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Helen Small discusses The Value of the Humanities

New book aims to promote calm in place of ‘grievance’

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Skewed perspective: Helen Small (below) says scholarly rhetoric can serve to exasperate rather than influence policymakers

There have been some very strident recent books about “the crisis in the humanities”.

Take the 2010 polemic Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. This points to a (little-noticed) “crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance” as education becomes increasingly geared to “producing a greedy obtuseness and a technically trained docility that threaten the very life of democracy itself”.

Socrates famously claimed to be a “gadfly” to the ancient Athenian polis. Today’s democracies, in Nussbaum’s view, are in equally urgent need of the critical thinking fostered by training in the humanities.

In her latest book, The Value of the Humanities, Helen Small, professor of English at the University of Oxford, sets out to do something different. Although she certainly has major concerns (“some aspects of how the government understands what the humanities do, and tries to respond to it, are hugely problematic”), she believes that the talk of “crisis” is often overstated and “wants to step back from that rabbit-in-the-headlights response”.

She suspects that “policymakers get pretty fed up with that tone of critical grievance and extremity. You can’t have a good conversation on those terms.”

Even more important, “arguing under pressure can lead to bad arguments”.

Take the “gadfly” concept itself, she adds.

“The standard claim of Nussbaum and others is that the humanities do critical thinking,” says Small. This tends to downplay other kinds of valuable work being done in the discipline, as well as the critical thinking we find in other subjects - and it turns humanities departments into what the book calls an institutionalised “plague of modern Socratic gadflies”.

But the argument also urgently needs to be turned against itself. Do this and other claims that humanities scholars make about the value of their work stand up to the kind of close critical scrutiny scholars apply to other texts?

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