You often hear talk about how Canadian institutions need to do more research. Better research. “World-class” research, even. Research that will prove how smart our professors are, how efficient they are with public resources, and, hence, justify a claim to an even greater share of those resources.
In medicine, the biological sciences, and engineering, this call is easy to understand. Developments in these areas can – with the right environment for commercialization – lead to new products, which, in turn, have direct economic benefits to Canadians. In the social sciences, too, it makes sense. Most social sciences have (or should have) some relevance to public policy; thus, having world-class research in the social sciences can (or should) mean an improvement in that country’s governance, and its ability to promote a strong, healthy, and equitable society.
But what about in the humanities? Is there a national public interest in promoting world-class research in the humanities?
My answer is no. For two reasons.
The first is kind of technical. When it comes to research, “world-class” status tends to get defined by bibliometrics. In the sciences, scholarly conversations are, by their nature, global, and so a single standard of measurement makes sense. But in the humanities, an awful lot of the conversations are, quite properly, local. And so while bibliometric comparisons in the humanities, within a single country (say, between institutions), might say something important about relative scholarly productivity, comparisons between countries are, to a large degree, only measuring the relative importance of different national polities. A strategy favouring world-class bibliometric scores in History, for instance, would de-emphasize Canadian History and Aboriginal studies, and instead focus on the Roman and British Empires, and the United States. And that, obviously, would be nuts.
But there’s a bigger issue here: namely, why do we assume that the worth of humanities has to be judged via research, in the same manner we judge scientific disciplines? Arguments in defence of the humanities – from people like Martha Nussbaum, Stanley Fish, etc. – stress that the discipline’s value is in encouraging students to think critically, to appreciate differences, and to create meaning. And it’s not immediately obvious how research contributes to that. Even if you completely buy the argument that, “scholarly engagement is necessary to teaching”, can you really claim that an increased research load improves teaching? Have students started thinking more critically since 3/3 teaching loads were cut to 2/2 in order to accommodate more research?
The real national public interest is in having a humanities faculty that can develop critical thinkers, promote understanding, and foster creativity. Figuring out how to better support and celebrate those things is a lot more important than finding yet more ways for the humanities to ape the sciences.