired by the title of Chris Gosden‘s article, part of the already mentioned “The Public value of the Humanities” collection, ed. by J. Bate (2011)
by Alexandra Ion, finishing a PhD in Theoretical Archaeology at the University of Bucharest
This post is part of the weekly series: HUMANITIES TODAY- a series of provocative and interesting posts from people within the academia or the educational sector