[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:57 am, 20 November 2010]
In the last few weeks lots have bloggers have been discussing whether humanities subjects are in decline and how to protect humanities from spending cuts. It seems obvious to me that independent critical thought, textual analysis and the ability to construct and destroy arguments are all very important skills, not just for individuals but for society as a whole. It’s equally obvious why politicians, businessmen and journalists might be hostile to those skills. When humanities departments ask for funding, they’re effectively saying “please give us your money so we can teach people to see through your lies”. That’s going to be a hard sell, and probably explains why defenders of the humanities tend to use vague euphemisms rather than putting it so bluntly. The paradox is that the humanities have to cover up their main selling point so as not to appear threatening to the people with money and power, but that makes it easy to represent the humanities as useless. It reminds me of the old essay question “Richard II was deposed because of his strength rather than his weakness. Discuss.”
This is what some other people have written:
Brett at Airminded rounds up lots of links, and puts them under the best title ever. (I have no hope of beating it, but still desperately attempted a pun on second rate 80s cartoon series Defenders of the Earth.)
More links from Penelope’s Weavings and Unpickings, showing that academics in the humanities have lots of experience of trying to defend their subjects and that humanities subjects have economic value.
At Crooked Timber Michael Bérubé points out that in the US, humanities subjects (along with most other subjects) declined from 1967 to 1987, but have been stable since then.
Meanwhile it appears that the “omg! military history is dying!” meme still refuses to die, but Mark Grimsley is doing a good job of refuting it. The death of military history is a standard story regularly wheeled out by lazy right-wing journalists, especially in the US. It’s not quite as nasty or frequent as “immigrants are taking all our jobs”, “the PC brigade has banned Christmas”, “computer games are corrupting our children” or “science proves that men are naturally better than women” that we get in the UK, but that’s not saying much. I took on the last one in my article “What Changed Your Mind” in issue 2 of PEP (free PDF), showing how journalists repeat the same misogynistic and homophobic cliches regardless of the facts, and suggesting that they might even help to cause the effects they claim to be reporting. Incidentally, by writing the article I showed that humanities graduates are perfectly capable of writing about science. My textual analysis skills transferred easily to newspaper articles and science papers, and I could see dubious ideological assumptions which the scientists themselves were probably unaware of. The enemies of humanities crumble in fear and confusion!
[posted by Gavin Robinson, 11:43 am, 31 August 2009]
If you know about science, please could you help me with this curious little conundrum. In an article I’m writing I need to appeal to the authority of Newton’s laws of motion, but how do I cite them? Is there a standard science book which everyone uses and which lays out the basic laws of physics? Am I supposed to cite Newton himself? If so what is the standard edition? I know I shouldn’t have to prove something so basic and generally accepted, but the historians I’m arguing against have blatantly ignored the third law of motion and imagined something which is physically impossible!
Chris at Mixing Memory posted an amazing video of Joshua Klein talking about crows. He isn’t just talking about how clever crows are (they’re really clever) but about how we can find new kinds of relationships between humans and other species which aren’t based on domination or extermination. I think he’s achieved that most difficult of things: a view of the non-human which avoids anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism (interesting that Firefox’s spellchecker recognizes the second of those words but not the first – what does that tell us about dominant ideologies?). This is also another problem for the old anthropocentric view that speech and reason go together and that both define the human. There is overwhelming empirical evidence that crows are very good at thinking, but their communication system is very rudimentary. That suggests that thinking isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, linguistic (although there is also plenty evidence that once language enters the picture it does influence thought, even at the level of perceiving differences between colours). The example of crows also suggests that culture doesn’t depend on language: crows can exhibit learned behaviour which varies between groups. Where’s the animal/human boundary now?
Last week I posted some thoughts in response to the discussions at A Historian’s Craft and Civil War Memory about history and philosophy. In that post I took some of the philosophical problems that affect history and tried to restate them in scientific terms. As Brett pointed out, this really amounted to stating the obvious in fairly uncontroversial terms, but I think that was worth doing in order to bypass the unproductive hostility between both extremes in the postmodernism wars (although the extent to which those extremes even exist is debatable). Whether the major problems we face as historians are philosophical, scientific, or a bit of both, the question remains: how much time should we spend thinking about these problems? In this post I’ll be discussing that question, but I have to warn you in advance that I can’t answer it. So there might not be much point reading any further…
Rachel at A Historian’s Craft and Kevin at Civil War Memory have both been thinking about how much historians should think about philosophy. Although they take different positions on the issue, they both approach it in a refreshingly un-polemical fashion (contrast with the “that’s you that is” pettiness of this embarrassing exchange between Alun Munslow and Arthur Marwick). It’s almost inevitable that the p-word comes up, but it’s interesting that the word “postmodernism” seems to be used more often by people who are against it than people who are for it, whatever it is. Too often it seems to be a label attached to a conflation of lots of different (and not always compatible) theories, but let’s stick with the stereotypical view of postmodernism for now. Here are two recognisable stereotypes:
The traditional empiricist, who believes that what historians do is to scientifically examine archival evidence to find out what really happened in the past, something which is achievable if you eliminate bias.
The postmodernist who believes that everything is culturally constructed, that an objective scientific study of the past is impossible, and that even science itself is an ideologically suspect paradigm.
Whether these stereotypes are true or not (and you should always be suspicious of stereotyping – isn’t it funny how stereotypes are always someone else?) they crudely illustrate what I’m trying to get at in this post: that both extremes in the postmodernism wars seem to have a stereotypical and inaccurate view of science.