Justifying the Humanities

I received a wonderful email last night from a postgrad student who asked me if I would consider writing a separate post about a response I gave in the comment section for this post. So before I forget my response, I’ll write it down now. Thanks for the email.

Here’s my original response:

I feel your pain, because every job/grant application I’ve filled out in the past few months and years has asked me that question, and I often wonder the same thing as you. Humanities departments have to justify themselves now according to a model of ‘evidence’ that was created for science disciplines. How do you ‘prove’ what books can do, what a poem can do, what historical research can do? How do you ‘prove’ the impact that has on a society, a culture, a country, or an individual student? You can’t: this is not black and white data, there aren’t mathematical equations to the study of the humanities. The study of art, literature, and culture is its own end - it doesn’t need justification or ‘proof’. And the fact that we are required to justify it is the underlying problem to all the funding problems we have now. Because when it comes to showing ‘proof’ and data, we can’t compete with the sciences. It is so thoroughly depressing, I often want to give up. Knowledge is knowledge: it shouldn’t be ‘justified’.

This is not a debate about art versus science. I hate those debates, and I think they’re false. This is more of a debate on how we rationalise funding for different kinds of disciplines, and different types of research and enquiries into knowledge. There is knowledge and research that culminates in concrete data and concrete results. It’s easy (or perhaps just easier) to see what its end-product is, what it can do, what it can teach us, who it affects and why. Then there is knowledge that is intangible: you can’t touch it, you can’t present it as objective data, you can’t name its affects, you can’t predict how it will function in a society, or a culture, or a country. But its intangibility does not make it any less significant and any less worthy of funding and institutional support.

I can’t recall one single application for an academic position that I’ve compiled in the last few years that has not required some sort of rationalisation, justification, or measuring of the ‘impact’ of my planned research work. I can show you a simplistic evaluation of the impact of my teaching, for example: I have evaluation reports by my students and my peers in my folder. But I can’t tell you, for example, what other impact I may have had on past students. Did I know that a former student would come asking for me years after I taught her? Did I anticipate or predict I could ever have that kind of impact on someone? Do I know how every single student in my class responded to a poem, or a book, and how it may have changed their thinking? How do you measure that, and how do you present it to an employer?

Similarly, how can I explain what my research can do? I don’t always have concrete data; I have thoughts and ideas and a contribution to knowledge that is hard to pin down as x and y. Being cited and referenced by other academics, the ranking of the publishers and publications I’ve been published with, are only the surface evaluations of my work. I’m aware they’re necessary for an academic career, I’m aware universities have to measure these things in order to survive themselves. But there’s always a ‘but’. If I’m asked to justify a research project in my discipline, to give concrete proof and data, I will always lose. Because you might as well ask me to prove how love works, to measure happiness and sadness, to justify the existence of a poem or a book or a film the same way businesses justify a business model through sales and productivity figures.

I understand that part of the reason for this justification model is to ensure proper checks and balances in research. And this is absolutely crucial to maintain quality and ethics. But I wish for a tiny bit of breathing room within this model; and perhaps a more nuanced understanding of different disciplines that cannot be clumped together according to one funding model. If we require every single bit of knowledge to be justified with something concrete and don’t allow room for intangibility, I fear we run the risk of killing off the curiosity that compels people like me and like my friends to seek it out in the first place.