I have written a little about changes to higher education in the UK here, specifically the shift to business-model approaches to research.  The Texas Public Policy Foundation think tank recently proposed “seven breakthrough solutions” for public higher education in Texas.  Dean Randy Diehl and a committee from the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts wrote a clear and detailed counter-argument to each of the proposals.  On impact and the humanities:

We are also concerned by Mr. Sandefer’s suggestion that specialized academic articles with limited readerships lack real value.  This outlook could affect scholarship in such fields as mathematics, natural sciences and social sciences in which seemingly narrow findings have the potential to change human understanding. 

We are especially concerned it will inhibit research in the humanities and we take issue with the idea that the value of research can be judged by its immediate impact or reduced to a monetary figure.  Humanities research helps citizens better understand the world in which they live and the overall human condition. It provides the history, cultural contexts, and ethical framework needed to make sense of changes in society.

As in other disciplines, the impact of most humanities research is not immediately observable, nor guaranteed. It tends to work cumulatively over time and, for the most part, requires no start-up funds, research labs, or expensive equipment. Historians, philosophers and economists from the Greco-Roman periods through Voltaire, Hume, and Adam Smith, for example, all influenced the American founding fathers. These scholars’ impact was not fully known for decades or centuries, just as the value of much of today’s scholarship can’t be measured immediately.

The whole piece is worth reading.  It is at once a response to a very specific threat and a clear distillation of the arguments we all need to get better at making.  The strength of this defense rests not only on the claims themselves, but the way in which they are presented. Put another way, the defense depends upon the skill-set it so vigorously defends: critical thinking, clear arguments, close reading of the evidence…

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