ran a story this weekend about the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC
) being held "over a barrel" about its funding. The AHRC was told by the governement in no uncertain terms that if it wanted to retain current funding levels (£100 million per annum), it was to spent a significant portion of that money on promoting research into the Big Society. Under the previous legislature, the research councils had already been prompted to work with national research objectives set by government. But David Willetts, minister for universities and sciences, latest move is holding the AHRC to ransom. In the words of an Oxford don, who was quoted by the Guardian but who did not want to named: "With breathtaking speed, a slogan for one political party has become translated into a central intellectual agenda for the academy". It's a decision that is on par with Soviet Russia sponsoring the writing of the history of Marxism.
A rethink of what the Humanities are and do was of course long overdue. All of the Humanities disciplines have a rich tradition of producing knowledge for their own sake -- and it needs to be said that if Humanities want to remain of value, they need to be able to continue to do so. However, the Humanities are years behind in thinking about impact, about reaching beyond a tiny group of academics peers and graduate students, about creating knowledge that is just that bit more permanent and relevant. Particularly English Studies has been at fault here. Over the past 30 years the discpline has retreated into an ivory tower of self-indulgent cleverness. Ironically, the turn towards the political in criticism and theory that took place during this period has made things worse rather than better. The claims made for the political relevance of literature are without a doubt important, but these are claims that rarely move outside of the theoretical realm. Take the use of the word "radical" for example that appears so frequently in the titles of articles and conference papers. What I ask myself is really so radical about interpreting a novel or a poem? Or theorizing it?
It is a sad situation that most academic criticism has zero-impact -- even though a lot of it is no doubt extremely good. The impact agenda has been with us for only a very short time -- yet many academics continue to be slow to engage with the concept. The response of many has been defensive. About a year ago I overheard a conversation between two senior academics who remonstrated with some exasperation: "But it is through our teaching that we demonstrate impact". Of course, it isn't. In spite of the valuable contribution that education makes to the socio-economic well-being of our society, the teaching that we do still rarely looks over the walls of the university, let alone beyond the horizons of our own discipline.
I don't quite understand why engaging with a wider audience is such an abominable idea. I always imagine that colleagues in archaeology departments are dancing up and down with joy whenever a new episode of Time Team is aired. For how come that a dusty, old, and highly specialist discipline such as archaeology can be turned into a popular TV series? Why cannot we do this for our literary heritage?
Against this background, the government's interference with academic freedom is therefere an even greater cause for concern. For it is the low impact rate of much humanities research that is being used, with cynical ingenuity, to give legitimacy to an ill-formed ideological idea.