First cut is the deepest

By skepticlawyer

In an attempt to drain the pus from the festering debate between science and religion — mainly over things like the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in US schools — paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould came up with the notion of ‘Non Overlapping Magisteria’. He argued that:

The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).

As Gould acknowledged, NOMA sits more easily with Catholic than Protestant doctrine, and he often found himself quoting popes in preference to evangelicals when he first elucidated it in Rocks of Ages (1999), from which the above quotation is taken.

Here, I wish to recruit Gould’s model in another cause. He mentions — but does not elaborate on — other fields of enquiry, to wit: ‘the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty’. My cause is an elucidation of the role of the humanities in the contemporary university (and society more generally), one of Gould’s other fields of inquiry.

Over at Larvatus Prodeo, Mark has written a piece that riffs on two arguments (one Australian, one American) that boil down to the following: the humanities are being driven headlong out of the university in favour of the sciences and the professions. This driving varies in its severity depending on how wealthy the university in question happens to be, whether it is wholly state-funded or can fall back on private resources and endowments, and whether it is entrepreneurial. Both in the post and the thread there is much talk of research and research targets, and whether and how humanities research can get its mojo back. Interestingly, the American author quoted, Stanley Fish, makes the following suggestion in one of his pieces on the issue:

Make a virtue of the fact that many programs of humanities research (and not only humanities research) have no discernible product, bring no measurable benefits, are not time-sensitive, may never reach fruition and (in some cases) are only understood by 500 people in the entire world. Explain what a university is and how its conventions of inquiry are not answerable to the demands we rightly make of industry. Turn an accusation — you guys don’t deliver anything we can recognize — into a banner and hold it aloft. (At least you’ll surprise them.)

And as you do this, drop the deferential pose, leave off being a petitioner and ask some pointed questions: Do you know what a university is, and if you don’t, don’t you think you should, since you’re making its funding decisions? Do you want a university — an institution that takes its place in a tradition dating back centuries — or do you want something else, a trade school perhaps? (Nothing wrong with that.) And if you do want a university, are you willing to pay for it, which means not confusing it with a profit center? And if you don’t want a university, will you fess up and tell the citizens of the state that you’re abandoning the academic enterprise, or will you keep on mouthing the pieties while withholding the funds?

I disagree with most of Fish’s suggestions, but in this I see the germ of a Gouldian NOMA applied to the humanities and sciences within the university. In sum, the state (or companies, or endowments, or trusts, or whoever provides the bikkies) are quite within their rights to demand quantifiable research outputs. As Andrew Norton points out over at his place, what people had taken to calling a crisis of capitalism has — at least in Europe — turned into a crisis of social democracy:

Higher education has been hit hard in the British spending review, with funding to be reduced from £7.1 billion to £4.9 billion by 2014-15. Reports suggest that their low-tech subjects may have their funding cut entirely. The fee increases flowing from the Browne report will presumably make up most if not all the losses.

In Australia HECS successfully transferred costs from taxpayers to students/graduates with no loss of graduate numbers. It will be interesting to see how these UK changes go, as the cuts are much larger and quicker than anything seen here.

This financial crisis is not having the political consequences I expected two years ago, or what our unlamented former leader predicted in his Monthly essays. In Europe, it has become a crisis of social democracy. Their bloated welfare states were in bad financial shape before the financial crisis struck; now they [are] simply unable to cope.

The impact on the universities is, as Andrew points out, going to be severe. The richest and most prestigious (Oxford and Cambridge) are likely to use their large endowments to break free of the state altogether in response. They may be followed by Edinburgh, although the latter eventuality is probably tied to Scottish independence.

However, we have universities to do other things besides produce quantifiable research outputs, and asking the humanities to produce great reams of those quantifiable outputs is a bit like demanding that intelligent design be taught in schools or asking ‘what does the colour red smell like?’. It’s a category error. The sooner people in both the humanities and sciences realise this, the better.

To that end, I am going to make a few suggestions for the humanities (hey, everyone else is) based on what I’ve seen. I’ve worked and studied in five universities in three countries, two of them considered among the most prestigious in the world. My scholarly interests also straddled the humanities, social sciences and sciences. I got to hang out in labs, play with MATLAB and translate obscure Roman law documents. I don’t have all (or perhaps even any) answers, but the comments I make are not borne of ignorance.

1. There are too many universities, and too many people going to university. Many universities are very mediocre, and many of the students who attend them are very mediocre. We seem to have forgotten how to tell people ‘no, you aren’t very clever, you shouldn’t go to university. You are, however, good with your hands. You should get an apprenticeship instead.’ There is, as Stanley Fish points out, nothing wrong with a trade school. Upgrading what were essentially trade schools and turning them into universities was always going to be a bad idea, and now we can’t afford them to boot. And let’s not forget that plumbers make a very good living.

2. Compulsory language requirements should be reinstated for the sciences, and compulsory science requirements should be reinstated for the humanities. It should not be possible to get through university — particularly in a high-powered professional discipline like law, medicine or engineering pleading ‘but I have a math allergy’ or ‘Latin is too hard’. If you have a math allergy, or Latin is too hard, you shouldn’t be studying engineering, medicine or law. End of.

3. Much higher research in the humanities — particularly at the mediocre universities, but even at some good ones — is, not to put too fine a point on it, bunk. It comes about because research imperatives (discussed very fully over at LP) that make sense in science do not work in the humanities (and even in some of the social sciences). As most of you know, I was offered a fully-funded scholarship place at Oxford to read for the DPhil in law. I am in the process of doing the final edits for my MPhil. What most of you won’t know is that — after considerable thought — I opted to decline the DPhil place. The principal reason for this decline? The scope of my research was so narrow as to be meaningless, and involved accepting intellectual constraints with which I disagree (more of this later), and which the university’s funders (both public and private) ought to find alarming.

4. Several commenters over at LP made the point that humanities academics need to stop with the pointless infighting and start supporting each other, so I will only make one behavioural recommendation directed at the humanities more generally. It is this: when you make falsifiable assertions, and some scientist or social scientist then proceeds to falsify them, accept the correction with good grace and move on. Empirically testable propositions are part of the magisterium of science and social science, and to the extent that humanities scholars make them, they have to accept that people from the other magisterium will make comment and draw conclusions. Many people on the LP thread were anxious to defend theory (although, interestingly, neither Mark nor the Australian scholar quoted, University of Queensland academic Graeme Turner, did so, recognizing instead that it is off-putting).

I will give only one example of theory straying into the other magisterium. There are many, many others. Because it is in the core of my discipline, it is something I can discuss with knowledge.

In the second volume of his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault makes a number of empirically testable assertions about classical antiquity. Reading his book, it is clear that his Latin is weak to non-existent, and that he makes comments about the substantive content of Roman law that indicate that (a) he doesn’t know it and (b) when he does know it, he misunderstands it. This is well nigh inexcusable; there are many good translations of various books of Roman law, including separate translations of Gaius’s Institutes and Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis. Some of these translations are by Peter Birks, the doyen of unjust enrichment/restitution and one of Legal Eagle’s intellectual inspirations.

Because Gaius was writing when the empire was pagan, it is possible to compare what Roman law looked like in the first and second century AD with what Justinian wanted delivered in his Christian empire. By comparing the two texts, one can also see what the Christians deliberately changed or removed, which is a fascinating study in itself. Foucault seems to be unaware of any of this. Roman law scholars have often complained to their classicist colleagues about the use of Foucault in the classics curriculum (I have been witness to a couple of these stoushes), to be rebuffed with assertions about the supremacy of theory and theoretical approaches. Lawyers (law being one of the social sciences) now shrug their shoulders and accept that to the extent that classicists give primacy to theory, they are rendering themselves irrelevant.

In my case — and this at one of the world’s great universities — I had it asserted to me during my MPhil Viva that philosophers don’t have to prove anything, because they are philosophers. Maybe this used to be the case, but were I a funder, I would hang out to dry any philosophy academic who asserted it in my presence. When philosophers make empirically testable assertions, then they have opened the door to the magisterium of science, and should expect to be swarmed over by quants with calculators.

5. As a corollary of my comment that there are too many universities producing too many people who know more and more about less and less until eventually they know everything about nothing, the humanities should abandon the requirement for a PhD for academic appointments. They should look instead for skilled and sympathetic teachers educated at the best universities (and we all know which ones they are; not all universities are created equal) who can convey to their students the value of being widely educated and literate, as well as teach competence in a foreign language. That anyone can leave a modern university not speaking a language other than English is an appalling indictment of the entire Anglophone tertiary education system and needs to be remedied forthwith.

6. Ideas that are politically effective and interesting as politics need to prove their intellectual worth in order to be admitted to the academy. Just because it is politically and economically important for queers and women and blacks to have equality before the law and equality of opportunity does not mean that there is any merit in the academic study of feminist, queer or black ‘theory’. There may be, but there should be a rebuttable presumption against the entry of political strategies into the academy as intellectual disciplines. Feminists often assert that the personal is political, but it does not follow that the political is academic. The distinction may be a fine one, but it is important to bear it in mind.

In sum, the humanities and sciences are non-overlapping magisteria. Both do different — but related — work. In Gould’s words:

[T]he two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.

Part of the idea of a university is, surely, to elucidate that border, to recognise where it is interpenetrated (by osmosis, and by other things), and to acknowledge when the skeins — like the yarns in a Fairisle jumper — are too intertwined to separate.

[UPDATE: Jim Belshaw has written a thoughtful follow-up to this post over at his place, which among other things is a fascinating insight into the thinking that went into the founding of the University of New England].


  1. TerjeP
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    LE – I’ve got a few war stories about lawyers. My business was IT and we once had the pleasure of merging the IT systems of two Law firms that were moving into shared digs. One of them we previously supported the other we didn’t. We suggested that we move them both in “as is” and then start to integrate after they were settled. About a week after they moved in the mother board in one of the servers belonging to the second firm failed. I fronted up to fix it. When I got to their office I had this rude snarly little man eyeballing me (literally 20cm from my face) yelling “who the f#%k do I sue). I paused before saying that he was the lawyer so he ought to go and figure that out while I sorted out his IT issues. After looking at the server I asked for the supplier details so I could get parts on warantee. The supplier was their old IT firm so I rang them for warantee spares and they said they would be happy to help once the server was paid for. It turned out they had been waiting 6 months for payment on the server. It was a long day, a bit stressful but in the end quite amusing. Some people get what they deserve.

    On a separate note I have got to say that out of all the companies I did work for the law firms were the most sexist. More sexist than heavy industry which was a bit of a revalation.

  2. Posted October 29, 2010 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    aaaarrrggghh – after reading what these humanities departments are putting out, I reckon someone in the maths department should parody work like Butler’s and that subaltern stuff by mashing up just about every symbol in the book (with a couple of squiggles from feynman diagrams thrown in), making sure the braces match up, all in an incomprehensible meaningless mess, and call it a “post-modern- mathematical identity”, then write a post-gödelian interpretation not about formal undecidability but formal indecipherability. How could those humanities types compete for funding then? I’d mock up a cartoon if I had more maths, I might accidentally assemble the symbols in a meaningful manner.

  3. Posted November 11, 2010 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    [email protected] It’s been done, and well done.

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] Most higher research in the humanities is bunk, writes Skepticlawyer who argues that there are too many universities and too many people going to universities. She argues that science students should be forced to study languages and humanities students forced to study science. On the way through she takes a swipe at French theorist Michel Foucault. It "is clear that his Latin is weak to non-existent", she writes. […]

  2. By Airminded · Oh, the humanities! on October 29, 2010 at 11:58 am

    […] in light of the Browne Review in the UK — for example, at Larvatus Prodeo (also here and here), Skepticlawyer, zunguzungu (a response to this animation, 'So you Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities'), Edge of […]

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