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Home Uncategorized The Utility of Inquiry

The Utility of Inquiry

Nicholas Canny
The Value of the Humanities, by Helen Small, Oxford University Press, 216 pp, £20, 978-0199683864 To the extent that it is a response to the increasing demand being imposed by governments and by university administrators (all too frequently serving as uncritical conduits for the demands of government), upon academics in the Arts faculties of universities to demonstrate the “impact” and “social benefits” that follow upon the investment in research in humanities disciplines, this book is very much a tract for the times. Yet it is very much an English literature creation in that Helen Small, an English professor at the University of Oxford, assumes that “literary studies”, by which she seems to mean studies of English literary production, are “the representative discipline of the humanities”. The book can also be considered Anglocentric in that it always to be addressing a British academic audience, being particularly concerned with the Research Assessment Exercise (the RAE), and its successor the REF, a peculiarly British inquisitorial institution which she dismisses as one of the most “ill-thought-through, grossly expensive, and time wasting systems of accounting for the receipt of public money” ever devised. The contemporary and near-contemporary experts whose opinions are invoked and discussed are, with few exceptions, fellow British academics. Among the exceptions are Foucault and Derrida, to whom she makes occasional passing references, and Martha Nussbaum whose Not for Profit (Princeton, 2010) she curtly dismisses primarily because it devotes excessive attention to the support that a training in the humanities can provide to democracy and because it relates to experiences in private universities and colleges in North America. The Value of the Humanities verges also on being a Eurosceptical tract in so far as it fails to acknowledge both that the European Commission has become a major source of research funding for British academics and that its research portfolio includes the European Research Council, which attaches no premium to the societal “relevance” that Helen Small finds problematic, and from which British academics derive enormous benefit. This rather chauvinistic outlook mars what is otherwise an excellent book dedicated to a subject that is of concern to humanities scholars in almost all countries of the western world. For me, the most appealing aspects of Professor Small’s study are its pragmatism and its optimism. It is pragmatic in that she considers it in no way unreasonable that governments of today should require humanities scholars, no less than their counterparts in…

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