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.

I'm very interested in the humanities, particularly archaeology, which is my profession. But I have no interest in TV game shows, even though I know that they're extremely popular. Why is that?

A cultural idealist will reply that it's because I have good taste: historical humanities are inherently and objectively more interesting and worthwhile than TV game shows. But I'm no cultural idealist. I'm a cultural and aesthetic relativist. This means that I acknowledge no objective standards for the evaluation of works of art. There are no definitive aesthetic judgements, there is only reception history. There is no objective way of deciding whether Elvis Presley is better than Swedish Elvis impersonator Eilert Pilarm. It is possible, and in fact rather common, to prefer Lady Gaga to Johann Sebastian Bach. De gustibus non est disputandum.

This means that I can't say that it would be better if everyone who likes football took up historical humanities instead. Both football and historical humanities are fun and of no practical use. Which one we choose is a matter of individual character and subcultural background.

This is important. We do a lot of what we do because of our subcultural background, which is largely composed of class background. I am a second-generation academic from the middle class. I do middle class things such as reading novels, skiing on the golf course in the winters, writing essays like this and studying historical humanities. If my parents had been workers, then I would most likely have been doing quite different things. And that would have been fine too. One thing is as good as another provided that it is fun.

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

This is by the American author Robert Erwin Howard, writing in 1932. He's 26 years old and has four years left to live. At age 30, he will kill himself because his mother has died.

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.

There are those who claim that the historical humanities fill an important purpose in reinforcing democracy. Sometimes their rhetoric suggests that the main task of the humanities is indeed to keep people from becoming Nazis and repeating the Holocaust. To those who claim this ability for our disciplines, I can only say "Show me the evidence". There is in fact nothing about the humanities that automatically makes its results politically palatable. The non-humanities people I know are equally good liberals as the humanities majors. Actually, the most brown-shirted individual I have ever spoken to was an archaeology post-grad for a while in the 90s.

In the invitation to the seminar, we were warned about "heritage populism without reflection or depth". But in my experience, many of the taxpayers who fund us actually really want to enjoy the cultural heritage in a populist manner without any great reflection or depth. They understand that Late Medieval murals painter Albertus Pictor and Conan the Barbarian are not the same kind of character. But they consume stories about both for the same reason: for enjoyment's sake. This means that it's our job to make humanistic knowledge available on all levels and to meet every member of the audience where they stand. Our task, unlike that of historical novelists, is to tell true stories - that also have to be exciting and fun. Because there really is no practical use to the humanities. And an activity that is neither useful nor fun has no value whatsoever.

"... culture and heritage suffer under a utilitarian economical mode of thought that focuses on which museums, heritages [this probably refers to archaeological sites], interpretations and blogs can attract the most visitors. Such a bestsellerism can give rise to trivialised and unreflected messages." (from the invitation)

"Does the heritage sector flatten perspectives by presenting the heritage in a simple, measurable and manageable package?" (from the invitation)

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.

So, to conclude: if humanities scholars produce stuff that is neither practically useful nor enjoyable, if our output is not only useless but also boring, then there is no hope for the humanities. Then we simply have to starve.

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Your post and a post by Razib Khan about a major Anthropology Society wanting to remove science from their name are a nice coupling. Speaking as one of those taxpayers - I am certainly not wanting to fund groups of supposed academics who disdain evidence and just want to save democracy. On the other hand, having gone to a lot of museums, (I am the paying cutomer and donor) I hate the "bestsellerism" that is described in your quote also. Nothing wrong with it if it is accompanied by things that show the depth of knowledge and the complexity of out models of the past. But often the depth part is missing. Professionals should have that scientific / materialistic depth in my opinion. That is what you are for eh?

This is an excellent argument for ending all public funding of the humanities (e.g. removing them from public universities in the United States).

Seriously. As you admit, the humanities have no practical use. Taxpayer money should not be wasted on mere entertainment, and college students should not be required to spend their tuition (which, thanks to student grants/loans, is often also taxpayer money) fulfilling humanities requirements which have no practical value.

We need to repurpose colleges to teach what students need to know in their careers, not what an outmoded 19th century British model thinks is necessary for a well-rounded citizen. If that means that most archaeology professors have to find real jobs, fine. Society overall benefits.

By mad the swine (not verified) on 10 Dec 2010 #permalink

Our task, unlike that of historical novelists, is to tell true stories - that also have to be exciting and fun.

Bang goes my thesis then! ;)

In all seriousness though, I was pretty sceptical of your 'we are there for entertainment' stance at first but you make a good case for it here and elsewhere.

By Richard D (not verified) on 10 Dec 2010 #permalink

Why truth? How is that supposed to relate to "enjoyment potential?"

By bob koepp (not verified) on 10 Dec 2010 #permalink

Mark, in order to differentiate ourselves from Disney World, our museums must present the best and most up-to-date scholarly information possible. But we must never allow the quest for accuracy to leave enjoyment behind. Just because we know something to be true, it doesn't automatically mean that it is interesting to the public. Just like most archaeological objects are not displayworthy.

Richard, thank you! I'm sure it's possible to dig something enjoyable out of that thesis.

Bob, truth is what differentiates the humanities from Disney World. Without the Enlightenment search for truth about the world, there is no reason to fund the humanities as university subjects. We could just make fun stuff up and illustrate it with fake objects.

MtS, we can't de-fund the humanities, lots of particularly vociferous taxpayers would get really angry. I know I would! Anyway, all Western countries can afford a bit of humanities. After all, the money involved is negligible compared to tech and pharma research. But when the comet strikes and we really need to prioritise, I think the humanities should be the first to go.

In Sweden, no equivalent of college exists and students in higher education (universities, engineering institutes, business schools) are not confronted with any humanities requirements. It's optional once you graduate from high school.

And I agree that we should put a ceiling on the number of archaeology students allowed to enrol per annum. The kids are being suckered into a dead-end career and end up driving buses.

And an activity that is neither useful nor fun has no value whatsoever.

Let's take this as true. I think it follows that an activity that is not useful but is fun (such as, apparently, the historical humanities) does have value, and an activity that is useful but not fun (perhaps this describes many forms of manual labour, and most activities described as "somebody has to do it") also has value. Presumably an activity that is both useful and fun has plenty of value.

Under this framework, the humanities, historical and otherwise, will always have value under all circumstances. These poor deluded fools who take archeology degrees then end up driving buses for decades did not waste their time. There's little point in spending 3 or 4 years developing one's bus-driving skills to a world-class level, when the alternative is to learn a great deal about a great many things, upon which one can happily ponder (i.e., it's fun) during the less-fun parts of driving a bus.

This is the education-enriches argument, I think. A bus driver with the knowledge and critical-thinking skills provided by a university degree, in any subject, presumably has more fun on a day-to-day basis than her less-educated coworkers.

By TheBrummell (not verified) on 10 Dec 2010 #permalink

Combining a bus driver's poor salary with the debt typically incurred while getting a university degree means desperately poor personal finances. And also I believe that anyone capable of graduating from university will soon become quite bored with driving that bus.

I recommend the would-be archaeologist to get an education that leads to a well-paid, prestigious and steady job, then do this job at 60-80% of full time and devote the rest of their energies to amateur archaeology. If a full-time scholar can produce 4-5 academic papers a year, then such a part-time archaeologist can produce at least one.

"I recommend the would-be archaeologist to get an education that leads to a well-paid, prestigious and steady job, then do this job at 60-80% of full time and devote the rest of their energies to amateur archaeology."

Hopefully, such a person would find sufficient fulfillment in their "hobby" without publishing that one paper a year...since it seems that they would be scoffed at for practicing "psuedoarchaeology" without the "correct" degree!

An interesting presentation, Martin, and food for thought. As for "making stuff up" , perhaps we need more "Cardiff Giants"! The recent news stories about "Hobbits" come to mind as well. Now it turns out they may have been stalked by giant Maribou storks?? Maybe "making stuff up" isn't required...

Let's face it...without fun, without intrigue, without excitement....archaeology as a disipline would have disappeared long, long ago.

I don't scoff at good archaeological work by people without a degree in the discipline. We publish it in Fornvännen. I do scoff at really bad stuff regardless of the authors' academic status.

I don't scoff at good archaeological work by people without a degree

No, I know you don't. Your willingness to engage interested amateurs speaks to that. But there will always be those that ignore good work because of it's source, unfortunately. Your advice is sound, and I agree with it...to a point.

I would love to be that person. But how much can really be done by even the well-heeled amateur? Without funding from academia (which won't come without the proper credentials), how much can be done, realistically? (no, really, I'm asking, no criticizing....!)
Are you talking about someone having a fullfilling hobby, or something more...?

#2 - I fundamentally disagree. As a boring engineer who spends his life doing 'useful stuff' I have a burning interest in where I came from, and highly value people like Martin. The world would be a barren, sterile place without this knowledge. I can't imagine just living day to day, never knowing anything ancestral.

And there are plenty of useless engineers who are not worth their pay, I assure you. I will sack a few and Martin and his mates can have their salaries.

And incidentally, I don't entirely agree with Martin that archaeology is solely for entertainment purposes - think 'lost knowledge' for one, and 'past cataclysmic events' which in some cases can be cyclic or recurring over long time spans, for another. You can't base a whole justification just on those things, but they count for something important.

I believe Martin's main point is that archaeology needs to be made intelligible and interesting to the lay public, because they are paying for it and receiving an accessible commentary is the only pay-back they get. From my observation, it is the only pay-back they want, and they are delighted when they get it.

Good essay Martin.

By Sandgroper (not verified) on 10 Dec 2010 #permalink

Dogteam, Sweden's best rock art surveyor is self-taught. He has worked 50% as a municipality engineer for many years and spent the rest of his time doing archaeological survey with or without being paid for it. It has earned him the respect of all professionals in his field and an honorary doctorate. (He is also an extremely good lithics field walker.)

My own research is always done on a shoestring budget and relies on volunteer labour. A doctor or lawyer who does archaeology on Mondays will in all likelihood have a better funding situation for his research than myself despite my credentials. I receive many grants but so far never one larger than $22 000.

That's interesting, good for him!

Rock art surveys are one thing though, and excavation is another. If I did the type of investigations that I want to do, I'd be someones girlfriend in a federal penitentiary. The authorities tend to frown on individuals that "want" to be archaeologists digging holes....

I suppose it's all about working within boundaries...?

Yeah, I have to jump through a lot of hoops to get an excavation permit, and then it's not even given to me personally, but to the county museum. Luckily they like to collaborate with me, probably partly because I never demand anything from them that costs money.

My advice to members of the public who want a dig done and are willing to work is to find an interested grad student or post-doc. They have the ability to get a digging permit and a career incentive to seek out unusual sites to dig, particularly such that come with free labour.

"I recommend the would-be archaeologist to get an education that leads to a well-paid, prestigious and steady job, then do this job at 60-80% of full time and devote the rest of their energies to amateur archaeology. If a full-time scholar can produce 4-5 academic papers a year, then such a part-time archaeologist can produce at least one."

This might be objectively good advice, but it sounds rather flip to me, especially coming from someone who does make their living from archaeology. I think every archaeology student is aware that itâs not an easy career path, and many of us will probably at some point decide that the lack of job security and low pay isnât worth it and give something else a go. But if everybody took your advice, where would archaeology as a field be in 20 or 30 years? No scientific field, not even one as small as archaeology, can survive with only amateur practitioners. And while Iâm sure amateurs often deserve a better reputation than they currently enjoy, I do think that thereâs value in having a well educated, professional work force within the field.

And as far as amateurs go, Iâm sure there are fantastic people out there, but the truth is that few people, whatever other line of work theyâre in, can at will spend 20-40% of their time to serious scientific inquiry without any financial compensation. If that were to become the model for archaeological research, I donât think weâd see a lot of progress within the field at all.

sounds rather flip to me, especially coming from someone who does make their living from archaeology

Well, I make about as much money as a pizza cook, and unlike him I hardly have any long-term security at all. I really can't recommend my lifestyle.

No scientific field ... can survive with only amateur practitioners. ... few people ... can at will spend 20-40% of their time to serious scientific inquiry without any financial compensation. If that were to become the model for archaeological research, I donât think weâd see a lot of progress within the field at all.

Nobody's suggesting that amateurs should replace those professionals that do exist. What I'm saying is that there are so few jobs in archaeology that it is useless to try to make a main career out of it. Regardless of what happens to be going on in professional archaeology, I do not recommend anyone to try to become a professional. I'm suggesting a financially viable way to be involved in this lovely discipline.

An English graduate turned librarian, I would have been richer had I become a plumber.

Building, construction,
Manly stuff
Is hard as nails
And Teflon tough

Culture, films
Are novels are
Not going to get
You very far

The humanities,
Girly and outdated,
To uselessness
Are relegated.

It begs for funds
As it drags
Its life around
In plastic bags

A task that is
Next to futility
To try and argue
Its utility.

For there are
No jobs and
Constructionâs got
The upper hand.


By Nick Williams (not verified) on 10 Dec 2010 #permalink

Ok..ok, a key point has been forgotten here.

The academics teaching humanities degrees, regardless of whether we're discussing humanities departments in continental Europe, the US, Canada and the UK, should be concerned to ensure that their students realise that they are learning a bunch skill sets using data drawn from one of the humanities. Let's take archaeology. So, an undergraduate would use archaeological data and experience gained perhaps in the lab and/or the field to learn a collection of skills called 'critical thinking'. Therefore the students should learn, using data provided by the prof from a specific period, how to identify evidence through observation, the context of judgment, the relevant criteria for making the judgment well, the applicable methods or techniques for forming the judgment and the applicable theoretical constructs for understanding the problem and the question at hand.

If they taught properly they will realise that it's the skill sets (critical thinking being one of them)..rather than the data in itself.

So, if the students who graduate with a humanities degree and aren't able to redeploy that skill set in another environment one has to wonder whether that degree was worth the effort? Why? Since at the end of the day it's not about always about the data but the skill sets learned and the ease in which the person can redeployed/use those skills learned in one context in another. So, the humanities aren't a waste of time or money.

For those of you who keep on mentioning archaeologists are having few opportunities in terms of financial gains in the long run..the key thing is to realise that the skill sets that they have gained (they've the skill sets to do stats, analyse textual documents and physical objects) are impressive. The key issue lies in the manner in which these skills sets are redeployed.

That's the Useful Secondary Skills Argument, and it doesn't hold water. Because chances are that when you apply for a non-archaeological job, you are competing with people who have the same secondary skills as you, but whose primary skills -- unlike yours -- are specialised on the job at hand.

I'm afraid I can't contribute much to the humanities discussion, but I do have to ask why the author of the article felt it necessary to point out the circumstances of Robert E. Howard's death, since they don't seem to have any real bearing on the bulk of the article. Not to mention the simplistic cause-and-effect explanation for Howard's suicide, which neglects to include many other mitigating factors beyond his mother's coma (Mrs Howard did not actually die until after Howard shot himself).

I put that in because I hadn't realised myself that Howard wrote the Conan stories at such a young age and only in his last four years. Also because the audience at the seminar was highly unlikely to know anything about him. It is an extremely poignant part of fantasy literature's history that the man who created Conan had that kind of feelings for his mom.

"truth is what differentiates the humanities from Disney World."

And truth is what differentiates the humanities from Hitler World. The Aryan fantasies were as true as Conan the Barbarian.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 11 Dec 2010 #permalink

I enjoyed every word of your post, Martin. Well said.

The study of the ancient world is just like researching the Silmarillion. The difference is that the former can be dug up! It's *fun*!

I'm pretty tired of the sense of entitlement from many of those doing the complaining. Hey, I work long hours and men in uniforms take my wages from me, "for the public good". I probably won't have enough to live on when (if?) I retire. I'm a massive net contributor to public funds. And I have to fund some guy who never contributed a penny and listen while he sputters about how he *deserves* to get my cash?

There are givers and takers. I'm tired of hearing the demands of the takers.

Martin, I agree with your main point but would add a nuance which I suspect you left unstated for rhetorical effect. Historical humanities -of recent times- are useful for doing 'practical things'. If you want to do almost anything involving groups of humans, history matters. A First Nations land claim in western Canada; supporting a political movement in your area; deciding what foreign policy (or business policy) in a region makes sense. For any of those, the better you (or your hired experts) know history, the more effective you will be. But probably 99% of the practical utility comes in the study of the last hundred or hundred and fifty years, and in the study of popular ideas about earlier times (if you are involved in politics in Greece, what Greeks today think about Alexander the Great matters a lot; the truth not so much). So this can't explain why we should pay people to study the Vikings or the Beaker People or the Han Dynasty. Again, I suspect you agree with this, but weren't in a nuanced mood.

Yes, I agree. The historical study of the past 200 years is politically important, as I believe I have conceded elsewhere in my public jottings. But I gave this talk to people in the heritage business who, if they deal with the period after AD 1800 at all, mainly take care if its buildings and museum objects.

Isn't one of the outcomes of an understanding of myth, with evidence gained from archaeology and the other humanities, the ability to combat it's worst excesses? If you want to know why people believe something that can be dangerous and how to defuse that danger, you have to understand where it came from and why. Maybe psychology has taken up a lot the burden, but when you're looking at traditions that date back several thousand years, and are linked to traditions even older, then you need the humanities.

Without the humanities you're going to lack context for any data about human behaviour that the sociological and technological sciences do discover.

By Akheloios (not verified) on 12 Dec 2010 #permalink

I agree with at least part of this, the bit that goes 'while we are dependent on public funding we must answer to the demands of public interest'. I think that's pretty basic and only ethical. However, there are two edges of your thesis here I would want to explore. The first is that a good enough presenter can make stuff that would be dull in other hands interesting or 'fun' to a wider audience. Is this a skill the humanities should be attempting to teach for their own survival? Since you seem to argue that the success of a project can only be measured through its reception here, rather than its contribution to knowledge, isn't enhancing that reception as important as the quality of the actual research? An accurate project scrupulously well done that no-one outside the discipline can follow (see, for example, most historical DNA work...) was, by your argument, a funding mistake since the public don't get anything back.

Having set that one up, I'll provide a way to argue it backwards too. Isn't there scope in the weasel word 'useful' to accommodate such an enquiry as long as it makes *other* work that is interesting and fun possible? If, for example, by establishing a painstaking ceramic sequence of pre-Roman Iron age pottery a range of sites can then be better dated by local museums to the delight of local museum-goers? And if you accept that, crucially, isn't that basically the same structure as we currently have, with the Academy doing deep research to feed more popular work and, of course, teaching?

a good enough presenter can make stuff that would be dull in other hands interesting or 'fun' to a wider audience. Is this a skill the humanities should be attempting to teach for their own survival?

Yes! To the extent that it can be taught.

And of course I recognise the indirect value of basic research. But not all basic research is equally promising from a consumer point of view. And a lot of academic writing in the humanities doesn't even qualify as research. People often produce boring "discursive" text simply because tney need to beef up their CVs or to have something to present at a conference.

Sure, the humanities "have no practicle use." The problem with this thinking is not realizing that phenomenia that is studied--art, literature, history, philosophy, and related catagories--will occur not matter what. The humanities may occur as writing or pictorgraphs on a wall, or in a blog, or any old place. We are not simply organic machines born to serve the statis quo--we are, for better or worse, humans with some intelligence and a way of expressing ourselves. Why should we avoid studying that which is inevitable?

By Steven Blowney (not verified) on 13 Dec 2010 #permalink

Why should we avoid studying that which is inevitable?

If by "we" you mean us as individuals, my answer to that is "Because we need to support ourselves and our kids, pay the rent and bills, and maybe afford going on vacation some time".

You certainly have some point. But there is somthing you get utterly wrong: "Both football and historical humanities are fun and of no practical use". That is simply false: and not getting how useful to society a true historical, or philosophical, or anthropological insight really is, means to start the whole debate on false premises.

By Tommaso Leso (not verified) on 08 May 2012 #permalink

To convince me, and more importantly, taxpayers at large, you can't just assert that. You need to show evidence.