[Humanist] 24.664 more than the cuts: the value of academic humanities

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Jan 22 10:28:24 CET 2011


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 664.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
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        Date: Fri, 21 Jan 2011 12:21:25 -0500
        From: Wendell Piez <wapiez at mulberrytech.com>
        Subject: The value of academic humanities

Dear Willard and HUMANIST,

Please consider giving some time to read (and possibly critique) Simon 
Head's article, "The Grim Threat to British Universities", in the 
January 13 New York Review of Books:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jan/13/grim-threat-british-universities/

I found this treatment very useful and illuminating because, writing 
from a distance, the author is able to convey some sense both of the 
problem's dimensions and pervasiveness, and of its roots.

Additionally, it was very helpful for an American reader to consider 
Head's discussion of how the crisis in the UK relates to our rather 
different version of it here in the US (which is not less dangerous for 
its being less acute), and perhaps by implication elsewhere.

Moreover, it seems to me that Head gestures towards (although he is not 
able to explicate fully) a deeper analysis. It seems to me that in its 
dogmatic reliance on external and "objective" assessments of value, 
through means such as the "Key Performance Indicators" (KPIs) presented 
to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE; and the fact 
that these are represented by acronyms seems significant to me), the 
British government has fallen into the same trap as the banking and 
financial system. To represent value is one thing, but to substitute the 
token or promise of a putative value for an actual value is another. The 
one thing, representation, may (if we remain mindful that is a 
representation and not the thing itself) aid in comprehension and 
intelligibility, even "accountability". The other -- for me to go on the 
market and sell you an "asset" as if it were valuable, when it really 
isn't -- is just a con game, resulting in the transfer of value from you 
to me, without actually creating any wealth. Supposedly, trade should 
help both of us by giving each of us something more valuable to us than 
the thing we give up. But in this case, you give something to me, but 
all you get in return is the temporary thrill of thinking you are rich, 
and (maybe!) the equally temporary opportunity of doing the same thing 
to someone else.

In just this way, KPIs supposedly create transparency and 
accountability, but to the extent that they are fake (and how can they 
not be?), they actually only obfuscate and confuse, insulating 
bureaucrats and governments from accountability while distorting and 
destroying the capabilities of the system on which they sit to create 
actual value. By buying a set of KPIs instead of educations for its 
citizens, a government can pretend to itself and to us that it is 
acquiring value for our tax dollars, even while the actual assets are 
crumbling in their hands. (I should note, as an American, that I fully 
understand there is a question of whether a government should be paying 
for educations at all. But I persist in thinking that your education is 
a common good in which we all have an interest.)

The whole thing makes me think that although this virus nearly killed 
the patient, back in 2008, the plague still runs rampant. At its basis, 
I think the reason we get trapped in these cycles of confidence game and 
ruin is that we simply lack faith in ourselves and each other. We find 
ourselves unable to calculate the benefits of (say) a liberal education 
in terms that can be sold to a cynical constituency (of, for example, 
business leaders who live by counting widgetry and the abstractions by 
which it is managed, or politicians who live by similarly counting 
campaign contributions and the votes they leverage). So instead we try 
to sell them something we think they understand, at a destructive rate 
of exchange. But they are masters at that game, and we are not -- while 
they are actually in no position to tell us how to value our work (and 
indeed the wiser ones know this).

Maybe we should be putting the question to them of what kind of world 
they want their children and ours to live in. Yes, I know that's too 
vague. But the point is, we cannot know, or say, what is truly valuable 
in ourselves and in the culture we create until we share it.

"The definition of spiritual should be, that which is its own evidence." 
(Emerson)

Best regards,
Wendell

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Wendell Piez                            mailto:wapiez at mulberrytech.com
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