The Value of the Humanities

Small front cover

We hear an awful lot of talk about the future of higher education funding, especially for English and other arts and humanities subjects which don’t necessarily bring in the big bucks like some science departments. It’s not like we’re saving lives on operating tables or working in a job which the public can clearly envisage (at least their version of) – teacher, doctor, lawyer and so on.  Academia’s a bit of an odd one. ‘English’ as a discipline is perhaps even odder.

I find that I’m often asked what I think about all this, not just in academic settings, but when I’m mid-mouthful-of-cake at a party or attempting to explain (justify?) what I do to friends and family members. A chatty taxi driver concluded the other day that I ‘must be crazy’, having established that no, I was not a poet, no I was not a novelist, yes, I could already speak the English language, and no, I wasn’t being paid tons. A frustrated fellow-academic put it well when he simply said, ‘people just don’t understand what we do.’

For these kinds of situations, plus funding applications, interviews, talking to prospective or current undergraduates, and for our own peace of mind and sense of purpose, it is vital to have some kind of answer to simple questions such as ‘Why are you doing a PhD in the humanities?’, ‘What’s the point of studying English?’, or, as I was once asked, ‘How can you see any value in your life when your job is just reading about dead authors? It has no value for society.’ (This from an accountant. I’m sure he meant well, and I wish I could have furnished him with a more solid answer.)

Happily, a book has just been published to give us some answers. The Value of the Humanities (Oxford University Press) by Helen Small (Professor of English at Pembroke College, Oxford) examines the principal arguments used to defend the purpose and value of the Humanities.

The claims considered are:

  • that the Humanities bring to their work a distinctive understanding of what constitutes knowledge and understanding;
  • that they contribute to human happiness;
  • that they are a force for democracy;
  • and that they are a good in themselves, to be valued ‘for their own sake’.

Small carefully examines these ideas and writes beautifully clearly and eloquently. (You should read her other books too, especially if you have an interest in nineteenth-century psychology – Love’s Madness (1996) and A Long Life (2007) are GREAT.) This is the book we’ve been waiting for. OUP, 216 pages, £20 hardback. Sigh in relief, read, re-read, memorise, have a good think, and you’ll be ready to explain (justify?) yourself in the future.

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