söndag 23 juni 2013

Society and the humanities - a eulogy

Summer is over us and with it, a short relief from the burdens of administration. Some call it vacation. Others use this period to think and write. This is also a good time to reflect on the conditions under which we work in the humanities and at the universities at large.
The faculty where I work, the Arts and Humanities Faculty at Linnaeus University is a good one - nice, creative people who produce much and good research. But, in the eyes of the university management and in the eyes of national research policy makers, it is a rather bad faculty. It does not attract enough ”external funding” for them to be happy. For that, the factulty will be fiscally punished in the upcoming budget. The fact that the lack of ”external funding” does not seem to affect the research outcome in any negative manner (quite possibly the opposite) goes without recognition.
Research today is formulated as a form of competetion, where the singular most critical success factor is the attraction of ”external funding”. For the humanities this is absolutely devastating. Forcing humanistic scholars to engage in the quest for money from research councils that spread their graces over less than 10 % of the submitted applications is nothing short of a waste of time. Besides, every active scholar knows that the only thing that counts in the long run is the quality of the published research - the results, in whatever environment they will find their place. The system today fosters another priority; that of expected research. It is more important to submit suggestions for research than to actually go through with them. Although that might not be the intent of our present political decision makers, it is for sure the outcome, since most applications will gain no interest what so ever by the research councils.
Today there is a discussion in Sweden about the role of the humanities. It is a kind of ”debate” which occurs every now and then. This time around the main question is not only the usual attempt to show an intrinsic value of the humanities to society (we’re ”good”), but also how we can adapt humanistic research to the present system of research finance – how to make the humanities attract more ”external funding”. No one asks the question ”why should we?”.
Research is not a competative endeavor – especially not that of humanistic and cultural studies. The obvious alternative to the present system is to directly provide the universities with the funding needed by their active scholars. The ones populating the diverse and fluid structures of disciplines within these fields - doctoral students, lecturers and professors - are the ones who should decide what research to persue. The present system forcing us to constantly scribble down applications for ”external funding” is of course highly political and a direct enemy of the slow, creative process that is the mother of all humanistic scholarship. Achieving scientific results takes time, and the constrains of tight time limits and evaluation demands is not beneficial for neither process nor results.
Some say that this is an idealistic way of reasoning. I don’t think it is. By saying that it is, one is admitting the necessity of the present system, that ”this is the way it is”. That is a highly unintellectual stand. I (still) believe that society is shaped not by economic standards, but by the will of its citizens.  The power over politicians of administratrators and financiers is strong though, and by admitting them to set the rules, cultural studies and humanities research are bound to lose. We see their triumph all around us. We live today, at least in Sweden, in a society which is filled with people who despite their good (often university) educations are cultural ignorants. Hundreds of thousands well equipped and capable of doing their task in the production apparatus, but unable to relate it to an overall reason or to associate with the depth of human experience accessible to us through religions, literature, ethics, art, philosophy, drama and music. These people are easy to manipulate, something which of course has been noted by several thinkers during the last century, such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Elias Canetti and Zygmunt Bauman. Fostering citizens like that may be economically productive, but in the end it is socially devastating. Thus, it is not the humanities that is the problem. It is the politicians turned technocrats, treating research like industrial excercise, treating culture as a burden – they are the problem.

So, in the firm belief that society always is the result of our collective intentions, I propose a shift of focus. No more should we ask what humanities can do for this society, but what this society of ours can do for the humanities. If so, we have a starting point. It is, basically, a matter of integrity.

Alas – summer: in a spirit of love and strength I leave you this time with Alfred Schnittke’s brilliant paraphrase (K)ein Sommernachtstraum.

By the way, on this particular recording, made by Malmö Symphony Orchestra in the mid 1980's, my father plays bass trombone:


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