The Humanities: Is It Time To Sell Short?

This may not be news to everyone but I imagine someone else missed it.
Philip Gerrans, a reader in the philosophy department at University of Adelaide, compares the academic activity to the activity of the stock market and thinks it might be time to sell short. Here’s a sample:

Historians, anthropologists, linguists and even philosophers (on a good day) are able to discover or explain things. But a lot of the market is unsecured and highly leveraged. By this I mean that people in the humanities often do not write about the world or the people in it. Rather, they write about what somebody wrote about what somebody else wrote about what somebody else wrote. This is called erudition (not free association), and scholars sell it to their audience as a valuable insight about the nature of terrorism or globalisation or the influence of the internet (preferably all three). Almost every grant application in the humanities mentions these three topics, but the relationship between them and the names and concepts dropped en route are utterly obscure. [Times Higher Education Edition, July 9, 2009]

Read Gerrans’ whole piece. Even with all the pitfalls of an extended analogy, I found it abnormally interesting. As he says:

This is not the familiar philistine bleating about the pointlessness of the humanities, or the inaccessibility of academic writing. Humanities have never been more to the point, and academics are entitled to use specialised technical language where necessary. It is a worry about the possibility not of a market meltdown, but of a gradual dawning of comprehension on the part of governments and the public that their investment in the humanities is contaminated with toxic debt.

With two kids who make their living in the humanities, philosophers both, I hope Gerrans is more wrong than right but I worry that he is more right than wrong. If the market is inflated, it’s been that way for some time. I do wonder if corrective forces lie in the humanities’ ability or inability to explain. Rather, I think that as long as we are human, history, anthropology, linguistics and even philosophy will continue to be abnormally interesting to many of us even when they fail to explain. Is this a good thing? I’m not completely sure. I also wonder if it is the humanities market as a whole that is inflated or only the attention paid to its current stars. In which case, a better analogy than stock market bubbles might be a meteor shower. Only a few meteors reach the ground, the remainder burn up in the atmosphere.
Via Crooked Timber

2 thoughts on “The Humanities: Is It Time To Sell Short?”

  1. I missed this entirely. But it sounds interesting. Thanks for sharing it. I’m one who worries frequently about the Humanities. And I’m also one who is sure that we humanities profs. tend to talk too much about what others have thought about (what others have thought about) topic x.
    BTW, I just turned in a grant that did not mention terrorism, globalization, or the internet.

  2. The thing that troubles me the most is that humanities academics are trapped in an academic world whose heart has followed Wall Street. We assume if we can’t make a buck (or a million) on it, then the subject isn’t worth investigating or understanding. Having tried to find a niche in that market (o, that word!) for seventeen years gives one a little perspective, I think.

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