The value of the humanities
By Roy Hay
It is not often that academics take leave of their research and teaching duties to plunge into political matters, but in the UK, led by those at Oxford University, they have passed a series of motions of no-confidence in David Willetts, the minister responsible for universities.
The burden of their complaints is the increased cost of education to students through sharp rises in fees and the attack on funding for the humanities. It is the latter element with which this column is concerned, since it is not just a UK problem but a global one and Australia is facing a similar crisis.
Jonathan Bate, the new provost of Worcester College, Oxford, conducted some research among his peers while editing a collection of essays on the public value of the humanities. He asked them how they would respond to a civil servant responsible for the research budget who told them he did not mind public money being spent on medical research but he objected to it being devoted to research in the humanities. He was intrigued by the responses, as some argued for the strictly utilitarian benefits of such study while others suggested that humanities matter because they take us beyond the realm of narrow economic or utilitarian values.
One historically-minded philosopher said that a Syrian scholar wanted to translate his book into Arabic, because he thought the Islamic world needed an introduction of secular philosophy.
"Given the billions that the military option wastes, wasn’t I more economically efficient?"
Another picked up the point that if George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s security and strategic advisers had studied the Middle East and Afghanistan thoroughly, the world would have been a less dangerous place. Yet another pointed out that Bertrand Russell’s and Noam Chomsky’s philosophical investigation into language and logic contributed to the artificial languages which underpin cornputer science today.
More generally, broad critical thinking is pre-eminently what the humanities engender and this is indispensable to innovative work in any field and certainly to communicating it to others inside and outside academia.
At times of economic crisis, it is always tempting to ask what can we cut first without causing the pips to squeak. So if you can define something as a luxury subject it is easier to take the axe to it, than something where the economic pay-off seems more immediate.
But this is often very shortsighted since it is the fundamental research in broad areas of human existence which often turns up the key element for the future.
Take the recently-departed Steve Jobs and his company, Apple, for an example. Their success was not dependent on original technology, but rather selective borrowing, while the design of the products to incorporate that technology was the key to their success. Design was derived from centuries of art and creativity and a deep understanding of the psychology of human beings.
Of all disciplines, art and psychology depend on a fruitful blending of sciences and humanities, not their separation.
Here in Australia, the public funding for arts and humanities is also under severe pressure. We do not have the American counterweight in a long and healthy tradition of private philanthropy.
Last week, Deakin University was delighted to report that Professor Kevin Nicholas had won a Grand Challenges Exploration grant of $100,000 to explore the use of wallaby milk to help babies absorb nutrients more easily to increase their chance of survival.
Two points about this success are relevant.
The grant comes from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, financed by the success of Gates’ Microsoft Company.
Secondly, how are Nicholas and his team going to communicate the results of their work to the parents of children at risk in Third World countries?
It will not happen just because they have made a scientific breakthrough but through myriad processes which derive just as much from research in the humanities about communication and cultural processes.
Roy Hay is an honorary fellow at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute.
This article first appeared in The Geelong Advertiser.