All entries for Tuesday 12 May 2009

May 12, 2009

Jonathan Bate’s “Long View”

I am both a scientist and a poet and have enjoyed employment in both fields. Given recent risible comments by ministersJonathan Bate on the economic value of Humanities subjects (as opposed to some outdated and false notion of ‘hard’ sciences), and given the likely cuts to be made within UK universities, it seems a good time to reprint what I consider a wise,  interesting - and quietlly revolutionary - essay by my colleague Jonathan Bate (pictured right). To give you a flavour of the invigorating areas that Bate addresses, read this to whet your appetite:

‘Imagine a civil servant responsible for the distribution of the research budget. Imagine them saying ‘I don’t lose any sleep at night over the spending of taxpayers’ money on medical research, but I do lose sleep over the spending of it on humanities research; I like riding my horse, but I don’t expect the taxpayer to pay for me to do so.’ Imagine, then, that you have the ear of that civil servant, or for that matter the minister to whom they report, for a few sentences. What will you say to help them to rest more easily at night on this matter of the taxpayer and humanities research?’

The Long View

Jonathan Bate

ON ‘VALUE’

There is a simple answer to the question ‘what is the value of research in the humanities?’ It is that research in the humanities is the only activity that can establish the meaning of such a question.

What do we mean by ‘value’, by ‘research’ and by ‘the humanities’? These are questions that can only be answered by means of the tools of the disciplines of the humanities. They are questions of semantics and interpretation. And they require philosophical and historical understanding. Language, history, philosophy: the humanities.

By the same account, a further value of research in the humanities is that it is the only activity that can answer the question ‘what is the value of research in the sciences?’ It is generally assumed that the value of research in the sciences is to advance knowledge so as to improve the quality of human life. The value of medical research is to cure disease, relieve suffering and lengthen life. Among the potential values of research in climatology, biochemistry, physical engineering and several other scientific disciplines might be the discovery of various means to fix an array of environmental problems. But questions such as why we should value long life and what ethical obligations we might have to future generations, to other species or indeed to the planet itself are ‘humanities’ questions, only answerable from within the framework of

disciplines that are attentive to language, history and philosophy. In act two scene two of Shakespeare’s rigorously intellectual (and wildly bawdy) tragedy Troilus and Cressida, the Trojan lords debate as to whether it is worth fighting a war for the sake of the beautiful Helen. Hector proposes that ‘she is not worth what she doth cost / The keeping.’ ‘What’s aught but as ’tis valued?’ asks Troilus in reply. ‘Value’ here is initially conceived in economic terms. According to the Oxford English Dictionary – an essential product of humanities research – the primary meaning of the word value is ‘That amount of some commodity, medium of exchange, etc., which is considered to be an equivalent for something else; a fair or adequate equivalent or return. [As in the] phr[ase] value for money (freq[uently] attrib[uted, used metaphorically]).’

Value, then, as a term referring to a commodity, a medium of exchange, something quantifiable. An interpretation in terms of the market, of ‘economic impact’.

Hector, though, comes back with a counter-argument that shifts the meaning of the term:

But value dwells not in particular will:

It holds his estimate and dignity

As well wherein ’tis precious of itself

As in the prizer. ’Tis mad idolatry

To make the service greater than the god.

The word ‘value’ must now be understood in the light of another of its definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘The relative status of a thing, or the estimate in which it is held, according to its real or supposed worth, usefulness, or importance. In Philos[ophy] and Social Sciences, regarded esp[ecially] in relation to an individual or group; gen[erally] in pl[ural], the principles or standards of a person or society, the personal or societal judgement of what is valuable and important in life.’ The relativism of Troilus (things only have value in so far as they are valued by particular people who prize them) is replaced by the proposition that there can be essential values, that a thing might be intrinsically valuable (‘precious of itself’). As the dictionary definition reminds us, this essentialism may eventually have to be dissolved into another relativism: ‘society’ will make judgements as to ‘what is valuable and important in life’. We need historians and anthropologists and researchers in comparative literature to show us how different societies have different values. Shakespeare, following Montaigne, was very interested in the idea that what one society regards as the product of ‘nature’, another society will regard as mere ‘custom’. In a world of globalised communication, international exchange and migratory labour, this knowledge of difference is especially important.

But every society has gods of one kind and another. In response to the commodified understanding of value with which he and Troilus began, Hector reminds us that it is mad idolatry to make the service greater than the god. This is as if to say: a merely economic understanding of value makes the service – the instrumentality – greater than the thing served, the real value. The value of humanities research is to identify the nature of the god.

In the arena of higher education, the relationship between the service and the god appears to be changing. Universities had their origins in the service of first the church (the centrality of theology in the medieval curriculum) and then the state (the idea extending from Tudor reforms to the last days of the British Empire that one of the primary functions of universities was to form the minds of civil administrators). But for Cardinal Newman, the idea of the university was premised upon a god: the university was ‘a place of teaching universal knowledge’. Historically, the idea of ‘education’, deriving from ‘educere’, the Latin for ‘to lead out’, is intimately bound to the notion of character formation. The model for the university tutorial is the classical sage –

Plato in his academy or Epicurus in his garden – in dialogue with his pupils, imparting wisdom by example and through training in the art of argument. The platonic university is a place where young people learn to think. Their starting point must be the art of thinking disinterestedly, not instrumentally.

The Victorians were the first generation in this country to believe that the state had a role to play in education. They created a government department to oversee the process. Whilst the main educational business of nineteenthcentury politicians and civil servants was the provision of universal school education, they also initiated processes that led to the reform of Oxford and Cambridge, and the growth of civic universities elsewhere, especially in the north (though, interestingly, the running in this latter regard was made within local, not national government – a model worth pondering in the context of the various other kinds of devolution that are reshaping our society today).

Ours is an interesting moment for the idea of the university not least because one of prime minister Gordon Brown’s first actions on taking office in 2007 was to abolish the Department of Education that the Victorians had invented. If only rhetorically, this was a bold move: is there any other modern state that lacks a department of education? Given Mr Brown’s own upbringing as a son of the manse, a sometime student rector of an ancient university and a thoughtful reader of the moral philosophy of Adam Smith, this symbolic rejection of the classical notion of ‘educere’ was also a little surprising. Structure and nomenclature are inevitably formative of content: the creation of the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (‘DIUS’) implies that universities are now to be regarded not as the ‘higher’ end of the educational process that begins in primary school (or before), but as servants of ‘the innovation and skills agenda’. Crudely put, academic research must pay its way by generating real returns in the wider economy.

The big new idea is ‘knowledge transfer’. This is defined on the DIUS website as ‘improving exploitation of the research base to meet national economic and public service objectives,’ to be achieved by means of ‘people and knowledge flow,’ together with ‘commercialisation, including Intellectual Property exploitation and entrepreneurial activities.’ These ambitions do sound very much like the service becoming greater than the god: the predominant language (‘exploitation’, ‘economic’, ‘commercialisation’, ‘entrepreneurial’) is that of the commodity and the marketplace.

But even in the hard sciences, the relationship between original research and commercial exploitation is usually indirect and long-term. More than half a century passed between Arthur C. Clarke’s visionary conception of the communication potential of orbital satellites and the massive economic impact of the manufacture and sale of GPS devices to individual motorists. Medical research, too, has a long history of vast sums of money being spent on journeys up blind alleys, with new breakthroughs often coming by chance in quite unexpected places. Cyclosporin, the immunosuppressive agent that revolutionized organ transplantation, was discovered as part of a general screening programme, not through a funded research project specifically addressing the problem of graft rejection. Medical history is full of stories of this kind.

Government and its officers have a prime duty to account for the expenditure of taxpayers’ money, but in measuring the value of research a much more subtle style of accountancy is required. There is something especially inappropriate about the attempt to quantify the ‘value’ and ‘impact’ of work in the humanities in economic terms, since the very nature of the humanities is to address the messy, debatable and unquantifiable but essentially human dimensions of life – such as history, beauty, imagination, faith, truth, goodness, justice and freedom. The only test of a philosophical argument, an historical hypothesis or an aesthetic judgement is time. A long period of time, not the duration of a government spending review. One phrase in the DIUS definition of ‘knowledge transfer’ stands out: ‘exploitation of the research base to meet national economic and public service objectives’. Public service, a concept most often used in relation to the charter of the BBC (‘public service broadcasting’), comes from a different lexicon to that of economic objectives and commercial exploitation. It actually takes us back to some of the historical functions of the university. Like the BBC, the universities are in the business of educere as a public service. In this regard, their most significant form of ‘knowledge transfer’ goes under another name: teaching.

The value of humanities teaching at university level is not in doubt (one hopes). The question, then, is to ask what kind of public service is provided by humanities research. The obvious answer is that it feeds into teaching: in good universities, research questions emerge through teaching and new hypotheses are tested out on students. An artificial barrier between research and teaching in the provision of government funding for universities – exacerbated by the impact of the ‘Research Assessment Exercise’ – has obscured this obvious answer. The division is sometimes justified on the grounds that the university teacher needs only ‘scholarship’, not new ‘research’, but such a distinction between scholarship and research simply does not hold water in any humanities discipline. To take an example from my own discipline, English Literature: to teach a literary work well at university level, one requires a good text of that work; the establishment and creation of such texts through the discipline of textual bibliography is a highly advanced, technical and timeconsuming form of research (my new recension of the text of Shakespeare’s complete works required more than fifteen person years’ research time); the resulting product cannot be described as ‘merely a textbook’ in the way that synthesis of existing scientific or medical knowledge into a textbook for students could be described as ‘scholarship’ rather than ‘research’.

The primary impact of humanities research will always be within the educational system – which now means the global educational market. The universities that promote the best research and scholarship in the humanities will attract graduate students from around the world, thus greatly stimulating the economy and increasing our international competitiveness. The universities that build research into the undergraduate ‘learning experience’ will produce the most able students, who will bring their ‘innovation’ and ‘skills’ to every sector of the economy.

These are important truths that need constant reaffirmation. But other kinds of answer are also needed to the question of the value of humanities research of the kind that is funded by Research Councils UK. I polled a random sample of colleagues with a hypothetical question (developing the art of posing hypothetical questions is, of course, another of the values of the humanities):

Imagine a civil servant responsible for the distribution of the research budget. Imagine them saying ‘I don’t lose any sleep at night over the spending of taxpayers’ money on medical research, but I do lose sleep over the spending of it on humanities research; I like riding my horse, but I don’t expect the taxpayer to pay for me to do so.’ Imagine, then, that you have the ear of that civil servant, or for that matter the minister to whom they report, for a few sentences. What will you say to help them to rest more easily at night on this matter of the taxpayer and humanities research?

Here are the – representative – replies of six colleagues:

(i) Britain is a major world centre of publishing and intellectual life. Research in humanities makes possible the intellectual property and the cultural institutions that sustain this position. Without British humanities academics there would be no Oxford English Dictionary, no Macmillan Dictionary of Art, no Grove Dictionary of Music, no Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, no Oxford Classical Texts, all of which are sold on to the world and whose publication in turn guarantees Britain’s place as a world intellectual centre. Furthermore, humanities research provides an infrastructure that maintains Britain’s place as an intellectual and cultural centre, a place of publishing and reviewing, which enriches the work of our composers, artists, playwrights and novelists, whilst attracting creators from other countries and cultures to live here. We abandon this at our peril.

(ii) To a person dying from cancer, the ‘cure for cancer’ is abstract and meaningless. It will only come after they are dead. What is needed by a dying person, beside the palliative medical care that is now available, are resources for working through their grief and anger and fear. Recent research in ‘bibliotherapy’ suggests that reading – reading in groups in particular – provides an extremely effective (and cost effective) resource for this purpose.

That is hardly surprising. The links between poetry and mental health have long been established. After all, William Wordsworth was the effective inventor of cognitive behavioural therapy (an initiative that the government are now fully behind funding because it’s cheap, easy to train people up to practice, and has immediate, if not long-lasting effects). This is the sort of area which the research councils should be funding under their theme of ‘Ageing research: lifelong health and wellbeing.’

(iii) I see that one of the research councils’ strategic priorities is ‘global security’. If George W. Bush’s and Tony Blair’s security and strategic advisors had been educated in the historical research of Erez Manela, the world would be a less dangerous place. See Pankaj Mishra’s review of Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n04/mish01_.html).

(iv) Humanities research engenders and fosters critical thinking, which is indispensable to innovative work in any field whatsoever.

(v) If the civil servant’s horse riding were of a standard to make her a potential Olympic competitor, wouldn’t the taxpayer be content to fund her? National prestige need not be confined to sport: what is the objection to funding the research that allows our best historians and literary scholars and classicists and philosophers to be the Olympians of their disciplines?

(vi) A great deal of humanities research has to do with the question of how we have come to be who we are and what we might come to be as a community in the future – locally, nationally, and globally. Given the emphasis on ‘Britishness’ and questions over cultural identity that are continually being asked, I’m surprised that this isn’t one of the research councils’ key themes. These all seem to me very good answers, and the rest of this essay could easily be devoted to any one of them. To illustrate the possibilities, I shall pursue the final response. In doing so, I will give an example of humanities research in action – in an area that seems far distant from contemporary society but that actually has great contemporary resonance.

ESSENTIALLY BRITISH’? A CASE-STUDY

On 20 February 2008, Gordon Brown said in his speech on ‘Managed Migration and Earned Citizenship’:

Citizenship is not an abstract concept, or just access to a passport. I believe it is – and must be seen as – founded on shared values that define the character of our country. Indeed, building our secure and prosperous future as a nation will benefit from not just common values we share but a strong sense of national purpose. And for that to happen we need to be forthright – and yes confident – about what brings us together not only as inhabitants of these islands but as citizens of this society. Indeed there is a real danger that while other countries gain from having a clear definition of their destiny in a fast changing global economy, we may lose out if we prove slow to express and live up to the British values that can move us to act together. So the surest foundation upon which we can advance socially, culturally and economically in this century is to be far more explicit about the ties – indeed the shared values – that make us more than a collection of people but a country. This is not jingoism, but practical, rational and purposeful – and therefore, I would argue, an essentially British form of patriotism.

I would suggest that humanities research alone has the capacity to test the meaning and validity of this claim. Consider for a moment, Brown’s resonant closing phrase ‘an essentially British form of patriotism’. Humanities research is where we need to go in order to find out whether there is or was or could be such a thing. My own research suggests that there is in fact an interesting relationship between the origin of the idea of us as ‘British’ and the origin of the idea of ‘patriotism’. Here is a summary report of my findings.

The Reformation in religion, and more particularly Henry VIII’s break from Rome, was decisive in shaping the modern English, and then British, state and, at the same time, the idea of love of one’s country (‘patriotism’). The culture of England was until the early sixteenth century always implicitly part of something larger: the culture of Catholic Europe. After 1536-39, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and proclaimed the supremacy of the English crown and the independence of the English church, it became necessary to forge a new kind of national culture.

A key work in this project was a huge book called Britannia, by William Camden, antiquarian and second master at Westminster School. Published in Latin in 1586, it went through six editions by 1607, and was translated into English by Philemon Holland in 1610. Dedicated to William Cecil, Baron Burghley, Lord Treasurer and chief minister to Queen Elizabeth, Camden’s weighty book began with a history of early Britain, then proceeded to a county-by-county guide to the topography, history and antiquities of the nation. Britannia was an attempt to write the nation into being. Britain is proclaimed as a chosen land, symbolically set apart from the European main.

The opening of Camden’s text implies that Britain is one nation, if with several names, played off against ‘the continent of Europe’. But his title-page presents a more complicated picture. Holland translated it as follows: Britain, or a Chorographicall Description of the most flourishing Kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the Ilands adjoyning, out of the depth of Antiquitie (‘chorographical’ means ‘the writing of regions’, as opposed to ‘geography’, the writing of the whole earth). The county-by-county survey begins with Cornwall in the extreme south-west, goes across to Kent in the extreme southeast, then criss-crosses northward until it reaches Cheshire, at which point Camden writes, ‘I Thinke it now my best way, before I treat of the other parts of England, to digresse a while and turne a little aside toward Wales, called in Latin Cambria, or Wallia, where the ancient Britans have yet their seat and abode’. Wales is thus subsumed into England, though with the recognition on the one hand that it is marginal – you must turn a little aside to acknowledge it – and on the other hand that it is special, since the Celtic or ancient British heritage remains unusually alive there. The latter acknowledgment might look to a Welshman like condescension masked as flattery.

From Wales, Camden proceeds through the northernmost counties of England and into Scotland, which he says that he will willingly enter into, ‘but withall lightly passe over’, since he does not know its customs well and will not presume to trespass upon them. His text passes it over in a score of leaves, whereas it has dwelt in England for hundreds of pages. Camden quotes an apt Greek proverb, ‘Art thou a stranger? Be no Medler’. One senses that Camden is a little uneasy about subsuming the Scots into his treatment of England-asimplicitly- Britain, as he had subsumed the Welsh. His task became much easier after King James united the thrones of Scotland and England in 1603. Holland’s 1610 translation proceeds with a passage that Camden added to his 1607 edition:

Certes, I assure my selfe that I shall bee easily pardoned in this point, the people them selves are so courtuous and well meaning, and the happinesse of these daies so rare and admirable, since that by a divine and heavenly opportunity is now fallen into our laps, which wee hardly ever hoped, and our Ancestours so often and so earnestly wished: Namely, that Britaine so many ages disjoigned in it selfe and unsociable, should all throughout like one uniforme City, under one most sacred and happie Monarch, the founder of perpetuall peace, by a blessed Union bee conjoyned in one entire bodie.

Because Scotland has a court, unlike Wales, it is thought of as a place of courtesy. The joining of the two courts is conceived as a knitting together of the body-politic. King James is then praised for bringing a long history of ‘dismale DISCORD’, which has set the two ‘otherwise invincible’ nations at long debate, to ‘sweet CONCORD’, so that ‘Wee all one nation are this day’.

The lifetime of Queen Elizabeth was a unique period for England, lying between the schism from Rome and the union with Scotland. The special conditions of the period 1533-1603 gave birth to a recognizably modern sense of the nation. It is no coincidence that in the late sixteenth century the term ‘the nation’ took on the meaning of ‘the collectivity of the people’ and the word ‘national’ enters the language, as did the grammatically absolute usage of ‘country’ as a personification of the native land – as in Shakespeare’s ‘Forgive me, country, and sweet countrymen’ (Henry VI Part One). In 1615, Camden dedicated his Annals of Queen Elizabeth’s reign to ‘God, my country, and posterity’ (‘DEO, PATRIAE, ET POSTERIS’). Such a trinity would have been inconceivable a century earlier. Nor is it coincidental that in the 1560s Laurence Nowell applied to Cecil for aid in mapping the entire realm, county-by-county; in the next decade Christopher Saxton completed the first comprehensive Atlas of England and Wales. The Elizabethans did not only ‘discover’ new worlds across the ocean:

they also discovered England. And, despite – or because of – a succession of rebellions and the constant persecution of Roman Catholic recusants, they unified England. By the end of the sixteenth century, the government’s administrative machinery had put in place a nationwide network of civic and legal officers ultimately answerable to the crown, while the ecclesiastical settlement had established the supremacy of Anglicanism. Most importantly for our purposes, a national culture had come to full flower, thanks in large measure to the educational advances effected by the grammar schools, the translation into English of the foundation texts of Western culture (the Bible, Homer, and the major authors of classical Rome), the writing of national history, the increased availability of books of all kinds, and, for Londoners at least, the completely new cultural arena of the public playhouse. Anticipations of some of these individual factors may be found in earlier periods, but it is their concatenation in the aftermath of the break from Rome that marks the distinctively Elizabethan image of the nation.

Wales was absent from Camden’s title-page because it was regarded as part of England; in 1536 Henry VIII had given royal assent to a bill formally uniting the two countries. Scotland, as we have seen, was deferred to as a separate nation. Ireland represented more of a problem. It had its distinctive topography and its independent history, which Camden duly and indeed respectfully recorded, but since Henry II’s conquest in 1172 it had been under the rule and power of England. Camden, with his immense reverence for Christian learning, was fascinated by the figure of St Patrick and the Irish monastic tradition that extended back to the fifth century. He even suggested that the English Saxons learned literacy from the Irish. This led him, in a fascinating sentence added to Britannia’s sixth edition, to formulate and resolve a paradox:

And no cause have we to mervaile, that Ireland which now for the most part is rude, half-barbarous, and altogether voide of any polite and exquisite literature, was full of so devout, godly and good wits in that age, wherin good letters throughout all Christiendome lay neglected and half buried; seeing, that the Divine providence of that most gratious and almighty ruler of the world, soweth the seeds and bringeth forth the plantes of Sanctity and good arts, one whiles in one nation and other whiles in another, as it were in garden beds and borders, and that in sundry ages: which being removed and translated hither and thither, may by a new grouth come up one under another, prosper, and be preserved to his owne glory, and the good ofmankind. (Holland, translation of Camden’s ‘Ireland’)

Camden’s expectation was clearly that a reader might well marvel at the transformation of Ireland from centre of erudition and holiness to cultural and moral desert. His explanation for the change relied on a providential and cyclical view of history, in thorough accordance with the Elizabethan theory of the translation of empire and learning (translatio imperii et studii) in which England was regarded as the nation chosen by God to succeed Greece and Rome as the pre-eminent home of world power and high culture – and indeed to exceed the ancients, since imperial glory and ‘good arts’ were combined with Christian ‘Sanctity’. The providential explanation diverts the reader from another possibility: namely that all traces of high culture have been extinguished from Ireland because it has been so long subjugated to England, that it is the English who have made the Irish ‘rude’ and ‘half-barbarous’.

Between 1586, when Britannia was first published, and 1607, when this passage was added, Tyrone’s rebellions had been suppressed and the English crown’s stranglehold on Ireland tightened. Though strangers in Ireland, the English did not hesitate to meddle. You can only invent a nation by positing its other, by creating an outside, by denominating and demonizing aliens. Ireland, Catholic Spain, the Ottoman empire, Italy – paradoxically regarded as the source of both artistic sophistication and machiavellian decadence – and the New World served the Elizabethans well in this respect.

At first sight, the above piece of research may appear antiquarian, parochial, even pedantic. An examination of the textual changes between the Elizabethan and Jacobean versions of Camden’s Britannia does not sound like the kind of thing that has ‘relevance’ to the early twenty-first debate about ‘earned citizenship’ and ‘national identity’. But it is precisely in Camden’s negotiations of the relationship between ‘England’ and ‘Britain’, between service to God and love of ‘patria’, that modern notions of citizenship, patriotism and national identity begin to emerge. The ‘British question’, as historians call it, has been the focus of much of the most innovative and provocative historical and literary-historical research in the last twenty years – the line of distinguished work extends from Hugh Kearney’s The British Isles: A History of Four Nations (1989) to John Kerrigan’s Archipelagic English (2008). The fostering and dissemination of that research, through teaching, through books aimed at a wide intelligent readership, through broadcasting and – why not? – even through seminars for the education of politicians and civil servants can play a major role in raising the level of debate about nation and devolution, arrival and belonging.

BENTHAM v COLERIDGE

Humanities research is about taking the long view. That is why it is difficult to justify in the language of immediate accountability. This essay has taken the long view of the question of what we mean by ‘value’, the long view of the function of the university and the long view of the peculiarity of English/British national identity. It will end by taking the long view of the debate about the role of quantifiable (‘economic’) measures of the public utility of humanities research.

One of the values of humanities research is that it teaches us that all controversies have historical precedents – the lessons of which we are very good at ignoring. The debate between those who look for ‘economic impact’ and those who appeal to the pursuit of knowledge as a civilizing virtue replicates a dichotomy identified by John Stuart Mill in the early Victorian era, in his pair of essays on Jeremy Bentham (1838) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1840).

Mill contends that Bentham and Coleridge are the two ‘great seminal minds’ of the age. Britain, he proposes, is indebted to them ‘not only for the greater part of the important ideas which have been thrown into circulation among its thinking men in their time, but for a revolution in its general modes of thought and investigation’. Bentham and Coleridge, he argues, were destined to renew a lesson given to mankind by every age, and always disregarded — to show that speculative philosophy, which to the superficial appears a thing so remote from the business of life and the outward interests of men, is in reality the thing on earth which most influences them, and in the long run overbears every other influence save those which it must itself obey. The writers of whom we speak have never been read by the multitude; except for the more slight of their works, their readers have been few: but they have been the teachers of the teachers; there is hardly to be found in England an individual of any importance in the world of mind, who (whatever opinions he may have afterwards adopted) did not first learn to think from one of these two.

To effect a revolution in ‘general modes of thought’; to inhabit a realm (‘speculative philosophy’) that seems utterly remote from ‘the business of life’ and yet to influence society more than anyone else; to be ‘the teachers of the teachers’; to be the figures from whom all serious minds ‘learn to think’: even if these claims were to be greatly diluted, the implication would still be that the intellectual work of Bentham and Coleridge was of extraordinary value to society, even though its direct impact (in terms of the number of people who read their major books) was minimal. Their importance is in itself is a salutary warning against the short view of our question.

What, then, were their great innovations? Bentham, says Mill, was ‘the great critical thinker of his age and country’, ‘the great questioner of things established’. He was the iconoclast who was no respecter of institutions and traditions. A latter-day Benthamite might well say: why should we fund research in the humanities just because we have funded it in the past? Bentham, continues Mill, ‘introduced into morals and politics those habits of thought and modes of investigation, which are essential to the idea of science’. A latter-day Benthamite might very well say: prove the value of what you do by quantifying it. Be precise, be empirical, do not rely on windy rhetoric. Give me a metric.

Famously, Bentham’s utilitarian principle was ‘the greatest happiness of the  greatest number’. If push-pin (a children’s game) gives happiness to more people than poetry, then push-pin is more valuable than poetry. ‘Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry.’ In this view, quantity – or, as we would now say, ‘access’ or ‘inclusion’ – trumps intellectual athleticism and aesthetic value. By this logic, government might well find itself subsidising access to push-pin’s modern equivalents – computer games – and leaving poetry to the mercy of the market. Mill admires the modernity and the democracy of Bentham’s utilitarian position, but deplores its lack of imagination: ‘He committed the mistake of supposing that the business part of human affairs was the whole of them.’ Bentham failed to take into account other aspects under which human activities should be judged – the moral, the aesthetic and the sympathetic (a modern term for the latter might be ‘the socially cohesive’). Bentham must therefore be balanced against Coleridge.

Whereas Bentham began by asking of every received opinion ‘is it true?’, Coleridge began by asking ‘What is the meaning of it?’ How can society foster those dimensions of human life that Benthamite utilitarianism cannot account for – the ethical, the beautiful, the cohesive force? Through the creation, Coleridge suggests, ‘of an endowed class, for the cultivation of learning, and for diffusing its results among the community’. Mill describes how in his treatise On the Constitution of Church and State, Coleridge (who was actually developing an idea first put forward in Germany by Friedrich Schiller) proposed that there should be what he termed a ‘nationalty’ or ‘national property’ in the form of a fund – derived from taxation – dedicated to ‘the advancement of knowledge, and the civilization of the community’. This national fund should support and maintain what he called a clerisy, a kind of secular clergy, with the following duties:

A certain smaller number were to remain at the fountain-heads of the humanities, in cultivating and enlarging the knowledge already possessed, and in watching over the interests of physical and moral science; being likewise the instructors of such as constituted, or were to constitute, the remaining more numerous classes of the order. The members of this latter and far more numerous body were to be distributed throughout the country, so as not to leave even the smallest integral part or division without a resident guide, guardian, and instructor; the objects and final intention of the whole order being these – to preserve the stores and to guard the treasures of past civilization, and thus to bind the present with the past; to perfect and add to the same, and thus to connect the present with the future; but especially to diffuse through the whole community, and to every native entitled to its laws and rights, that quantity and quality of knowledge which was indispensable both for the understanding of those rights, and for the performance of the duties correspondent; finally, to secure for the nation, if not a superiority over the neighbouring states, yet an equality at least, in that character of general civilization, which equally with, or rather more than, fleets, armies, and revenue, forms the ground of its defensive and offensive power.

Researchers and teachers in the humanities are of value to the state if and when they fulfil the function of the Coleridgean clerisy. They must remember, though, that they are a form of ‘national property’: their work must be for the benefit not of themselves but of the entire nation. Reading Coleridge’s definition of the clerisy in the light of twenty-first century debates about research funding, what is most striking is the huge emphasis that he places on what is now called ‘dissemination’. The results of our research must be ‘distributed throughout the country, so as not to leave even the smallest integral part or division without a resident guide, guardian, and instructor’.

The investment must be large, the responsibility – the public duty – placed upon the latter-day clerisy is heavy, but in the ‘knowledge economy’ and faced with the global insecurity of the twenty-first century, the return on the investment is potentially vast. Even more than in Coleridge’s day, the work of the clerisy in binding past, present and future, in yoking inheritance to aspiration and tradition to innovation, and in maintaining the understanding of ‘those rights’ and ‘correspondent duties’ that are at the core of national identity, can play a major role in ‘securing for the nation’ that ‘character of general civilization, which equally with, or rather more than, fleets, armies, and revenue, forms the ground of its defensive and offensive power’.


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