Michael Meranze, “The Knowledge that Dare Not Speak Its Name”

First appeared on Christopher Newfield’s Remaking the University blog, 14 Dec 2012. Reposted by permission.

For some time now, the humanities and the interpretive social sciences have been the canaries in the mineshaft of higher education. Language departments have been eliminated or consolidated, plans put in place to charge students higher tuition for taking the time to study the humanities, a general mantra of the irrelevance of humanistic knowledge for the job market has descended upon our heads from politicians, and administrators continue to insist that the humanities are a drain upon university budgets. Apparently the fact that you can make more money as a doctor than as a translator is a sudden and blinding insight that demands a fundamental rethinking of the value of knowledge. The humanities now are supposed to return to being an ornament for the rich.

At the heart of the attack on the humanities is the assumption that the new global economy and the rise of the digital makes what we do indulgent and unproductive. From this perspective, the support of the humanities and the social sciences was an effect of the modernist welfare state that followed the New Deal. In that world of publicly endowed solidarity and expert knowledge, the humanities and social sciences flourished because they were signs of the shared possibility of social life and crucial aspects of society’s steering mechanisms. But that world, so we are told, is now gone forever: the state may exist as a military and political entity but it cannot control its economy and the global economy’s destruction of all that seemed solid condemns everyone to an existence bound at most by family. In this world view, the humanities are at best a distraction and at worst a block to the development of economy and technology. The triumph of short-term finance over long-term management has succeeded where the culture war failed: with the delegitimation of the knowledge produced in the humanities.

But none of the attacks on the humanities, from their alleged irrelevance, to their elite qualities, on to their drain on university finances are true (well it is true that doctors make more money than translators but aside from that…). Christopher Newfield has just commented on some of the infrastructural problems with countering these false images in the world at large (Newfield, “Humanities Infrastructure 1”). But I want to approach the problem from another direction: suggesting that those of us working in the humanities and social sciences have simply been too defensive about the concrete social utility of what we do. And that we need to stop being defensive if we are going to change the arguments and debates over the humanities and humanities funding. Humanities scholars need to name their knowledge as such and to insist on its deeply productive role in the contemporary world.

To that end, let’s embrace utility: but in order to do so we need to give it new meaning. The humanities have been sidelined in the assertion of utility because of its peculiar and distorted contemporary form. Put simply, the utility of knowledge (and of degrees) has become cast in terms of whether or not something can directly translate into a job in the field (degrees) and whether or not the knowledge can create jobs and profits. What this narrow definition hides is how essential humanities knowledge is to the global economy and politics and not because of the immediate employ-ability of historians.

The most frequent responses to the demand for this form of utility has been to argue that the humanities are essential for citizenship in some general sense, that the value of the humanities cannot be reduced to utility at all, and that we train capabilities in the Humanities that are unavailable in other parts of higher education. The first may be true but frankly sounds like pablum with no purchase on our current situation, the second I would argue sells the worldliness of the Humanities short, and the third, while true, diverts attention from the knowledge that we produce.

In fact, it is the worldliness of humanities knowledge that makes it so important. As Newfield suggested with his example of Byzantium and Game of Thrones the claim that academic study in the humanities (especially of the past) is irrelevant to the present ignores the fact that older cultural forms are constantly resurfacing in the present while the knowledge of seemingly arcane topics and periods may offer surprising insights into the contemporary world. But I would go further: The utility of the knowledge produced in the Humanities and the Interpretive Social Sciences is greater today than in the past precisely because of the social, cultural, and economic developments that are normally taken to be signs of the marginality of humanities’ work.

After all, the twin impact of global capitalism and the spread of the internet has been to increase the relevance of the world’s cultural practices and traditions. Globalization has bound together the world’s inhabitants ever more tightly but not by homogenization; instead capitalist globalization has dislocated and isolated the world’s cultural creations. Although the spread of the digital has been far more unequal and uneven than its acolytes recognize it has made possible, in some ways demanded, the continuous presence of the world’s cultural, symbolic, linguistic, and collective creations. The constant movement of people (both in the service of capital and due to the disruptions of capital) means that the contemporary economy demands knowledge of the histories of diverse and intertwined societies and cultures. The capacity of the internet to store and share means that these cultures will constantly be available for reconsideration, rejuvenation, and recollection–both by those who live “within” them and those who live “without” them. It is, to put it another way, the very reality of a global capitalism that demands that people understand the different worlds that are being brought together.

We live now in a world where people may need German, or Italian, or French or Chinese to pursue their work and lives; where knowledge of medieval Russia or the long history of Taoism, or the colonial past and national development of Africa may be essential to confront a fundamental social or political problem; where artists, filmmakers, musicians, and writers find themselves confronted with the material remains of multiple past traditions; and where the actual employment of new technologies will succeed most when they respond to concrete social situations and problems not, as in the high modernist fantasy, when they override them. And where is the knowledge that makes those connections possible produced if not in the Humanities (and not just in university humanities)?

The point that needs to be stressed is that to flourish in the contemporary world (however an individual or group wants to define flourishing) you need to have the knowledge that humanities and social science students and scholars produce. Now it is true that for ideological reasons, some forces would like to see the knowledge produced in the humanities and the social sciences reduced and marginalized. But that is another battle. And that is a battle that can only be joined when we actually insist on the worldliness of our scholarship and of its utility to the world we inhabit.

Michael Meranze is Professor of History at UCLA.in 2006, where he specializes in United States intellectual and legal history with an emphasis on early America. He published Laboratories of Virtue, an examination of the birth of the penitentiary in the context of the contradictions of the American Revolution and early Liberalism, edited a volume of Benjamin Rush’s essays, and has written on the history of the body, the death penalty, conscience, and the relationship between the European Enlightenment and the present. Meranze is co-editor of the Remaking the University blog.

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