This Friday, at the Oxford graduate conference on value, I asked a terrible question about “The Value of the Humanities” . It was during a roundtable between three senior academics, among them Helen Small, author of The Value of the Humanities. What I asked was, basically, whether we weren’t in fact throwing the Humanities under the bus by allowing the question “What is the Value of the Humanities?” in this broad, abstract way. I suggested that scientists rarely discuss the “Value of the Sciences” in this way, despite the fact that not all scientific work has obvious or immediate value.
Helen Small quickly pointed out that, of course, scientists have to prove the value of their work at least as much as we do and that they are constantly being reviewed: “If they don’t prove their value, they simply lose their labs”.
Patrick Hayes, the second panelist, was not as forgiving and said that my question made no sense because everybody has to prove the value of their work, otherwise nobody will pay them. At that point I panicked, blabbered something about broadness, and clandestinely attempted Hara-Kiri by pencil.
So this is the point where I find myself in a hole and keep on digging, in the hope that there is at least a deeper understanding on my part, on the other end. I think that maybe my error was one of communication and not of content. I think, the panel understood that I was asking whether we should allow questions about the value of our work or the work in our field. But what I had meant to ask was whether we should allow the question about THE Value of THE Humanities, instead of focusing on the value of our own and each other’s work.
This is why I brought up scientists. Of course, scientists have to prove the value of their work and the times of easy funding are well over. But as far as I’m aware, scientists, who have to show the value of their work in order to keep a lab or get funding, will try to make their work appear as valuable as possible but they will rarely argue for The Value of The Sciences, partially because the sciences, like the Humanities, are much too fragmented to make a single argument about their value.
Imagine if someone asked you “what gives your life meaning?” – a question that might be answered with the pursuit of knowledge, helping others, having fun, raising children, solving problems, etc. etc. – but instead you opt for “So you want me to tell you the meaning of life?”. You are replacing a concrete question that has concrete answers, however difficult to uncover they might be and however much soul searching they might require, by one that is so abstract it can only be answered in platitudes, if at all.
There is no one size fits all answer and yet we ask the question as if there were and thereby make our answers ring hollow – surely, the meaning of life is not to have children or to pursue knowledge, even if these things give individual lives immense meaning. Surely, individual works in the Humanities have meaning, which cannot be extended to cover all of the discipline.
This is why what Helen Small does in The Value of the Humanities is so valuable. The book does not put forward a single answer – Helen Small makes no single claim for the value of the Humanities herself – instead it shows that all the existing arguments can be classified as falling into one of five categories. Then she shows that no single answer is universally applicable. In fact, Helen countered some of my broadness claims by saying that, of course, part of the work in the Humanities is to take an impossibly broad question and break it down. And that’s exactly what she does. But all the people she critiques fail to do it and that’s why they end up with explaining the value of the Humanities with an answer as broad (and insufficient) as “Democracy needs us”.
The book goes on to critique the tendency of those engaged in a defence of the Humanities to make “us vs. them” dichotomies – to claim that “The Humanities” develop a particular intellectual ability or fulfil a particular role in society that “The Sciences” fail to. This is partially a bad idea because no matter what the quality is the Humanities are said to promote, there will always be works in the Humanities that do not accomplish or even attempt this and individual works in the Sciences which do. So no matter what argument you put forward for the Value of the Humanities, you are always inviting disproofs.
In its broadness, I think, the question for the Value of the Humanities is a trap. As we all know, when you ask for “the answer to the ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”, what you get is as helpful as “42” or “Democracy needs us”. But that does not mean that your work in the Humanities has no value; it simply means that its value is specific to itself and might be extended to a couple of other works but not to a discipline as vast and many-faceted as “The Humanities”. Just as the fact that I don’t know what the meaning of life is does not mean that my own life has no meaning.
Speaking of life, have I finished digging this grave, yet? Am I making it worse? Or is there value at the bottom of this pit?