Monday 10 December 2018

A Case for Problem-Based Humanities Research

What does it mean for a town to die?

What does it mean for an industry to die?

What responsibility does a government have to prevent these things from happening?

As someone who hails from Atlantic Canada, I wonder about these questions constantly. I’d go further and say that these questions are the most pressing concerns of nearly every jurisdiction in Canada that isn’t a metropolitan region. Yet these fundamental questions seem to rarely make it into the political conversations taking place in my home region or elsewhere. Instead, all of the political conversations I hear tend to focus exclusively on value for money.

We know, of course, that this isn’t how things play out in the real world. The truth is that per capita funding is anathema to people living in sparsely populated areas, because a turn to pure per capita funding would result in the immediate closure of countless schools, hospitals, and other vital pieces of social infrastructure that would see many of our rural communities disappear. Yet many of these communities continue to receive the support they need to continue existing, even if it constitutes a bare amount of “life support” that keeps them limping along.

To those concerned with efficiency and a utilitarian best-outcome-for-the-most-people set of values, this reality can be very frustrating. These people believe that it is only political expediency, and the disproportionate voting power apportioned to specific regions, that keeps politicians making “political” promises of social infrastructure funding to areas that, for some, should simply be permitted to die of natural causes—read: the decline of their traditional industries.

On the other side, people living in rural communities will argue for the importance of their dignity, which is directly attached to their sense of home and community. They might also point to the logistical impossibility of their moving to a more densely populated area, or the foolhardiness of concentrating all of a province’s population in one or two urban centres as a long-term strategy. Most of the time, though, these conversations tend to come back to the eternal notion of value for money, as though the meaning of "value" were self-evident. 

It’s the failure of these conversations to get to the real issues, the “Why?” that should entice governments to fund more problem-based humanities research that speaks directly to the challenges faced by local communities. What are people truly asking for when they ask to be supported in their rural communities? What is at stake in a government’s decision to subsidize a dying industry that has little chance of ever becoming sustainable again? Are better jobs really the sole way of helping citizens live more fulfilling lives? These are questions for rigorous humanities-based research.  The reason we often don’t invest in this type of research is because we’ve come to accept the notion that philosophy is a private concern, with each person’s values being just as important as anyone else’s. While this is true in a democracy, this does not mean that the ways in which people apply those values to specific decisions (and their rationale for doing so) are equal. 

It’s in this realm, the realm where people’s core values intersect with decision-making, that all of society can benefit from the help of experts in the humanities. I am a PhD in English literature, and I still would never argue that I have all the philosophical knowledge I need to assess how governments should approach the big questions I’ve outlined earlier in this piece. To achieve that kind of understanding, I’d need to read a report from a humanities scholar (or better yet, a team of diverse scholars) who has invested the right amount of expertise, time, and experience into framing and addressing these questions. That doesn’t mean that the final report will produce answers that will make everyone happy or will compel everyone to agree about what to do. It doesn’t even mean the report will produce more answers than questions. What it will do, though, is finally get us talking about the real issues, like human dignity, that underlie our policy debates.   

Without this kind of humanities-based intervention, we are left with a cacophonous town hall in which the plurality of self-interested voices becomes noise, and policymakers are much less likely to meaningfully integrate community feedback into their decisions. When you have these voices collected by experts, however, then distilled into a government report on the human value of work and community, you have something that policymakers can use (if they wish) to reflect meaningfully on the “Why?” of what they’re doing.

Let’s take the example of jobs. To be sure, there are few people in Canada who die of starvation or exposure each year. This is not to downplay the crisis of adequate food and housing that many Canadians suffer from Rather, my point is that for many people across Canada (especially for those whose entire politics are built around the notion of more, better jobs), it is wrong to believe that more, better jobs are necessary to "make people not die." It's also wrong to assume that more, better jobs will immediately cure our society of problems like violence or addiction, as a quick look at Fort McMurray will attest to.    

So if jobs aren’t the true solution, what is?

To start, we have to realize that a lack of good jobs is never the real problem. The real problem is the corrosion of security, freedom, and dignity that precarious or alienated employment has on an individual. Once we collectively accept that this assault on dignity is the real problem, we can open our minds to a wide variety of ways to help our citizens feel more empowered in their daily lives.

The point of all of this is to say that politicians across our country, especially those who govern over areas with sparse populations or dying industries, would do well to ask themselves the question, “What do our citizens actually need and want?” We should then invest not only in the stakeholder research that allows people’s voices to be heard, but the kind of problem-based humanities research that will help all of us get to the true crux of these issues. Then, we might begin having a genuine public conversation about the truly valuable things that secondary concerns like jobs are supposed to make possible.  

Wednesday 5 December 2018

The Humanities and the Teaching of Good Judgement

We’ve seen an erosion in the concept of good judgement over the past forty years. The partisan arguments over US Supreme Court appointments, the increasing emphasis that all moral values are relative, the insistence that anything other than the most mathematically proven declarations are arbitrary, the notion that “subjective” is a synonym for “random” and “rationally groundless”—all of these speak to the growing sense that all statements are either completely objective or utterly arbitrary.
To be fair, the concept of good judgement originally came under fire for good reason, which lies in the fact that good judgement has been historically coded as white, cisgendered, heterosexual, male, and old. But it’s also important to acknowledge that just as historically marginalized groups and individuals were finding a voice in public discourse, this trend was accompanied by a growing skepticism toward the notion of good judgement and expertise in general. It seems that many would rather live in a world with no intellectual authority rather than allow historically marginalized groups to lay claim to this authority.

The problem with all of this is that when a person confronts a judgement they don’t like, they can completely write it off. This leads to a social (or should I say antisocial) phenomenon one could rightfully call the privatization of truth.

What’s been lost in all of these conversations is the principle that one can, through education, improve their subjective judgement. A graphic designer might not have an objective sense of which designs will be better received by certain audiences, but to say that their aesthetic judgement is therefore arbitrary, groundless, and no better than anyone else’s is to throw out the concept of good judgement altogether.

This crisis of faith in good judgement is part of the crisis that’s impacting the Humanities. Part of this crisis is the notion that good judgement, no matter how well-argued, can never compel agreement. One could offer a strongly argued reading of misogyny in the works of William Faulkner, but the fact remains that any student, if they wish, can fold their arms and argue, “It’s not there. You’re just reading too far into things.” The professor can offer mounting evidence, but all the student needs to do is continue shaking their head. For some instructors, this type of response can badly rattle their confidence in their own reasoning. But good judgement doesn’t rely on the acceptance of others to show its worth. The values and hallmarks of good judgement are many. Persuasiveness might be one of them, but compelled agreement isn’t. Persuasiveness is a quality of the argument itself; agreement depends entirely on the caprice of the listener. If the recalcitrant position of “I’m not persuaded” were enough to completely undermine the concept of good judgement, a majority of our institutions would completely collapse (including the law itself, which is based solely on judges’ subjective, informed judgement of the law as it’s written).

So what are the hallmarks of good judgement? Thankfully, they are skills that the Humanities continues to teach very well, the first of which is verbal acuity—the ability to make a point clearly. Another is discursive command, the ability to be intentional about what types of language (be it medical, literary, religious language, etc.) one is drawing upon when making an argument, and what types of language their interlocutor is using. Another still is embodied knowledge, the ability to listen to one’s physical reaction to certain statements, assessing this reaction to sense whether there is “something wrong” with what is being said, the using verbal acuity and discursive command to try and formulate this objection in words. Another still is empathy, the ability to inhabit (however imperfectly) the perspective of another person, or at least to acknowledge that that person’s lived experience is radically unknowable to oneself (as is the case with a white male speaker like myself trying to speak on behalf of individuals whose lived experience is radically inaccessible to me. In that situation, the principle of empathy defers to listening).

All of these skills, and many others, are taught by the Humanities. But here’s where I think the Humanities faces its biggest conundrum. The Humanities, generally speaking, is not content to uncouple the skills it teaches from the values it wishes to instill. For example, the ability to critically reflect on how language can shape reality is a core skill learned in an English program. But what are we to make of a Republican politician who stands on the floor of the US Senate arguing that climate change reports are simply representations of reality and not the thing itself? To many English professors, this argument would constitute an irresponsible misinterpretation of what critique is meant to do. But on the other hand, what exactly prevents this senator from using critique in this way? What happens when critical doubt, when applied to subjects as diverse as climate change and sexual assault, becomes the greatest weapon regressive conservatism has at its disposal?

At this point, the Humanities faces a choice: to focus on teaching discrete skills and then encouraging people to use them in responsible ways, or to continue arguing that there is something inherently progressive about the skills it teaches. This is where some Humanities instructors might argue that they are teaching habits of thought rather than something as superficially utilitarian as "skills." In any other discipline, critical thinking is simply another name for problem-solving or problem identification. In the Humanities, it seems to carry with it a progressive (or at least anti-authoritarian) mission, due in part to the inheritance of "critical" from 20th-century critical theory. This isn’t to say that the Humanities should abandon its values; rather, it might need to give up the notion that there is something inherently progressive about the skills it teaches.

Further, the Humanities needs to stop arguing that there is some sort of moral improvement or “becoming more human” that is inherent to the skills it teaches. The critical reflective skills taught in the Humanities can just as easily be used for self-deception as they are for self-knowledge; they can just as easily be used to rationalize unjust practices as they are to critique them. Indeed, it’s the double-edged nature of these skills that makes them so powerful and so dangerous at the same time. The problem lies in thinking that a certain progressive mindset is inherent to the skills taught by the Humanities, which if we are to be honest, can produce a regressive devil’s advocate just as easily as they can produce a progressive critical thinker.

What remains in all of this is the importance of good judgement and the skills that constitute it. When Eve Sedgewick speaks about the homosocial continuum, the quality of her judgement and the salience of her points does not depend on compelled agreement. If someone folds their arms and says, “Bullshit,” it doesn’t matter. The quality of Sedgewick’s argument depends on the skills she built over her career, and her ability to use those skills to create a strong argument.

What needs to be reasserted (and it’s a shame that this needs to be argued) is that one’s judgement can improve through education, and that the majority of our social world is predicated entirely on the quality of people’s subjective judgements, something the Humanities helps to improve. Talk about good judgement in a boardroom today, and heads will nod. Talk about good judgement in a Humanities classroom, and suddenly people start using words like “arbitrary” or “groundless.” The Humanities doesn’t need to apologize for the fact that some people’s judgement (with allowances made for context) can be better than that of others. But even more importantly, it needs to emphasize that a person’s judgement, through education, can become better than it previously was.