Written with Michael Brown.
Mike: In the debate over the New College of the Humanities, what is often missed is that the so-called attempt to “protect” the humanities is more fundamentally designed to protect other fields from anything that raises questions about the increasingly narrow and short-term ways in which those fields are defined --as essentially oriented to markets in products and jobs. To me, this seems to be what is involved in the most prominent attempts to preserve the humanities by isolating them, and by freeing the other, so-called practical, fields from socially critical reason. So, although I agree that the problem of how to preserve the humanities is important to engage, it is also important to look at the problem of how to protect the market-oriented fields from losing their sense of a connection to society.
Mary: Interestingly enough, the humanities are often attacked for their lack of connection to the “real world,” with real world being code for the job market. The counter to this attack is usually a conservative move to protect the humanities from the volatility of that market. Market-driven curriculum construction is problematic on so many levels and rather than get into that discussion right now, I’d rather focus on the issue of public engagement. Stanley Fish has recently written on the Triumph of the Humanities, with a look at how the humanities have been “colonizing” other fields within academia. Personally, I can’t really laud a triumph that stays within the academy as a true victory. My fear is that Grayling’s model and others like it create even fewer opportunities for creating bridges between academia and a broader community. Higher education needs to be relevant and connected to the real world. In a knowledge-based society, that relevancy does not necessarily translate into the need for higher education to be market-driven.
Mike: There is an additional issue that the Grayling project raises, and it has to do with how we ought to frame the project. If we see it as nothing more than an instance of academic entrepreneurship, than we are correct to explore the suspicions that rightly apply to self-interested actions. If, on the other hand, we see the proposal as sincere and unconnected to self-interest, then doubt does not belong to suspicion but to a critical view of what underlies Grayling’s proposal and others like it.
In either case, possible negative consequences, say of the sort Eagleton and so many others have listed, need to be considered, but in the second case, which treats the proposal as a “reform,” we need not only to consider options but to think about what idea of “reform” underlies the peculiarities of Grayling’s proposal: for example, that the market is a proper frame, that equality is important but not the crucial value for thinking about the future of higher education, and that educational reform should be aimed at ensuring that the disciplines do not interfere with one another.
For us in the U. S., it may turn out that the Grayling project is a diversion. We are not likely to see examples of it here. But the idea of separating the humanities and the social sciences and the desire to protect the non-humanist fields remain two of the most obvious bases for thinking about educational policy today. If there is value to discussing the Grayling project, it is because of what it teaches us about how those who control the resources of higher education are likely to respond to the problems they see posed by the cost of liberal arts and the value that markets are thought to attribute to those majors.
Mary: If we have come to the point where the sole purpose of education in our society is in preparing students to sell themselves on the marketplace, then we have failed.