Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Cost of Humanities Scholarship

Mark Bauerlein raises some interesting questions regarding the economics of literary scholarship. I'm not sure Google Scholar is the best way of gathering the data he does -- I know there is a scholarly citation index, which would have worked far better -- but the real issue involves the funding of research. In many ways, the issues he brings up are the same as those many conservatives bring up in regards to some scientific research.

Do we really need another article on the biophysics of nucleotide stacking in single-stranded hairpin DNA? How will such knowledge benefit mankind? Of course, we cannot know the answer to that, until it happens -- and there are some who insist that having the knowledge is, itself, of value.

Of course, the latter is probably the strongest argument for having yet another article or book on Shakespeare's Hamlet. How does it benefit mankind? Well . . . such things are far less tangible. Is not knowledge itself a benefit? Or understanding? Why does the transformation of knowledge into technology have to be the standard?

Of course, all of this skirts the issue of the source of the funding itself. A professor is being paid from money from tuition and from government funding. Who complains about research done with private funding? Few, if any. It is when the funding comes from taxes that people begin to question it. Those in favor of government funding of any sort of research have to learn to put up with the criticisms, or go find private funding.

Along these lines, I recently received a rejection letter for a position that was being paid for by an Australian government program that supported humanities research. The man in charge of the program told me that he was surprised -- and a little saddened -- by the sheer number of people who applied for the position from around the world, noting that many governments did not value humanities research. Of course, Australia is in much better financial shape than much of the rest of the world, which is one explanation. Another is that too many in the humanities over here (Stanley Fish particularly comes to mind) insist that the humanities have no value. Well, if people like Fish make that argument, we shouldn't be surprised that university presidents begin to think that, and begin cutting funding to humanities departments.

But there is also the point that in places like the U.S., government support for a humanities program would be immediately politicized. The conservatives would hate it because it would be dominated by progressives, and progressives would go out of their way to come up with the most offensive, ridiculous research agendas imaginable, just to insist that failing to fund them is a violation of their 1st Amendment rights (a position so absurd that only a postmodernist could make it, and believe it) and to annoy the conservatives. Libertarians, of course, would be against it because government is doing it -- and thus would align themselves with the conservatives, whose anti-cultural cultural wars are deeply offensive to libertarians.

It is a shame that there are not private humanities organizations out there providing jobs. I think it would answer some of the issues raised by Bauerlein. More, it would raise the value of the humanities. Libertarians in particular should be interested in such organizations, as those of us who are in the humanities feel like we have no real home. If we can get hired into a humanities department, we immediately feel marginalized in them. And, of course, if we want free markets, we need to cultivate a pro-market culture. That is the potential job of libertarian humanities scholars. It is what we try to do here. It is what I would do even more if I could get a full time position somewhere, where I could do more scholarly work.

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