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The Value of the Humanities



What is the value of the humanities? This is a question that guides us throughout this report as we seek conceptual clarity and credibility for practices in digital humanities, knowledge exchange, globalisation, interdisciplinarity, infrastructure and public policy In this chapter, however, we address the question head-on as we report on how humanities researchers themselves articulate the value of their work. This chapter reveals that humanists across the globe more often than not identify a social value to humanities research.
What is the value of the humanities? This is a question that guides us
throughout this report as we seek conceptual clarity and credibility for
practices in digital humanities, knowledge exchange, globalisation, inter-
disciplinarity, infrastructure and public policy. In this chapter, however,
we address the question head-on as we report on how humanities
researchers themselves articulate the value of their work. This chapter
reveals that humanists across the globe more often than not identify a
social value to humanities research.
By way of our interviews and literature review, we have identified
a bounded set of answers to the question of the value of humanities
research. They are as follows:
Intrinsic value: humanities research has a value in and of itself. Even if it
leads to other benefits (as listed below), it should also be pursued for
its own sake.
Social value: the humanities benefit society in a number of ways. They
help create tolerance and understanding between citizens, thereby
leading to social cohesion. They aid decision-making, especially on
the complex ethical issues that confront society as a whole. In addi-
tion, they can benefit society by challenging established positions (see
also ‘critical thinking’ below).
Cultural heritage: the humanities enable citizens to understand, preserve
and sometimes challenge their national heritage and culture.
Economic value: there are direct economic benefits from humanities
research, for example in publishing, media, tourism and, of course,
The Value of the Humanities
P. Holm et al., Humanities World Report 2015
© Poul Holm, Arne Jarrick and Dominic Scott 2015
The Value of the Humanities 13
the training humanities scholars provide to their students, who go
into the job market across a wide range of professions.
Contribution to other disciplines: humanities research feeds into other
fields, most obviously the social sciences, but also into medicine,
computer science and engineering/design.
Innovation: the humanities deal with questions of motivation, organi-
sation and action, which are essential components of creativity
and entrepreneurship, and so the humanities promote a culture of
Critical thinking: it is of the essence of the humanities to develop critical
thinking. This is epitomised by the Socratic tradition in philosophy,
but by no means confined to that discipline.
Personal and spiritual development: humanities research can enhance one’s
personal and spiritual wellbeing through the study of different texts
and traditions – religious, philosophical or spiritual.
Aesthetic appreciation: literary research, art history and musicology
promote aesthetic discrimination, enhancing the appreciation and
enjoyment of artistic works.
We argue that this list represents a plausible taxonomy of the most
prominent attempts to articulate the value of the humanities around
the world. It is, of course, possible to classify the value of the humanities
at different levels of generality. At the very general end of the spectrum
one hears claims such as ‘the humanities make us human’. At the other
extreme one might take examples from a particular discipline that have
led to some benefit or other, e.g. philosophical research in bioethics. But
we think that dividing the terrain at an intermediate level of specificity
(as above) will bring clarity to a topic often marked by excessive abstrac-
tion and hyperbole.
Our purpose is not to advocate any of the values in particular; it is
to describe and analyse them and to offer some critical reflections. We
also wish to show how support for these values is weighted differently
around the world.
The list is based on research from a number of different sources:
A literature review of national reports, opinion pieces in the media,
books (scholarly and popular) and articles in journals and edited
Interviews with 89 humanities researchers worldwide
Workshops with scholars from several countries, especially from East
Asia, Russia and Latin America.
14 Humanities World Report 2015
In the interviews, all respondents were asked the following questions:
Why fund research in the humanities? If you had to give a succinct
answer to this question, what would it be? How would you articu-
late the value of humanities research to an impatient and potentially
hostile audience?
We phrased the question in this way to avoid taxing the patience of our
interviewees with a completely open-ended question about the value of
the humanities. In effect, we were asking as much about the rhetoric of
justification as the justification itself. Nonetheless, the responses to this
question have been a very useful guide towards understanding people’s
own opinions on the value of the humanities.
In the first 45 interviews, we confined ourselves to this question.
However, as we gathered more information on the issue, we decided
to add an extra component to this section of the questionnaire. Since
we had by this point a reasonably clear classification of the different
values that humanities research might be thought to have, we decided
to present them in a list to respondents and ask for their reactions. This
is how we phrased the additional request:
Here are some ways of expressing the value of humanities research:
Intrinsic value(a)
Informing social policy(b)
Understanding cultural heritage(c)
Promoting economic value(d)
Contributing to other academic disciplines (e.g. in the natural or social (e)
Feeding through to undergraduate education(f)
Promoting critical thinking and innovation(g)
Which of these in your own view is (or are) the most important? Which
of these is considered most important in your country/region?
This allowed us to distinguish what the respondents themselves thought
about the value of the humanities from the dominant discourse in their
country. In the analysis below, we have highlighted the extra informa-
tion that came out of the revised question.
Reports, books and articles allow their authors to articulate a partic-
ular value in detail. But there is a risk that such pieces tell us more
The Value of the Humanities 15
about the individual authors than about frequently held attitudes in the
regions from which they come. By complementing these sources with
our interview results, we hope to provide a somewhat broader perspec-
tive, although the risk of idiosyncrasy remains. In addition, the HWR
workshops have allowed us to talk around the interview results and the
literature review to deepen our understanding of the different types of
value and the distinctions and tensions between them.
All the items on the list feature somewhere in the interviews and,
although the list is not a completely exhaustive account of everything
said in those interviews, we have tried not to omit any significant catego-
ries of value. We hope that this list does indeed represent the approaches
that are dominant in different regions of the world.
The values overlap in different ways. For instance, many would see
social value and cultural heritage as continuous with each other. Or,
as we have already indicated, one of the social benefits of the humani-
ties is critical thinking and innovation is often closely associated with
economic and social value. But our task is first and foremost to report
on the different values commonly attributed to humanities research.
It is certainly useful, for the sake of clarity, to start with some distinct
categories, even if they eventually become blurred in the broader discus-
sions that we hope to stimulate. Another point to bear in mind is that
these values can come into conflict with each other in specific instances:
pursuing intellectual curiosity because of intrinsic value may conflict
with economic value (though this need not necessarily be the case);
critical thinking and innovation may not always be conducive to social
cohesion. But our task is not to reconcile these tensions, but to articulate
the different values espoused around the world.
One question we had to confront was whether to include undergrad-
uate education as a distinct benefit of humanities research. After some
reflection, and discussion in the workshops, we have decided against this
for the following reason. As well as the distinction between the different
kinds of value that humanities research may have, one can distinguish
different ways in which humanities researchers might deliver such bene-
fits: by appearing on TV; by writing popular books; by working with
museums and galleries to create content for the general public (audio or
written); by sitting on government committees to formulate policy or
on ethics committees (e.g. in hospitals). These categories are precisely
those to be discussed in Chapter 5 under the heading of ‘translation’. But
one of the most important ways of delivering these benefits is through
undergraduate education. That is, the outcomes of humanities research
typically filter down to undergraduate courses, which in turn may make
16 Humanities World Report 2015
their students better qualified for the workplace (economic value), better
citizens (social value), better at critical thinking or appreciating works
of art and so on. However, it would be a mistake to list education as a
distinct value alongside the nine listed above since it is a distinct mode
of delivery.
In Sections 1–9, we describe and analyse each of the values listed
above more closely, adding in some critical remarks where appropriate.
As already indicated, the sources for this work derive from the litera-
ture review, the interviews and the workshops. Sections 10–11 will focus
directly on the interview results in more detail, first to illustrate how
support for these values is distributed in different regions of the world,
and second to highlight respondents’ views on the very idea of ‘justi-
fying’ the humanities.
Intrinsic value
Any academic discipline can be defended on the grounds of intrinsic
interest. That pursuing knowledge and understanding is valuable for its
own sake and does not actually require some further goal in order to be
of value (of course, researchers who are driven by intrinsic value may
have additional and more personal motivations, which may explain
their particular choices of field and topic). In the case of the humani-
ties, the intrinsic value argument is that, as human beings, we ought to
have an interest in our history, culture, ideas, languages and so on. As
part of our interviews, we found this approach widespread in almost all
regions. It can also be found in discussions of the humanities, one of its
major proponents in the US being Stanley Fish,1 but it is certainly not
a new idea. Again in the US, it has featured prominently in discussions
of the liberal arts, when their advocates claim that undergraduates (no
less than their professors) should study these subjects just for their own
sake. The nineteenth century Harvard professor Charles William Eliot,
who was one of the most important figures in the development of the
liberal arts in the US, talked of ‘the enthusiastic study of certain subjects
for the love of them without any ulterior object’.2
One of our interview respondents made the point quite succinctly:
NA8: To me the justification for humanities research is quite basic,
quite fundamental. It extends human knowledge and human
appreciation of language and literature and the arts. It is a good in
and of itself.
The Value of the Humanities 17
Three others, from quite different regions, made related points even
more briefly (though with a hedonistic twist in one case):
As16: The humanities are just interesting!
ME2: The nicest thing about history is that it might be of no use.
That’s a definition of luxury.
R8: ‘Why fund the research in the humanities?’ Just because it’s fun.
And that’s it.
Intrinsic value and justification
Intrinsic value may seem highly problematic as a way of defending the
humanities, however much support it has among scholars themselves.3
It could invite charges of self-indulgence, especially from people outside
academia and in times of economic hardship. So, if one is concerned
with defending the humanities, the temptation might be to abandon
appeals to intrinsic value and resort immediately to arguments that
appeal to the social or economic benefits of the humanities (even if this
goes against what we actually believe as scholars).
But perhaps this is too simplistic. The idea that the humanities have
intrinsic value is by no means confined to academics. There are funding
contexts in which the intrinsic value approach does have force, notably
when dealing with philanthropic donors.4 Even in the public arena the
intrinsic value approach should not be dismissed. At least in some coun-
tries, evidence from publishers and TV and radio outlets suggests that
the broader public has a strong interest in subjects such as history, litera-
ture and archaeology.5 A successful defence will attempt to change the
perception of the humanities from being a mere burden on the taxpayer
to a set of disciplines whose subject matter already engages the interest
of large swathes of the public.6 Interestingly, although the intrinsic value
approach applies as much to the natural sciences as to the humanities,
it may actually be easier to apply in the case of the humanities, as the
subject matter is somewhat closer to people’s concerns. This point came
out of a few responses, as in the following from Europe:
E6: ... there is a broad interest in the society at large in the subjects
that are studied within the humanities, such as history, religion,
literature, art, theatre, language, etc. Even if these are interests
that most people pursue in their pastime and/or as concerned
citizens, they are important in their own right, and we therefore
need people who study these subjects professionally and in that
capacity are able to transmit knowledge to the rest of society.
18 Humanities World Report 2015
A hybrid approach
It is also worth mentioning a hybrid approach to the value of the human-
ities, which combines instrumental and intrinsic elements (though it is
ultimately instrumental in character). In discussing the economic and
other benefits of the sciences, there is a well-known line of argument
that one cannot always know in advance what research will yield bene-
fits, whether technological, commercial or medical. So, the argument
runs, the best course is to allow intellectual curiosity to run its course,
to allow scientists to work as if they value research for its own sake, and
then let the economic and other benefits fall out serendipitously. The
same argument can be made for the humanities, especially in respect of
certain items on the list such as social and economic values, innovation
and the benefit the humanities may bring to other disciplines. If one is
confined to what seems economically or socially useful, one may miss
out on the most fruitful avenues of research. So, as in the sciences, it is
best to embark on one’s research with a non-instrumentalist mindset
and to proceed as if one is pursuing it for its intrinsic value. However,
this is still an instrumentalist approach, the ultimate value here is not
intrinsic value but, psychologically, it embraces the intrinsic approach.
Social value
The social value of the humanities could be broken down into various
kinds, perhaps the two most frequent being cohesion and decision-
Social cohesion
The humanities have been thought to promote social cohesion. One
way is through undergraduate education, a point widely discussed in
the commentary on US liberal arts, where the role of the humanities
in enhancing our ability to communicate is central: by making people
better able to articulate their viewpoints, they ease communication
within society. Also, by equipping them to understand different view-
points, they make citizens more tolerant of each other (a point that
applies across national boundaries, of course, and so the humanities can
be seen to be useful in an increasingly globalised world).
The link between the humanities and social cohesion can be clearly
made for specific disciplines. History gives a sense of the past, especially
of other people’s pasts, which is vital for democratic citizens living
together in an increasingly globalised world. Literature opens up our
The Value of the Humanities 19
imaginative potential, as do the arts more generally, thus making us
more sensitive to the attitudes and emotions of our fellow citizens.
Religious studies help us understand different religious and spiritual
traditions. Philosophy requires its practitioners to understand other
viewpoints, even when they disagree with them.7 Although there are
plenty of references to social value in the North American literature, it is
by no means confined to that region. In South Africa, for example, it is
part of the public discourse about the humanities.8
Here are some examples making this point, one from a Japanese
respondent, two from the US and one from Latin America:
As1: [w]e need the understanding of the humanities, which restores
human cooperation and partnership, more than economics or
NA2: The humanities are what keep us human ... : [i.e.] the abilities
associated with reading, writing, thinking clearly and communi-
cating with other people. If you can’t relate with other human
beings, what is any of this for? ... People are losing touch with each
other and it is, paradoxically, getting worse with social media. And
the humanities are the secret to maintaining an appreciation for
what makes human beings special.
NA12: A world without the humanities is one without value,
meaning and a sense of shared community with each other.
LA10: [the] humanities are essential to overcome certain trends that
are highly contrary to minimal social stability, e.g. xenophobia,
racism, aggressive behaviour, addiction and fanaticism.
Social decision-making
Another aspect of the social value of the humanities concerns deci-
sion-making in politics, international relations, medicine, welfare;
and with the use of new technologies societies have increasingly
complex decisions to make. The humanities are, it is argued, indis-
pensable here.
The level at which decisions need to be made varies. It could be a
matter of individual citizens being equipped to contribute to public
debate, to vote, or make decisions in their place of work. Humanities
research can exert an influence, albeit sometimes indirectly, not only
through undergraduate education, but also by dissemination through
public media. But humanities researchers might also be enlisted to
inform public policy directly. Whether or not this actually happens,
20 Humanities World Report 2015
and to what extent, is a question for later chapters. Here, we are merely
pointing out that humanists tend to think that, in principle, their disci-
plines could make such a contribution.
One could illustrate the point in more specific terms by looking either
at individual disciplines, or at areas of policy (e.g. health, environment
or security). Where individual disciplines are concerned, one of the
clearest ways in which philosophy can contribute to policy is through
bioethics, on such issues as stem cell research and informed consent.
There are also plenty of examples of the value of linguistics research,
as in the understanding (and preservation) of minority languages, and
sociolinguistic issues about differences of dialect and their relation to
social status.9
If one wants to look at policy areas, a recent example concerns secu-
rity in the US. In May 2011 the National Humanities Alliance and the
Association of American Universities co-sponsored a meeting on Capitol
Hill in Washington entitled Addressing National Security & Other Global
Challenges Through Cultural Understanding.10 Also, the EU Commission’s
Horizon 2020 Programme includes a call for research projects on ‘Secure
Societies’. Another good example is environmental policy, which can
draw upon many different disciplines – history, archaeology, anthro-
pology, philosophy, literature and theology.
Several of our interview respondents from different regions noted the
importance of the humanities for social decision-making:
Af8: [The humanities’] results will help us to understand the context
of social and economic phenomena and enable us to attempt to
influence policy makers in their decisions.
ME1: The SSH help us to solve social problems. First we must under-
stand human beings, only then can we help people control social
phenomena like violence and poverty.
As11: Where there is controversy in social issues, this may arise (or
does arise) because people have a specific worldview or life view.
Philosophy is able to isolate their assumptions and see what tradi-
tions or thought systems these assumptions are embedded in.
Some respondents made the point in the context of technological inno-
vation. Here are some examples from North Africa, the US, Japan and
ME4: We need the humanities to think about the challenges of the
new informational age.
The Value of the Humanities 21
NA6: The standard humanities defence: we’re the field that studies
history and language and then integrates that with ethical concern
and inquiry. [My University] now has [an] initiative that studies
tech and society, for example. You need a human perspective
around scientific innovations and their applications.
As4: Natural sciences create technologies and social sciences propose
various policies, but it is only humanities who can tell us how they
can be used wisely.
As16: Philosophy helps us foresee the impact of new technologies
(or gives us the tools to do so).
Challenging social norms
Humanities research can often be the source of challenges to widely
accepted social values and traditions. In this way it may actually be in
tension with social cohesion. This role overlaps with critical thinking,
being a specific instance of it, so we shall have more to say below. But
for the moment, here is one of our interviewees testifying to the critical
value of the humanities in a social context:
As2: I would just say that it is only in the humanities and social
sciences that we still produce a ‘critical discourse’. Science, tech-
nology and even economics have stopped performing that func-
tion. The curricula in these areas have no element of criticism per se,
making it difficult for them to contribute to the formation of critical
citizenship. It has proved more than once in the course of the last
century that pure science and economics have failed to produce an
understanding of the symbolic life that makes us social and there-
fore human.
This point was also stressed at our Latin American workshop.
Institution building
Finally, it is worth recording three interview responses (from India,
Lebanon and Russia) that linked the humanities to the creation and
nurturing of strong institutions:
ME3: The humanities are essential for building strong institutions.
As6: You need some insight into the relation between the subject
and the world in order to make institutions stronger.
R1: The humanities help people to be aware of how they think and
why they do certain things. It is like cement that holds together
22 Humanities World Report 2015
social practices and institutions. The humanities enable social
institutions to evolve and become better. That is why having the
humanities in society is the same thing as enabling society to
continue to exist.
Heritage, culture, memory
Preserving cultural memory and identity
Preserving and promoting cultural heritage has long been viewed as a
function of the humanities, as is obvious not only in the case of history
and language, but also literature, the arts, philosophy and religion. The
value of the humanities here could lie not only in preserving cultural
identity, but also in rediscovering it. As seen in China with the revival
of interest in Confucius as a reaction to the Cultural Revolution of the
1970s, which attempted to root out Confucianist traditions. Other
examples can be found in the wake of major political transformations
where there is an emphasis on nation building and national histories,
as discussed in our Russia workshop, when the humanities acted as
an important tool to define nations in the post-Soviet republics. The
same emphasis on nation building also applies within Russia, and the
government actively promotes an interest in Russian history to this
As an extension of this approach, some also refer to the way nations
might promote their heritage abroad, perhaps as a way of developing
‘soft power’. A current example also concerns China, and the initiative
to establish Confucius Institutes around the world, not just to promote
the learning of Chinese, but also a wider appreciation of Chinese culture.
Again, such initiatives provide an obvious role for humanities research.
Aside from the use of history, literature, philosophy and religion, the
preservation of a linguistic culture is yet another category to be noted.
This is an acute issue where minority languages are concerned, though
this is not the only context. With the growing dominance of English,
governments of non-Anglophone countries have felt the need for a
language policy, and here the expertise of humanities researchers is
obviously relevant.
Here are some interview responses, mainly from Europe, that high-
light cultural heritage:
Af1: The humanities are our heritage. We must sustain it. We must
preserve it.
The Value of the Humanities 23
R2: Humanities are crucial for upbringing of a new generation as
they provide those who participate in the process (parents, chil-
dren, teachers, educational structures, etc) with the notion of
culture, tradition and cultural transmission.
R3: One of the few absolute treasures of Russia is its literature,
replacing her history, philosophy, and religion. Until the end of
the 20th century (before the era of postmodernism) literature was
the distinguishing feature of the national culture. ... I am convinced
that Russian culture can be understood adequately with help of its
E8: We’re the keepers of memory and have to pass this on to our
E10: Humanities give a sense of belonging. Without humanities,
identities (ethnic, national, cultural, etc.) could not exist.
Nationalism and essentialism
The idea of preserving or rediscovering a heritage raises a number of prob-
lems. It can lead to extremely superficial research (e.g. the promotion of
‘cosmetic Confucianism’), and nationalist agendas may lead to down-
right falsification of the past. More fundamentally, these approaches
may be faulted for assuming the existence of a fixed national culture
waiting to be preserved. Typically, objections to ‘cultural essentialism’
will come from within academia, so it is easy to see humanities scholars
coming into conflict with the state over the issue. Clear examples can
be found when a state wishes to set the national history curriculum for
schools and tries to enlist the support of humanities researchers. This is
becoming an acute problem in Russia, as discussed in the HWR work-
shop, but also mentioned by one respondent:
R6: Russian higher education is suffering from the ministry’s exces-
sive control over its content. The ministry or its affiliated agencies
check course syllabuses and programs, establishing, e.g., syllabus
writing guidelines. This has a double effect, stifling faculty’s
creativity (since they have to submit the documents in a single
standard form) and creating an opportunity for ideological control
in the humanities. The latter is clearly observed in such initia-
tives as a single normative history textbook for secondary schools
or government control over History Society and other fledgling
professional associations. The case of a researcher from Murmansk
24 Humanities World Report 2015
(and numerous scientists) prosecuted for allegedly divulging clas-
sified information to foreign collaborators came as a warning for
many in the field of history of Russia.
This phenomenon can also be found elsewhere, in much milder forms,
perhaps. In the UK, for instance, prominent academics and others spoke
out against what they saw as a naïvely nationalist curriculum being
proposed by the then Education Secretary.12
Confronting and coping with the past
All this points to another function for the humanities in relation to
cultural heritage, that of challenging conceptions about national
identity. Indeed, by rejecting myths about the past, good humanities
research might actually fend off bad national ideology. But this is just
part of a broader function for humanities research – particularly in
history – of confronting difficult aspects of a nation’s past, which at
the most extreme might concern acts of genocide. In turn, confronting
the past in this way can lead to the process of coping with the past and
reconciliation. Again, this is a context in which humanities research is
Here are three interview responses that raise some of these issues, from
Turkey, Russia and Mozambique:
ME2: We have an ongoing and deep conflict with national history
as perceived by the state, the government, and the public opinion
in general. ... In general, the political establishment has a very
negative view of the humanities, which is shared by the great
majority of the population: unless they espouse nationalist histo-
riography, scholars are seen as snobbish intellectuals or even trai-
tors, kowtowing to Western demands. But there’s no outright
R4: The state has a more significant ideological influence on research
of the history of Russia. A major concern for the Russian scien-
tific community has caused a politically motivated prosecution
of Arkhangelsk historian Mikhail Suprun, who the court found
guilty of ‘illegal gathering of information about the private life’.
He studied the biographies of German prisoners of war and ethnic
Germans, Soviet citizens interned in the post-war years in the
Arkhangelsk region.
Af8: I’m working with questions related to memory that are a decon-
struction of the official history ...
The Value of the Humanities 25
Understanding and negotiating other cultures
In addition to understanding, promoting or challenging one’s own
culture, humanities research can enable one to understand other
cultures. Understanding one’s trading partners is increasingly important
in an era of globalisation. The same applies in the area of security (as
in US attempts to understand the Muslim world).13 What is important
to note is that governments understand the need to research deeply
into the histories of countries that are of economic or political concern
to them. Perhaps an extreme example is the way new programmes are
being established in China for the study of Greek and Roman classics, as
a step towards greater understanding of the West.
Cultural heritage and social value clearly overlap in important ways.
Understanding and promoting national heritage may provide social
benefits, in particular by creating more social cohesion,14 though
confronting it may of course reduce cohesion. Perhaps the cultural value
of the humanities might be seen as a species of social value, but it seems
legitimate to keep them apart, as made clear by our Russia workshop.
Much of what we have discussed above would be more appropriately
called political than social, for instance creating cohesion by promoting
national history is very different from doing so by developing skills of
communication and empathy.
The economic value of the humanities
Humanities research may have economic value in issues of welfare,
poverty, distribution of income, employment and business activity.
For instance, businesses need to understand the cultures in which
they operate, and this involves the use of historical, cultural and
media research. Also, the use of language is essential to business, so
both literature and linguistics are important. More specifically, the
humanities contribute crucially to particular kinds of industry. They
are responsible for productive output in the creative industries, like
theatre, film and TV, all of which may be informed and enhanced by
humanities research. The tourist industry depends in part on museums
and other heritage institutions. In addition, there is direct economic
value in popular books on history and literature, not to mention TV
26 Humanities World Report 2015
Employment of graduates is an important issue in discussions about
education in the humanities and liberal arts. The claim is that humani-
ties disciplines prepare students for the world of work, whatever that
may turn out to be. For instance, they teach students how to scan large
bodies of text and information to detect patterns; how to use language
to persuade; how to evaluate and construct arguments. There are, of
course, difficulties in measuring the economic impact of the humanities
and these are discussed in Chapter 5.
A few of our interviewees took up the economic argument:
E6: I would try to persuade the audience that people with degrees
from the humanities have acquired (unique?) transferable skills
that may be very useful in a much wider context than in profes-
sions where such degrees are directly relevant. In the humanities
we study and interpret human behaviour as manifested by singular
events – historical battles, works of art, all kinds of texts, etc. – and
try to integrate them into larger patterns in order to understand
them as well as possible. This is very different from what one
does in the sciences, where the aim is to establish generalisations
that, without exception, hold over a range of phenomena. Such
singular events are what our lives are made up of, and the ability
to interpret and understand them is therefore important at almost
every workplace, of course in combination with more specialised
As5: If you fund humanities studies, you develop analytical skills
and a definite philosophy in life which help you in any profession
ME1: The more we invest in understanding human beings through
SSH research, the more productive they will become.
A conspicuous appeal to the economic value of the humanities has
been made by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, which has
embraced the argument wholeheartedly.15 Strong arguments in favour
of the economic value of the humanities to the creative and cultural
sectors have also been made by Scandinavian and EU reports.16 However,
the economic argument has provoked a backlash among other humani-
ties scholars. A number of prominent figures in the UK have founded
the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) partly to
promote an understanding of the broader value of universities (not just
in the humanities).17 A recent national report on humanities and social
The Value of the Humanities 27
sciences in South Africa makes a trenchant critique of those who appeal
to economic value, certainly in any narrow sense.18 In the US, commen-
tators such as Stanley Fish and Martha Nussbaum are also well-known
critics of the economic approach.19
Contribution to other disciplines
Several humanities disciplines contribute significantly to the social and
natural sciences. Regardless of whatever claims are made about the value
of humanities research in general, this indirect utility has been promoted
by some to demonstrate the value of the humanities.
Humanities and the natural and social sciences
A simple list of humanities contributions to interdisciplinary collabora-
tion may demonstrate this point:
more than any other humanities discipline, benefits
from the natural sciences (and their associated technology). But,
increasingly in the field of environmental and climate science, the
influence may be working the other way around. Archaeological
research is becoming a more important source of evidence in these
History is closely intertwined with the social sciences, all of which
include a historical dimension or subdivision, whether political,
legal, social or economic. Indeed, the fact that history so obviously
contributes to the social sciences says something about the arbitrari-
ness of the distinction between humanities and social sciences. Also,
history is becoming increasingly important in the understanding of
environmental change. This is part of a wider trend, the ‘historical
turn’, where more and more academic disciplines are embracing
an interest in historical perspectives. Historical research over long
time-periods can bring a new perspective to the social sciences. For
example, it has been shown that over time the world has witnessed a
substantial decline in violent interpersonal conflicts. For instance, in
Europe over the last three or four centuries there has been a substan-
tial drop in homicide rates.21 Furthermore, it seems clear that there is
a close and sustained correlation between manslaughter and alcohol
Linguistics clearly influences the fields of psychology and sociology
through social linguistics and psycholinguistics. It is also relevant to
computer science.
28 Humanities World Report 2015
In philosophy, striking examples are the use of logic in computing
and, from the ‘hard end’ of philosophy, the influence of decision
theory in economics. The different branches of philosophy of science –
physics, mathematics, and biology – can also, in principle, contribute
to the relevant areas. Philosophers in the ‘continental’ tradition, e.g.
Foucault, have been highly influential in the social sciences; political
philosophers (from both the continental and Anglo-American tradi-
tions) have also influenced sociology and economics. The dividing
line between political philosophy and political science is obviously
Research in the arts (literature, visual arts and music) also impacts
upon the natural and social sciences. Recent developments in musi-
cology provide some good case studies because of the link with
psychology and brain science.22 Work done by art departments is
contributing to computer science as visualisation is becoming the
way of understanding complex data; graphics is also becoming an
interpretative tool (cf. ‘the iconosphere’). Yet another example would
be the contribution of literary studies to sociology, for instance in the
area of youth culture.
Humanities and the professional schools
One could also claim that the three areas of international relations, law
and management are beneficiaries of humanities research. These areas
are interdisciplinary by nature and there is an increasing recognition
that both humanities and social sciences have a vital contribution to
The fact that the humanities do feed into other disciplines was
mentioned by our respondents:
As16: [Philosophy is] also useful for other disciplines, offering
helpful weapons to analyse the basic assumptions of their theo-
ries that might otherwise pass unnoticed within their own
Af3: Humanities research is the basis on which all other knowledge
is developed, communicated and translated into practical human
development. ... If you do not understand human beings, how can
you understand any knowledge that these human beings seek to
generate, communicate and apply?
Af7: Research in the natural and other social sciences may need the
intervention of humanities research to be meaningful and turned
The Value of the Humanities 29
into user-friendly products. Thus, humanities research contributes
to the work of other academic disciplines.
However, this value was only occasionally mentioned, and then only
in very general terms. Two exceptions come from US respondents, who
answered the question about emerging research themes as follows:
NA11: There is a lot of new interesting stuff at the border between
music and sound. Reconceptualising music as ‘sound’, thinking
about music in a broader way than has been thought before. Also,
in connection with visual studies, new media (there’s a New Media
Center here), visual studies, sound and music and culture, which
would also include literature, history and anthropology. A lot is
going on in those focus points. Some of it overlaps with people
doing computer and cognitive science. So, along with that, I’m
sure you’ve heard of the emerging relationship between cognitive
science and the humanities. We’re starting to do that here, and
that means talking to people ranging from hard neuroscience, to
history of science, literature, art history or history.
NA7: Neuroscience, for example, is at the cutting edge of contem-
porary understanding of the diseases that plague societies with
increasingly ageing populations. The genomic and proteomic
levels of analysis of that become so abstract that they require
philosophers of mind to participate in it. And they’re actually
looking for people in philosophy – not really in psychology,
because that’s too clinical, it’s not abstract enough – but they
are looking for highly theoretical humanist scholarship to
participate in what they’re engaging in. It’s a meeting point of
science and art, where the difference between the two becomes
extremely blurred. I think whether this becomes a larger trend
is dependent upon whether people in the humanities want to
participate in it.
The last extract raises an important question. Even if the humanities
have a proven track record of contributing to other disciplines, and even
if there is the potential for much more to be done, is all this sufficiently
recognised? Do disciplinary and other institutional divides inhibit
important contributions from being made? These divides take different
forms: non-humanities disciplines may be reluctant to admit the influ-
ence of the humanities and may set up barriers to dialogue; humani-
ties scholars may help to increase a sense of cultural divide between
30 Humanities World Report 2015
themselves and non-humanities scholars; university structures may
impede effective communication; and publishers may be reluctant to
venture into the terrain. These issues will be taken up in Chapter 6 in
our discussion of interdisciplinary research.
Several sources in a wide range of countries make a strong link between
innovation and the humanities: national reports,23 blogs,24 media
articles25 and a number of our interviews. In the UK, the AHRC (Arts
and Humanities Research Council) worked with NESTA (National
Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) to produce a report
entitled Arts and Humanities Research and Innovation. From the first page
the authors discuss ‘the distinctive contributions of arts and humanities
The arts and humanities cover a very wide range of research disci-
plines, including archaeology, English literature, history, music
and philosophy. They contribute to a constantly growing body of
knowledge on human experience, agency, identity and expression, as
constructed through language, literature, artefacts and performance.
This knowledge nourishes the UK’s cultural existence, and inspires
creative behaviour, as well as innovative goods and services. The arts
and humanities have a particularly strong affiliation with the creative
industries. There is growing evidence that this research helps to fuel
those industries ...
The link between the humanities and innovation shot to the headlines
with a famous interview by Steve Jobs of Apple. Talking in the context
of product innovation, Jobs said: ‘the reason that Apple is able to create
products like iPad is because we always try to be at the intersection of
technology and liberal arts, to be able to get the best of both.’ We also
found the link to innovation had taken root in Russia. Participants at
the HWR workshop referred to the interest in Richard Florida’s concept
of the Creative Class, especially in the context of urban planning, where
the arts and humanities are playing an important role.
Of course, one can question whether innovation is a distinctive feature
of the humanities as opposed to other disciplines, but it is no less signifi-
cant in the humanities than elsewhere. At any rate, those who advo-
cate innovation as a value typically see the humanities as promoting
The Value of the Humanities 31
innovation in a way that complements the sciences and cannot be
replaced by them. This is the point made by Jobs. And in a companion
AHRC report to the one just quoted, we found the following claim:26
Arts and humanities knowledge tends to be more particularistic,
more tacit and less easy to communicate formally. This has implica-
tions for how this knowledge is created and shared with others. Yet,
because they are less amenable to codification, the arts and humani-
ties are better placed to disrupt and challenge standardised practices
and conventional wisdoms. ... The arts and humanities add to the
overall diversification of knowledge creation. They offer distinctive
approaches to the understanding of human experience and activity.
If innovation is to thrive, it must exploit the knowledge from the
entire spectrum of an integrated research base.
We have already mentioned the fact that the different values of the
humanities can overlap. It is particularly important to stress this in the
context of innovation. For instance, when commentators talk of the
humanities promoting innovation, they might well be using this as
a way of talking up their economic value as in, the humanities help
promote economic value by providing innovative ideas and models to
business. In social policy, the humanities may lead policy makers to
consider proposals that would otherwise not have occurred to them, to
break out of old habits of thinking.27 In the case of cultural heritage,
we have already mentioned the way in which the humanities can
serve to question and revise preconceived views (or even myths) about
national memory. This is yet another form of innovation. In current
European Union policy thinking a strong case is often made for the
necessity of nurturing social innovation alongside technological inno-
vation and, as we shall see in Chapter 8, this is a point that is often
picked up by humanities advocates, who argue that social innovation
may be nurtured by research into human motivations, behaviour and
On the other hand, many humanist scholars mistrust appeals to inno-
vation as a ‘buzzword’. They may claim that innovation is not an end
in itself; that not all innovation is good (e.g. in the arena of cultural
heritage, governments can misuse the humanities in order to invent
nationalist identities).
Looking at our interview responses, it is interesting that few people
mentioned innovation unprompted. Perhaps the most articulate
32 Humanities World Report 2015
expression of the role of innovation was this one, explaining the role of
humanities as a vital part of a knowledge ecosystem:
NA6: Our society, especially in the recession era and era of privatisa-
tion, is fixated on market value. They think that the straight path to
market growth is to put all your money in the STEM (science, tech-
nology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. What’s not considered
in that view is where ideas and innovations actually come from, and
what the best system is for producing that. I’m a believer in the ‘rich
ecology’ thesis. You don’t get great discoveries and inventions by
locking a thousand engineers in a room. You need the entire pyramid
of engineers and artists and humanists with everyone sharing each
others’ points of view and ideas. You need a jungle.
Critical thinking
This move, the intrinsic questioning purpose of the Humanities, was
summonsed both as a means of overthrowing dominant understand-
ings but also of advancing the Enlightenment belief that questioning
[sc. and] knowledge are one and the same thing. This tradition of
critique appears in almost every discipline in the Humanities—its
purpose is (as the philosopher Walter Benjamin proclaimed) ‘to brush
against the grain’ of established understandings.
At its heart lies the genius of critical thought: the technique of asking
deep-seated questions with the aim of gaining profound insights into
the multiple challenges that face the human condition. (South Africa,
Consensus Study, p. 29)
The claim that the humanities promote critical thinking is commonly
made. It is particularly prominent in discussions of the value of a humani-
ties education. In our context of humanities research, the point would be
that research in humanities epitomises the use of critical thinking, and
researchers pass on such virtues to their students.28 But the same type of
argument can be used beyond the teaching context; books, articles and
media presentations might all be thought to promote critical thinking
among the wider public.
The value of critical thinking found some robust advocates among our
interviewees, for instance:
NA5: Skills and sensitivities involved in learning how to think criti-
cally about the world around you are the skills and sensitivities
The Value of the Humanities 33
that succeed across the board, whether you work in medical
imaging or are poet laureate. Critical thinking is part of being
human. Right now, we have a lost generation of people who really
will believe anything, and that’s a real educational failure. We can
turn it around, but it’s going to take some work.
It is not difficult to be critical of the critical thinking argument. Why,
it has to be asked, is this an argument for the humanities rather than
any other academic subject? Surely any discipline depends on critical
thinking? Progress is made when one researcher takes on the conclu-
sions of another and subjects them to close and critical scrutiny. It seems
odd to claim this as the preserve of the humanities.29
Some may still contend that, although all disciplines thrive on critical
thinking, the humanities epitomise it. This touches upon the nature of
the humanities, the topic of the next chapter. Consider the following
extract from one of our interviews on the question about the nature of
humanities research:
As3: [Please give up to three examples of things that, due to humanities
research, we know today that we did not know before, either in your
own field or in the humanities in general.] I do think that this runs
counter to our sense of the humanities as a dynamic discipline, and
we should refuse to answer such queries because it puts the humani-
ties in competition with, and defensive about, the knowledge that is
generated by the sciences. Of course, we know much that we did not
know before because of humanities research, but the most important
lesson we have from the humanities is that we can still keep thinking
about what we know, and see if we can unknow it, unravel it in some
way, or build upon it. Do you think it is appropriate to describe the
results of humanities research as ‘findings’? Not if the findings are
to be taken as the final word of wisdom. All findings in the humani-
ties are provisional and subject to questioning and clarification and
change and modification and dialogue and conversation.
This response seems to indicate that the end goal of research is the
process of critical thinking itself. If so, it would be appropriate to single
out the humanities in this way. But this comes at a price, namely that of
conceding that, while the sciences do advance by way of finding answers
to specific questions, the humanities do not.
Finally, a point of clarification, critical thinking is not the same as
innovation. Both seem to have something in common since they might
34 Humanities World Report 2015
start from a widely accepted mode of thinking, which they then seek
to change. But critical thinking is about analysis; innovation typically
involves the imagination. Indeed, the creativity required by good inno-
vation may even be stymied by too much analysis or critical thinking.
This was a point made quite forcefully in our Russia workshop, as both
critical thinking and innovation turned out to be important values for
the participants. We realise, however, that not everyone will agree; some
still hold that the two values go hand in hand. One of our respondents
made exactly this point:
LA2: The main thrust of the humanities is to foster critical thinking.
We need to return to the Socratic maxim, ‘the unexamined life is
not worth living’. If we produce citizens unable to have their own
ideas, they won’t be innovative and creative. I was recently talking
to a Chinese scholar who made exactly this point about Chinese
society; however much scientific research they do, they still need
to develop creativity and innovation. In fact, this point was made
in China decades ago in the 1950s.
Personal and spiritual development
Many humanities disciplines study religious and spiritual traditions
through their histories and their texts. One way of doing this is self-
consciously ‘clinical’ and detached, for instance when scholars seek to
understand such material ‘from the outside’. But at our East Asia work-
shop, participants stressed the importance, especially in that region, of
studying texts and traditions in a more ‘devotional’ way. That is, they
might study them as a means to their own spiritual fulfilment (or, more
broadly, their own personal development) and that of their students and
readers. Both Buddhism and Confuciansim are commonly studied in
this way by scholars in the Far East.
The idea is not alien elsewhere. Values-based universities in Africa
and the US, especially those associated with a religious tradition, will
typically approach many humanities disciplines in the same way.
Nor is the idea necessarily religious. The study of the humanities and
liberal arts explicitly for personal growth and development has been
revived and advanced in the US quite recently by Anthony Kronman,
interestingly enough, a Yale law professor.30 A number of our respond-
ents saw the value of the humanities in this way, notably in Russia
and Asia:
The Value of the Humanities 35
R3: The value of the humanities is in fact that they provide tools with
which a person becomes aware and realises [himself or herself] in
the world.
R6: This [sc. the ‘alternative academia’ of biography and non-fic-
tion authors, bloggers, museum curators, etc.] is all part of the
growing demand for human self-realisation and betterment. It
cannot proceed without knowledge of the past and criticism of
the present.
NA13: Humanities research is about values, the meaning of exist-
ence, and of our life. Nobody can ignore this, even though most
people might rarely think about this in their daily life. It is like
the air, for example, or breathing, which we almost never think
about in our daily life, unless there is a problem such as air pollu-
tion, or asthma, and then one suddenly realises that breathing
is the fundamental activity of any being’s state of being alive.
Like the nutrition that one consumes every day, education of
humanities offers individuals the necessary nutrition for exist-
ence. Deficiency of a specific nutrition in our body is not always
visible and noticeable unless one gets sick, but if [you] wait until
the illness occurs, cure might not be possible. I believe humani-
ties research and humanities education function [in a] similar
As7: In the rapid development of high meaning in Asia, the first
thing is of paramount importance. East Asia is all about traditions,
Confucianism and all kinds of profound teachings. These things, I
feel our 21st Century people are starved of and are dying for. I am
a Buddhist myself ...
As8: It helps people to leave a spiritual and enriched life, helps them
have a rested mind and an active imagination.
Aesthetic appreciation
In music, literature and the arts generally, humanities research provides
new insights to promote and deepen the appreciation of artistic beauty.
Aside from the obvious ways in which humanities scholars may perform
this function through undergraduate education, examples could
include art historians writing material for exhibitions, and musicolo-
gists or drama scholars writing programme notes. All of these might
also broadcast on radio or TV and write popular books. Literary scholars
36 Humanities World Report 2015
can communicate insights from their research through similar media, as
well as book reviews.
That the humanities have such a role may seem obvious, but it turns
out to be a disputed area. Academic research in literary criticism, art
history and music has certainly had an aesthetic function in the past.
Nowadays, there is no shortage of critics outside academia, writing and
talking in the media, who aim to guide the general public in its appre-
ciation of different kinds of artwork. But is this something modern-day
academics do in the humanities? In the case of literature, it may actually
be controversial to attribute such a role to researchers, perhaps because
of trends such as postmodernism or, more generally, the ‘democrati-
sation’ of public life, and hence the demise of academic expertise in
matters of aesthetic appreciation.31
It was notable that very few of our respondents mentioned aesthetic
appreciation as a value of the humanities. Here are two exceptions, both
from North America:
NA11: I would remind [an impatient and potentially hostile audi-
ence] first, that the way they live their lives and the pleasure they
get from the world, some high percentage of that comes from their
education in the humanities. Learning how to distinguish between
good [and bad] forms of communication ... , between canned and
serious things, between superficial things and profound things.
And this doesn’t just go for aesthetic experience, but just being
an intelligent consumer of media, politics, business and sciences.
Again, I know this sounds old-fashioned but it helps people think
broadly and deeply with discrimination. If they don’t care about
that, then there’s not really much to say. You can’t convince
NA14: I’d prioritise aesthetic appreciation, i.e. the way research can
make possible new and sophisticated forms of aesthetic pleasure.
This is bound up with the way it shows how aesthetic pleasure has
changed over time.
But note that in the first of these quotes aesthetic value is mentioned
only briefly and is considered ‘old-fashioned’.
A distributional survey of the interview responses
So far, we have been using the interview results alongside other sources
to help characterise the different values of humanities research. In this
The Value of the Humanities 37
section we examine the interviews on their own. First, we shall see how,
according to these interviews, support for the different values is distrib-
uted around the world. In the final section (Strategies for justification),
we look at the ways in which our respondents reflected on the idea of
justifying the humanities.
Responses to the original question on reasons to fund the humani-
ties varied widely. One point of difference was the level of generality.
Some were broad-brush, others gave specific examples to illustrate the
value of humanities research. But it is fair to say that in each region
almost all the values we have discussed were mentioned at least once. As
regards overall patterns, we can mention two: (i) one positive, a signifi-
cant proportion of our respondents mentioned the social value; (ii) the
other negative, very few, in answer to this question at least, mentioned
economic value.
(i) Overall we found that most respondents made some sort of refer-
ence to society or the social, or at least a reference to our collec-
tive life as human beings, or to collective decision-making (e.g.
about technological innovation). Europeans seemed less inclined
than others to mention societal value, while more than two thirds
of respondents from other regions mentioned social value. On the
other hand, Europeans tended to mention cultural heritage more
often than others.
(ii) Only a handful of respondents mentioned the economic value of the
humanities. The small number of these references is striking, given
the way the original question was set. It challenged respondents to
think of themselves defending the humanities to a hostile audience.
This ought to have invited them to make use of whatever arguments
might resonate with their critics. Yet very few took up the oppor-
tunity to mention economic value. Perhaps this reflects something
we mentioned earlier, that the economic argument is viewed with
suspicion in academic circles. Those who did mention it referred to
it in somewhat deflationary terms.
It is particularly interesting to reflect on this result in the US context.
There, public pronouncements about the value of the humanities,
whether from within academia or without, often focus on the employ-
ability of humanities graduates. Critics complain that humanities disci-
plines are irrelevant to the workplace and try to promote STEM subjects
instead. Academics, worried that parents of students and potential
students will be persuaded by this, try to fight a rearguard action. So it is
38 Humanities World Report 2015
interesting that, with two exceptions, our group of interviewees steered
away from the topic, despite the terms of the question.
As indicated above, after conducting 45 interviews, we added a compo-
nent to the questionnaire, which gauged respondents’ reactions to the
values we have been discussing in this chapter. We asked them which
values they considered most important, and which their society did.
We had 44 responses from Africa, Australia, Latin America, the MENA
region, Russia and Asia.
The responses to the added question showed a disparity between the
interviewees’ own attitudes and those they felt prevailed in their own
country. Although intrinsic value is popular among the respondents
themselves, far fewer thought that it would gain any purchase in society
at large. It is also noteworthy that, while the interviewees tended to
believe in the social value of the humanities for policy making, they
are less sanguine about whether their societies would agree. The same
applies to the responses regarding critical thinking and innovation.
On the other hand, there is a relative alignment between attitudes on
cultural heritage. Yet again, we see that economic value is not some-
thing many humanities scholars espouse, though more think that it is
something society expects of them. There is clearly more work to be
done in future studies on the preferences of humanists.
Strategies for justification
Finally, we turn to a meta-issue arising from the interviews. Because of
the way the original question was framed, some respondents took it as
a cue to discuss the very idea of justifying the humanities. Occasionally,
respondents counselled against arguing with a hostile audience at all; or
they warned about the dangers of responding to critics operating within
narrow, short-term paradigms.
If these responses were right, perhaps the entire thrust of this chapter
might be considered misconceived. Haven’t we been talking all along
about justification, simply assuming that it is something worth doing?
But this would be a mistake, because there is an important distinc-
tion between justifying and articulating the value of the humanities.
By articulating, we mean explaining and differentiating the different
values or benefits humanities research is thought to have. This is, in
fact, all we have been doing for most of this chapter. Justifying the
humanities is subtly different as it involves defending the humani-
ties in the face of a challenge. Unlike articulation, justification is
self-consciously rhetorical. There are potentially hostile audiences to
The Value of the Humanities 39
consider, for instance: politicians nervous of their budgets; people who
consider STEM subjects worth funding but struggle to see the point of
the humanities.
Now one could argue, like the respondents above, that one simply
should not engage in this kind of defensive manoeuvre at all. But that
does not mean that one should not engage in the distinct project of artic-
ulation. It is important, and interesting for other reasons, to be aware
of the different ways in which the humanities contribute to our lives,
individually and collectively. Besides, we do not agree that all attempts
at justification are misplaced. We need to give some account of ourselves
to those who fund us and it would be wholly impractical to disengage
altogether (even if a few critics are beyond the pale). It is also useful
for us to challenge ourselves about our own motivations and values,
irrespective of what others may think. So, let us turn to another group
of respondents who agreed that we should engage with impatient and
hostile audiences, but held that there are better and worse ways of doing
so. The idea of tapping into a pre-existent or at least implicit interest
was one favoured approach. For instance, one European respondent
described how a historian might ask people about their family, such as
their grandparents’ childhood. This starts a conversation about what
it was like in that period. Once such interest has been generated, some
kind of dialogue becomes possible, and the historian can then intro-
duce what they know about the past. In the US seven respondents also
offered some constructive thoughts about how to open up people’s
minds to the issue. One thought that the key was to find a topic, prob-
ably local in nature, in which an interlocutor would already be inter-
ested, for instance a poet from their own state. The strategy would then
be to show how academic research could affect the way we think of this
author and, by extension, the region from which they came. Others
went further and stated that the humanities already play a significant
role in people’s lives. Both these responses suggest that interest in the
humanities may lie just beneath the surface, even in an impatient inter-
locutor; they merely need ‘reminding’. Other respondents went a step
further and insisted that people outside academia are already interested
in the humanities. ‘The fact is that we engage in humanistic thinking
whether we know we do or not – when we talk about drones or stem cell
research.’ Another thought that politicians’ critiques of the humanities
fail to recognise the crucial importance that the humanities (e.g. litera-
ture) play in so many people’s lives.
If these optimists are right, we need to be able to exploit public
interest in the humanities, be it only latent. This requires effective
40 Humanities World Report 2015
communication. But, according to two US respondents, humanities
scholars may sometimes be their own worst enemy:
NA7: I think the humanities are partially to blame. We’ve spent a
decade talking to ourselves in an esoteric language that nobody else
understands or thinks is relevant. I’m not saying that the humani-
ties need to sacrifice complexity in order to communicate, but
nevertheless the humanities need to become more self-reflective
themselves. What is the culturally critical function of the intellec-
tual interrogations that they are engaged in? The humanities must
find a way to limit [their] esotericism, without compromising the
complexity of [their] interrogations.
NA10: There’s a lot of appreciation for the humanities. We founded a
programme called the free minds programme, a one-year humani-
ties course for adults, most of whom are low-income, ethnic
minorities, and never went to college. They value the humanities.
They value being able to think through issues and to have expo-
sure to that kind of cultural capital. I think it’s a matter of speaking
beyond the academy, of speaking in a non-jargony language, of
speaking about issues that people really care about and about the
meaning of human life. Much humanities scholarship has moved
away from the issues that really motivate people. So I think it’s
important to stay centred in those issues that people are facing
every day.
These comments act as a salutary reminder when it comes to advocacy.
If there is a problem of hostility and impatience in public attitudes, part
of the solution may lie in our own hands.
This has been a wide-ranging survey, though in many ways we have
barely been able to scratch the surface. But, by pulling some strands
together, we can make the following points:
Almost all the values we listed at the beginning find supporters 1.
right across the world. The social value of the humanities is particu-
larly popular. If scholars wish to find a single value to unite rather
than divide them, they should persist in articulating it. It makes the
humanities not only noble, but also useful.
The Value of the Humanities 41
Several respondents mentioned the intrinsic value of the humanities. 2.
We identified a hybrid form of this approach, where the curiosity-
based pursuit of knowledge can actually lead to significant instru-
mental benefits. This hybrid justification could be an essential part of
the rhetoric, pointing to the long-term societal value of being indif-
ferent to such value in the short-term.
The role of the humanities regarding cultural heritage is also very 3.
important, but it needs to be handled with care. As has long been
the case, political pressures can lead to abuse of academic standards
in this domain.
The economic value of the humanities receives only lukewarm 4.
support. In the main, our respondents tended to avoid it. So justi-
ficatory appeals to economics are likely to divide humanities advo-
cates from one another. Nonetheless, if the evidence can be found
to support the argument, there is no reason why it should not be
articulated. Its opponents need to explain why, if it is rooted in fact,
it should not be deployed as one argument among others.
Humanities scholars should always be on the alert not to become 5.
their own worst enemy. The merits of clear and accessible communi-
cation (without losing nuance and sophistication) should always be
borne in mind.
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... Thus, our results seem to support the view, shared by Antonelli and Fassio (2016), that public policy targeting economic growth should focus on the scientific areas that most impact on economic growth (engineering and technology, physics, social and life sciences). Nevertheless, given that clinical, pre-clinical and health sciences and arts and humanities also positively and significantly foster economic growth, besides contributing directly to the welfare and wellbeing of individuals (Stephan 1996;Frank and Nason 2009;Holm et al. 2015), public investment in academic knowledge in these areas should not be overlooked. ...
Whether research output significantly impacts on economic growth, and which research areas/fields of science matter the most to improve the economic performance of countries, stand as fundamental endeavors of scientific inquiry. Although the extant literature has analyzed the impact of research output on economic growth both holistically and by field, the impact of academic knowledge as a capital good (hard and social sciences) versus a final good (medical and humanities) has been largely neglected in analyses involving large sets of countries over a broad period of time. Based on a sample of 65 countries over 36 years (1980 to 2016), and employing system GMM dynamic panel data estimations, four main results are worth highlighting: (1) holistic research output positively and significantly impacts on economic growth; (2) both the academic knowledge of scientific areas that most resemble capital goods (physical sciences, engineering and technology, life sciences or social sciences) or final goods (base clinical, pre-clinical and health or arts and humanities) foster economic performance; (3) the global impact of research output is particularly high in the fields of engineering and technology, social sciences, and physics; and (4) the impact of research output on economic growth occurs mainly through structural change processes involving the reallocation of resources towards the industrial sector.
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