Why Study the Humanities?

  • Smaro Kamboureli (Editor) and Daniel Coleman (Editor)
    Retooling the Humanities: The Culture of Research in Canadian Universities. University of Alberta Press
Reviewed by Nathalie Cooke

One early wintry morning almost three decades ago, I remember being asked by my undergraduate English professor: What is the point of reading the “great” works of fiction, by which he meant those on the course syllabus, by Conrad, Joyce, Faulkner, Fowles, Barth, and Pynchon? We were hard pressed to formulate an answer even though compelled by deeper motivation than marks to read the novels closely, rather than skate by on cover blurbs and Coles Notes.

This past term, I taught a class on poetic forms. Students read, explicated, memorized, recited, and wrote poetry. They, too, came to class on wintry days. The classroom space and midday slot were better, but in some ways the challenge for my students was far greater than the one I had faced. For them, the choice to study poetry flew directly in the face of escalating pressure, both from outside and increasingly from within the academy to acquire and develop applied knowledge.

During the intervening three decades, the rise of what Daniel Coleman and Smaro Kamboureli call “research capitalism” in Canadian universities—by which they mean the need to leverage external funding through grant applications, technology transfer, and industry partnerships—has put increasing pressure on the core disciplines to articulate their use value. This is true of the sciences as well as the arts. The latter, however, is the specific focus of Coleman and Kamboureli’s Retooling the Humanities, in which they gather together a cast of Canadian literary scholars that includes academic administrators (Findlay, Pennee), Canada Research Chairs (Brydon, Coleman, Kamboureli, Mathur), senior (Brown, Stone) and junior faculty members (Dobson), as well as a writer (Wong) and graduate students (Danyluk, Stephens), to identify the value of humanities scholarship, and its way forward in Canadian Universities.

What, precisely, do they mean by “humanities” scholarship? Answer: the vital study of languages, literatures, and cultures, judging from a carefully crafted statement of the humanist’s ideal: “to envision a just and lively future out of a self-aware and informed understanding of the antecedents that have shaped the present context.” A more precise definition of the humanities is not possible, in part for reasons astutely explained by Susan Brown, who writes about the “digital turn”—when, today, we engage with textual culture through digital, visual, and oral interfaces. Brown notes that the very nature of humanities scholarship is itself changing: “Many in the humanities cling to the notion that culture is our province of expertise, in fact responsibility for culture as currently understood has largely migrated into anthropology, communications, film, sociology, area studies, and even business schools.”

What, then, should be the form and function of the humanities today? Answers on offer are various and at times can fall flat. Some key issues were left largely out of the discussion: SSHRC’s “new architecture,” for example, which came into effect only as the book was being finalized; and the recent decision to move funding of all health-related research to CIHR, which can leave humanists scrutinizing medical ethics in a funding limbo. Melissa Stephens’ exploration of the role of personal testimony in professional practice is promising, but needs to be expanded. L. M. Findlay’s contribution is significant, but could be paradigm shifting were the chapter to lean less heavily towards critique (though his phrasing is so caustic as to be almost entertaining): only in the last pages does he begin to propose an alternative model of scholarship that would “feature three streams bearing distinctive histories, epistemologies, and forms of knowledge keeping on a common ground.” Most compelling, to my mind, are chapters that defended the humanities by privileging the value of knowledge dissemination. Donna Pennee argues that higher education must “equip subsequent generations—many of whom still want to study and produce culture— with the repertoire and skills to contribute to necessary debates about democracy in a capital security state.” Susan Brown is more specific in her appeal that humanists foster new literacies without abandoning older ones, and that they “contribute to evolving literacies,” and “foster active engagement with new technologies rather than passive consumption of them.”

Contributors spend considerable time commenting on secondary literature that engages the changing role of universities (e.g., Readings’ The University in Ruins, or Neilson and Gaffield’s Universities in Crisis), cultural education (Boyer, Massey, and Smith reports), as well as the changing mandates of SSHRC—the most significant funding body for humanities scholarship in Canada— since its creation in 1977. They recognize that SSHRC has a dual mandate: to explain and justify humanities and social science scholarship to the federal government, and to rationalize the necessity of accountability to its constituency of scholars. So, too, contributors to this volume make twinned arguments. On the one hand, they articulate their needs to the academy and to SSHRC itself (a restructuring of the academic reward system, more time, financial support, and advocacy). On the other hand, they present a case to readers about the continuing centrality of humanities scholarship and teaching to the academy and beyond.

My own sense is that the value of humanities scholarship lies in the dialogue it engenders, and this provocative book will surely do just that. It puts a range of opinions into dialogue. It also gives voice both to the central question—Why study the humanities?—and to multiple variations of the inevitable answer: Because we must.

This review “Why Study the Humanities?” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 150-52.

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