O, The Humanities!

Last week, the National Research Council of the National Academies issued Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security. I came to the report wondering how this august committee of bureaucrats, bigwigs and business people might go about defining the mission of the research university and how they would define “prosperity”; and I wanted to see what sort of future they envision for research that doesn’t immediately yield new machines, products or services, and doesn’t necessarily play well — historically has not played well — with business: namely, the kind of research I do and I value, research into the human world and the human condition.

I’ve noticed that in most national debates over educational policy and funding (which this report is supposed to inform) and in discussions of the R & D Tax Credit (which this report touches on), “research” gets defined way too narrowly. It gets restricted to scientific research and the invention of useful products and machines. As for prosperity, it tends to get confused with economic growth, or reduced to GDP and employment figures. It’s a limited, myopic view in which “research” is valued only insofar as it yields new machines and tools and products to fuel economic growth.

That’s pretty much the view here.

There are gestures throughout this report to find a place for the humanities (along with the social sciences) in the research university centered around science and engineering. The authors consistently maintain that the research university has to be “comprehensive” in scope, “spanning the full spectrum of academic and professional disciplines,” in order “to provide the broad research and education programs required by a knowledge — and innovation — driven global economy.” But there is not much ink spilled here on the value or the purpose or the place of the humanities. The idea that I advanced as a “crazy” idea in previous posts (here and here and here)– that research in the humanities might provide a much-needed critical orientation in an innovation-driven economy (and should therefore be covered by the R & D tax credit) — seems just as crazy as ever.

Perhaps we can expect a bolder stance on the humanities in the forthcoming report on the humanities and social sciences from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences mentioned in the footnotes here. Maybe without that report this group felt unqualified to tackle the subject, or they were simply being deferential to their colleagues. Be that as it may, Research Universities focuses on the humanities in just one place. This is in a chapter about “national goals.” It opens with a jingoistic account of American progress. Cue the bombastic voiceover:

In the course of our history, our nation has set grand goals that have defined us as a nation. And then we accomplished them. We created a republic, defeated totalitarianism, and extended civil rights to our citizens. We joined our coasts with a transcontinental railroad, linked our cities through the interstate highway system, and networked ourselves and the globe through the Internet. We electrified the nation. We sent men to the Moon. We created a large, strong, and dynamic economy, the largest in the world since the 1870s and today comprising one-quarter of nominal global gross domestic product (GDP).

The most muddled word in this historical muddle is, of course, “we.” The pronoun carries a lot of freight here, and it is meant to reduce history to a story of central planning. We set grand goals and we accomplish them: how grand!

At best, this version of American history is nothing more than the committee projecting the fantasy of central planning on to the past. But it’s also an attempt to sanitize history, to scrub off all the blood and dirt from our past and forget our present afflictions and troubles. Civil rights? The creation of a republic? These weren’t grand goals advanced in a planning session, set out in the form of pure ideas and then acted upon, but the very difficult, tough and very real struggles of people to gain and maintain their liberty. In the area of civil rights, some would say we still have a long way to go; in the matter of the republic, some would argue that we are now more than ever at risk of losing it, if we have not already lost it.

The railroad? Think only of Josephson’s account of how the railroads were laid. Or to take a more recent example, consider what was really involved in networking “ourselves and the globe through the Internet” (and don’t forget that networks are not only systems of inclusion, but of exclusion). The Eisenhower Interstate system may have been the closest we ever came to nation-wide military-industrial planning; but even that took a lot of cajoling, a propaganda campaign, and some serious political maneuvering, and given our current car-crazed, oil-dependent, environmentally-weakened, militarized state, it is debatable whether the Interstate system really deserves unqualified accolades.

Of course these questions and considerations were kept out of the discussion here. But I would hasten to add that these are exactly the kinds of questions and considerations that research in the humanities (and social sciences) allow us to ask. These are questions not only about the past, but also about where we are going, what we want, what we need to do, what is the best thing to do, how we should go about doing it, and how we ought to discuss all those questions.

Just as importantly, the humanities allow us to look at the American story and ask who “we” are, and help us recognize that we are a plurality, not reducible to a single historical agency or identity or even a unified, entirely coherent, unimpeachable history. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the humanities – research into a broad domain of language and historical experience, and questions about the role of language in historical experience as well as the incommensurability of language and history – give us at some very basic level an awareness that history is many stories, that we can ask questions about those stories and that doing so creates the option of telling (and living) another story.

You’d think that at least some of this thinking – which is hardly radical or new – would find its way into this report. Or at least that at some point this report would acknowledge that research into language, thought and history is of value to deliberative democracy, and to considerations of American prosperity. But, no – not even a gesture toward the traditional notion of the “liberal arts” (artes liberales) as the arts most befitting a free people – arts of language and understanding that equip a free people to deliberate and exercise their freedom. In fact, when the report turns to “civic life,” the humanities play no role whatsoever in the discussion. Instead, The Council considers research in the humanities under the heading “Enhanced Security.”

Research in the social sciences and humanities has allowed us to better understand other cultures we may be allied or in conflict with so we can adapt strategies to improve diplomatic and military outcomes.

A handmaid to military strategy and diplomacy: that is a pretty poor rationale for the humanities – about as poor as one can imagine. Humanists can help military generals and diplomatic missions “adapt strategies” for dealing with friends and obliterating enemies. The understanding of “other cultures” – which involves complex, enduring, maybe unanswerable questions of interpretation, translation, language arts, anthropology, history – has been placed here in service of the all-powerful State. “We” are no longer the people, in the plural and in all our plurality, with all the uncertainties that entails, but one singular, grand, innovation-driven, militarized, secure State.

Our friends may delight in this technocratic fantasy, but our enemies had better look out.

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