A way forward for the Humanities?

The Coalition’s plans for higher education rest upon an anachronistic view of learning, which separates the 'practical' sciences from the humanities, viewed as a financial drain with no earthly use. Chris Parton looks to emerging interdisciplinary and conscilient fields for a way forward.
Chris Parton
25 February 2011

The Coalition’s plans for higher education rest upon a fractured and anachronistic view of learning. The humanities are seen to be severed irreconcilably from their more practical scientific cousins with the former dressed as a kind of educational benefit cheat – a financial drain of seemingly no earthly use. Chris Parton looks to emerging interdisciplinary and conscilient fields for a way forward.

Universities are facing colossal cuts to humanities budgets alongside a simultaneous privileging of the core sciences. In the words of Nicola Horlick, the CEO of Bramden Asset Management who recently appeared on BBC2's Newsnight, more graduates “need to do science”. Simple. The study of, say, literature, as people like Horlick explain, just isn't economically useful enough and will not get the “country out of the mess we're in”. It is a view evidently shared by Michael Gove.

The only thing more alarming than this mantra, parroted time and time again in the most philistine quarters, is the as yet lamentable humanities defence. Terry Eagleton has correctly pointed out that the only way the humanities “can be defended is by stressing how indispensable they are”. Yet in terms of a justification for literary studies at least, the left media seems to be stuck with a woolly rehearsal of Shelley's A Defence of Poetry. Priyamvada Gopal, writing in the Guardian, has therefore suggested that although “the humanities will not save the world”, they do help generate virtues such as “creativity, empathy and tolerance”.

As cosy sounding as these terms are, however, they remain little more than ethical buzzwords. And needless to say buzzwords will not save the humanities. Aggressive attacks require equally aggressive defences. After all, there is nothing inherently progressive about Gopal's trinity. Wasn't it the highly ‘creative’ lending practices of the world's banks which resulted in the crisis in the first place? Would ‘tolerating’ the tax avoidance of powerful corporations make the world a better place? Couldn't ‘empathising’ with a psychopath imply a case of sinister manipulation? In this ruthlessly utilitarian climate concepts like empathy and creativity might indeed be useful allies, but without more flesh on the bone they run the risk of appearing like abstract indulgences; what Democritus once called “ornaments for the prosperous”.

To avoid this trap we should look to what Jonathan Gottschall has termed the “New Humanities”; emerging interdisciplinary and conscilient fields of inquiry. Evolutionary literary criticism (sensibly shortened to Evocriticism) is one such discipline. Critics working within this area have started to explore the way that narrative is biologically as well as culturally bound up with what it is to be human. Academics such as Brian Boyd, Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson are pioneering studies which demonstrate the relationships between literary texts, culture and human biology. Evocriticism therefore offers a succinct but sophisticated rebuttal to the ideas of those like Horlick, that literature is “great” but of little practical use. On the contrary, by positing narrative as a universal human process and evolutionary adaptation nonetheless, Evocriticism places storytelling, rather like the immune system, at the heart of human survival. What could be more practical? 

Whether you want to know why Obama could not explicitly denounce Mubarak or why your flatmate keeps using your milk, the “social calculus” offered by stories may be vital. Human survival requires a rather careful but quick processing of temporal and causal structures; understanding the intention of others and inferring explanations for events. It is therefore likely, as Brian Boyd points out in the extremely prescient Origin of Stories, that because human beings appear to think via experience, the simulations offered by stories constitute a kind of gruelling neurological boot camp. Coupled with our everyday lives this boot camp experience aids our reasoning about life and provides us with useful ‘scripts’ from which to draw conclusions. Narrative is, then, according to Boyd underpinned by Theory of Mind, our “intense interest in monitoring” and “understanding” other social agents.

For sure, this is a more naturalistic account of what a Romantic might term empathy, but it lacks many of the pseudo-mystical obfuscations which often accompany that particular term. Indeed, one of the main strengths of Evocriticism is the way it often builds upon or offers empirical evidence for the insights of scholars who have gone before. We now know that what men like Shelley and Hazlitt viewed as a curious 'going out of the self', is actually far more likely the result of ‘mirror neurons’ firing in the brain. By utilising both humanities and scientific methodologies and focuses, then, Evocriticism offers fresh insights and refutes the fragmented division of fields of inquiry which Tory cuts appear to rely upon and reinforce.

One exciting new path that Evocriticism might tread in the future is a more considered relationship between itself and the more politically minded modes of cultural critique. Nearly fifty years ago Pierre Macherray claimed literature's emancipatory potential lay in its ability to stage or objectify the complex of ideologies within which we are all immersed. Interestingly, some of the Evocritics now appear to be unwittingly singing from similar hymn sheets. Information flows at a much more rapid pace with narrative than it does in real life, Boyd asserts, but it also allows for a comparatively disengaged perspective and thus a considerably improved hermeneutics. Likewise, literature's apparent evolutionary role in manipulating attention suggests rather fruitful connections with those scholars analysing the relationship between language and ideology. 

All this points to the fact that we should not surrender so supinely to a meek “humanities will not save the world” think. On the contrary, we should reject the very notion of a humanities-sciences split. It is just another of those make believe divisions (rather like that between front and back office functions) which the Tories have dreamt up to justify their savage cuts. The ideas of those like Horlick are blighted by that myopia and mediocrity which so often passes for acumen in the business world. In reality, there are both practical and ethical justifications for a study of the humanities. And in truth, as all right minded people know, this is not really a battle between the Higgs Boson or Harry Potter. It is one between those who would fund education in its richest and most meaningful sense, and those who would have it annexed by a narrow set of crude financial concerns.

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