‘Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod? / Or Love in a golden bowl?’ On not defending the humanities

Kövesi, S. (2018) ‘Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod? / Or Love in a golden bowl?’ On not defending the humanities. In: Eaglestone, R. and Marshall, G. (eds.) English: Shared Futures. D. S. Brewer: Cambridge, pp. 202-209. ISBN 9781843845164 (doi: 10.1017/9781787443297.023)

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While it certainly had a celebratory and affirmatory atmosphere, it is important to be clear that the English: Shared Futures conference was born of uncertainty about the future of English. That discipline-specific concern is a major constituent of ongoing debates about the state and status of the humanities and arts across English-speaking universities globally. So many ‘defence of the humanities’-style polemics have been written across the past few years, that I have long worried that our subjects are becoming defensive by default, nervous by character. Rather than resolving to be hard as nails in trying times, we are in danger of feeling institutionally, systemically, hard done by. In turn, I worry that our response as a community in English and beyond can appear grotesquely self-important and brittle. As a Head of Department – constantly concerned about getting student bums on lecture theatre seats – I wonder then about how attractive our subject might be to the wider world. How attractive is it to be seen as entrenched, defensive, or even arch? Does anyone want to come into English, or support it, because we moan about how embattled we are as we proclaim our own significance, cultural superiority and sheer status? It might be that some of what we do to argue for the humanities is self-harming. Self-declaring polemics that ‘defend the humanities’ penned by those who are ostensibly most secure in their profession – and I include myself in that bracket – might be damaging to those principles we in the humanities think we live and work by, though I hold those principles to be anything but homogenous. This essay is not a ‘defence’ of the humanities. I don't want to mount a ‘defence of the humanities’ because I do not wish to imply that my humanities-based critical practice is an inviolate, pristine militarised citadel, all classic lines and Doric columns, with barbed wire atop the private, inward-facing, excluding, college wall. I don't want the humanities to be a stolid assertion that is beyond critique. A ‘defence’ might imply that. It might also suggest that I have a secure idea of what it is I would be defending.

Item Type:Book Sections
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Kovesi, Professor Simon
Authors: Kövesi, S.
College/School:College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Publisher:D. S. Brewer
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