Wednesday, 2 November 2011
The Crisis of the Humanities
I have just received the latest issue of the Oxford University alumni magazine Oxford Today, the front cover of which dramatically announces: ‘Whither the Humanities?: Uncovering a Global Crisis in our Midst’. Martha Nussbaum, Jonathan Bate and Colin Blakemore contribute articles on this crisis, which comes about, of course, as a capitalism lurching into deep economic trouble cuts back spending on what to it appear to be such merely decorative luxuries as History, Modern Languages, Literary Studies, Anthropology and so on.
What would the Morrisian angle on this lively current debate be? Three things, I think. First, that we in the Humanities should not, as the main focus of our energies, be trying to justify our activities to our capitalist pay masters; rather, we should be endeavouring to replace them. Which is to say that the ultimate function of the Humanities – the way in which they finally prove themselves to be humane, as it were - is not self-cultivation or the disinterested free play of the mind or to provide content for new creative industries, but rather to give oppressed groups intellectual resources with which to challenge their oppressors.
Secondly, that any contemporary practice of the Humanities which does not do this is as withered and dead as Morris believed the art and poetry of his own time to be; it is, that is to say, merely the privileged pursuit of a few in some leafy Oxbridge college garden with no invigorating wider social base. Political intellectuals (or ‘soldiers of the Cause’, in Morris’s own rousing phrase) will tactically support the ‘defence of the Humanities’ by the liberal-humanists, but their heart and energy will be elsewhere: in organising broader oppositional forces.
Thirdly, that the Humanities will one day – but now in a benign, indeed utopian sense - wither away, because the values they currently represent and protect will have become incarnated in everyday life itself. In a post-capitalist economy organised around mutuality, creativity and pleasure in work rather than private profit, the Humanities as a specialist preserve of aesthetic values banished from daily life will simply cease to be. No doubt intellectual enquiry and cultural expression will still continue, but the forms they then take are unlikely to be recognisable to dinosaurs of the old social order like us.