By Ludmilla Jordanova, emeritus professor of history and visual culture at Durham University
One of the costs of professionalisation is the erection of boundaries. Sometimes these are necessarily rigid – everyone knows something about health, some people know a great deal, but the barriers to formal medical qualifications are elaborate and high. Perhaps it is because so many people think they are experts in history and literature that academic practitioners defensively stress forms of training and disciplinary standards, which exist alongside ever-proliferating niche journals and organisations that champion a relatively small area or even the study of a single individual.
These trends are understandable. They manifest themselves when departments discuss their priorities for future posts, and colleagues assert the needs of what is imagined as a patch in need of protection. These forms of concern express not just anxiety about the value – perceived or otherwise – of specific specialisms, but a recognition that those in humanities departments find it so much harder to make a compelling public case for what they do than scientists, for example.
Given this broad scenario, it is tempting to stress that the humanities have something special to offer, and the point is often couched in terms of critical thinking, attentiveness to complexities, especially in language, and a grasp of the antecedents of our present condition. All of these are plausible and compelling, and they can be developed to demonstrate the value of approaching fields of study with the assumption that they are intricately interconnected, that problem solving tends to be interdisciplinary, and that zones of life have distinctly fluid boundaries.
I’ve always hated the notion of ‘ivory towers’, while recognising that some environments are dramatically more privileged than others. However cloistered or even monkish some academic existences may be, the travails of everyday life still have to be negotiated.
Most academics, however, are fully in the world, as worried about schooling, health, elderly parents, patterns of consumption, the availability of local facilities and taxes, whether national or local, as anyone else. Thus, it is normal that we are also involved with governance, in local councils and schools, for instance, where we are bringing the skills honed in our work lives to other contexts, and crucially vice versa.
Recognising, charting and celebrating such permeabilities is important. Furthermore, they are not new. I have recently found reading about two 20th-century historians – A F Pollard and James Thomson Shotwell – revelatory in just how involved they were with public debate, and in Shotwell’s case in more structured processes, as when he advised US Democrat and former president Woodrow Wilson and worked for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.
I should not have been surprised because these fluid lives are a well-established historical phenomenon, and continue, if in different forms, now. They are necessarily different because of major changes over the past 100 years. And in some quarters of academia, there are cluckings and tut-tuttings about activities that stand outside a narrow professional remit. I have witnessed these first-hand and find them small-minded and self-defeating.
The way forward for the humanities must be to recognise the arbitrariness of boundaries – the one between humanities and social sciences is especially unhelpful – and critically reflect on the interests they serve. Rather than being territorial, we might embrace the huge potential for collaboration both with each other and with groups outside the university system. The latter, as the website History and Policy shows, are now developing.
Notions such as co-creation, co-production and co-curation have become familiar; they describe diverse processes in museums and elsewhere that are part of the broader landscape and constantly being refined and adapted for fresh contexts. Working with policymakers and researchers in heritage organisations, NGOs, think tanks, businesses and politics could become routine, building on work already in place. And the training of humanities scholars might evolve so that their understanding of non-academic environments is deliberately developed.
Again, this is also happening with a wider range of placements becoming available to both undergraduates and postgraduates. Another encouraging trend is collaborations with independent writers and artists, including those who make theatre, opera and music, as well as all forms of the visual arts.
It is possible to think about such developments as ‘nice to have’. This is a mistake. They are part of a list of ‘must have’ experiences that equip those who see themselves as humanities scholars to be, simultaneously, effective in their day jobs and active, responsible, well-informed citizens.
When points like this are made, one common response is, ‘Oh, we are already doing all that.’ I have evidence that this is not the case. For example, the grasp of the implications of recent government policy about national museums is limited. To the extent such developments are reported, it is generally in simplistic terms, lacking details of governance and funding that would provide a more adequate understanding of the current situation.
Equipping our students and indeed ourselves with a framework for acting effectively in that wider world is essential. Critical skills come into their own, of course, but they are useless without a foundation in the ways public life, international trade and business, legal structures and political arrangements work. Put this way, it becomes clear what role history as a discipline can play, as can public law and moral philosophy, social administration, and international relations.
This is not about unrealistic, polymathic utopianism. It is about perfectly feasible possibilities for enhancing practices in the humanities. Integral to these practices is a sound grasp of the history of disciplines and of the institutions in which and through which they are created and sustained. This needs to be based in critical analysis, one that looks at all aspects of professionalisation, specialisation and boundary-making.
Understanding the many facets of expertise and of claims to expertise is central to this project, which would have the enormously valuable payoff of enhancing knowledge of the sciences, technology and medicine within the humanities. Now is the time to embrace these possibilities – our research, teaching and scholarship will benefit and so will communities and polities.
Ludmilla Jordanova is emeritus professor of history and visual culture at Durham University. She is a member of the advisory board for the About Face research project at the University of York, and is the author of many influential books, including History in Practice and The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice.