In praise of the squishy subjects

Paul Wells defends the poor orphan child of modern academe: the social sciences and humanities

Dear readers: This one’s long. You may want to settle in.

About a year ago the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation approached me to contribute a paper in conjunction with a conference the group would host, called Opportunities-Excellence. They invited me to write about a topic that interested me having something to do with innovation and the knowledge economy. This would not be worth doing unless I did something unusual, I said to myself, so I offered to defend the poor orphan child of modern academe: the oversubscribed, unloved social sciences and humanities. Mostly because I’m sick of the way “return on investment,” a profoundly shaky notion at the best of times, has become the lens through which too much of our conversation about higher education and scholarship is examined.

Here’s the paper I wrote for the CMSF, which formally dissolved a few weeks ago, a decade after it was founded. — pw

You never know what you will need to know. In 2007, on my first visit to Afghanistan, my little group of visitors enjoyed two long conversations with Dan K. McNeill, the four-star U.S. Army general who was commanding all NATO forces in Afghanistan. McNeill is a paratrooper from Fort Bragg, a soldier’s soldier with flinty blue eyes and a record of service in combat that stretches back to Vietnam, and to call him tough as nails would flatter nails. But what struck me when we chatted was the breadth of his interests and scholarship.

Over dinner I mentioned a recent book about the Iraq War. “That one’s pretty good,” McNeill allowed. But what he was reading these days, he said, was The Story of the Malakand Field Force, Winston Churchill’s account of his adventures in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1890s. Later McNeill said he could describe the ingredients in local rice dishes in a half-dozen Afghan provinces. He’d learned the country’s regional cuisine during endless shuras, summit meetings of a community’s tribal elders, just as he’d learned how to organize a shura — whom to invite, what to put on the agenda, which rules of etiquette would prevail — so it would have a better chance of success.

What was striking about all this was that for this superbly trained leader in the world’s most sophisticated fighting force, none of this lore was optional. He wasn’t spending his days in meeting rooms of hard-packed clay or reading Churchill at night for kicks or to distract him from the hard realities of the battlefield. The lessons of history and sociology were crucial to his understanding of that battlefield. The lesson U.S. generals were only beginning to apply in 2007 was that understanding was precisely what they had been lacking in this war.

That’s not how it was supposed to happen. In its conception and initial execution, Afghanistan was a showcase for the Revolution in Military Affairs, the pet cause of Donald Rumsfeld when he was George W. Bush’s Defence Secretary. The RMI’s goal was to use laser guidance, satellite imaging, sophisticated database techniques and other cutting- edge technological solutions to give a U.S. fighting force unchallenged superiority over an enemy. Munitions could be fired from beyond reach of a counterattack and guided by laser right to their target. An opponent’s reactions could be tracked, analyzed and anticipated. Night and day would make no difference. Twenty-first-century warcraft would represent the final triumph of physics.

It didn’t work out that way. The Afghan insurgents simply melted away before the high-tech assault, studied its characteristics and improvised their responses, and came back later when the Americans’ attention was elsewhere. Besting them would be the work of years, not months. It would depend more on ancient scholarship than on the latest trick. In other words: if Afghanistan is to be the triumph of anything — a big “if ” — it will be something that looks more like the social sciences than the hard sciences.

I like to tell this story because it is a reminder that you can never know what you’ll need to know. My limited exposure to the U.S. military establishment suggests it really is a fearsomely meritocratic organization that does not promote the incurious or the unintelligent. Its professionals are deadly serious. They work hard to figure out the answers to important questions, because the cost of error is high indeed. Yet they walked into the Afghanistan conflict with a formidable set of wrong guesses about which knowledge would prove useful to them. It took years to realize that the latest gadget would help less than some ancient lore. By then it was awfully handy that some of that lore was just lying around, in old books and the wisdom of tribal elders, because there was no time to concoct the lore de novo. If the Western effort in Afghanistan can be saved at all, something that remains far from certain as I write this, it will be because the West didn’t focus tightly enough on what it thought it was going to need. A few people over many decades had wandered off to do things that had no obvious utility at the time, things like history and linguistics and sociology. They seemed while they were doing it to be wasting everyone’s time, especially their own. The utility was not evident until later.

I am recounting a kind of parable here, because in Canada a tremendous amount of energy has been sucked up by the ambient assumption that we can know what we are going to need to know. We have worked ourselves up to a fearsome snit in Ottawa and in the university community, trying to find or demonstrate utility (or “return on investment” or “knowledge transfer” or “accountability”) for our taxpayer dollar. The politician wants to prove that money spent on our campuses isn’t wasted, though one rarely hears from citizens who think it is. Academic administrators fall over themselves to give proof of this utility, and in so doing they risk consenting to a narrowing of the university’s mission. The debate about our universities collapses too easily into a love song about “innovation,” defined in narrow technological terms. This has real-world implications. In a world of scarce resources, it produces a hierarchy of allocations.

Research facilities for life sciences do very well indeed: rare is the Canadian university campus that doesn’t have an opulent new life sciences building. Operating budgets for research are a little tighter; it’s hard to invite photographers to the ribbon-cutting for a research grant. But still, it’s been a good decade, all told. Teaching comes far behind in current preoccupations, which helps explain why lecture halls tend to be more crowded than labs.

There is a hierarchy in academic fields, too, as there is in types of activity. Physics doesn’t draw budget dollars as reliably as molecular biology; though there have been several spectacular projects such as the Canadian Light Source in Saskatchewan, it is generally easier to persuade policy-makers you may have a cure for cancer brewing on your campus than to convince them that time and space will give up their secrets there.

Health and the hard sciences, meanwhile, together draw far more glamour, and dollars, than do the social sciences and humanities. You know the social sciences and humanities, of course: history, linguistics, political science, psychology, philosophy. All the various disciplines that deal with how we think and feel and live our lives. Most of the researchers in Canadian universities work in those fields, and a disproportionate number of the students study in them. But they’re not where the action is. Up to a point, that’s not a problem. But I suspect we’ve reached that point and that it has become a problem.

My purpose here is to plead the cause of research in the social sciences and humanities, and more broadly to assert the value of scholarship, and not merely research, in those disciplines. The value I claim for this activity isn’t abstract or vague. It can be demonstrated at least as easily as the value of research into the structure of the cell or the atom, because really it is research into the structure of our human society, supported by the spread of those insights, through scholarship, throughout society. After showing that this kind of demonstration can be made, however, I will confess to genuine discomfort with this kind of demonstration. Champions of the soft sciences do not need to become better at proving there is a buck to be made in what they do. What they need to do is to explain that value cannot only be measured in dollars. It sounds hopelessly romantic to say so, but it has the virtue of being true.

First, of course, there is a buck to be made, or many millions to be saved, which amounts to the same thing. At a recent conference at the University of Toronto, one of the panel moderators thanked the Ontario government profusely for providing funding for two research chairs in education. Education accounts for one-fifth of the Ontario government’s total budget, she said wistfully, “but not for one-fifth of the budget for research.” Ha-ha. One of life’s little ironies.

To which one could usefully reply: Why not? Why does even a relatively enlightened government not think it should be spending more for research into the way we teach our children? After all, if the research is well designed, it will suggest more efficient ways to allocate the billions we spend on the education task itself. Comparisons between Ontario and other jurisdictions will show that some policies produce one kind of result, while others produce a better result. The lessons learned from the research will be applied in the organization of school boards, schools and classrooms. The population will, in the end, be better educated, the budget dollars allocated more efficiently. The economic benefit from a leaner state and a richer stock of human capital should be clear to see. The likelihood of realizing that benefit is far higher than the likelihood of getting major productivity gains out of any one of the life science labs that have sprung up on our campuses.

And so with, say, criminology. Longitudinal studies of recidivism rates in various societies will allow investigators to control for various policy choices. Soon it will be more apparent which laws and policies produce a smaller prison population whose inmates are less likely to return to crime when they get out. The savings, in improved productivity and reduced injury and property loss, would be impressive. Of course, to realize those savings, you need governments that apply the lessons of criminology instead of campaigning for superstition and against evidence. But the scarcity of such governments shouldn’t be an argument against gathering the evidence.

So far these demonstrations of utility have been straightforward. It is harder to generate comparable sympathy for, say, comparative constitutional law. And yet consider the astonishing energy that was spent, at every level of government, repatriating Canada’s Constitution from Great Britain in 1981 and then, under Brian Mulroney, seeking to redress the perceived shortcomings of that process with the Meech and Charlottetown episodes of 1987-90 and 1992. I saw some of the brightest minds of my time vanish into that vortex. Endless weekend conferences on Quebec’s distinctiveness, uniqueness, nationhood or otherwise, Gérald Beaudoin and Keith Spicer and Claude Ryan and Alain Dubuc roaming listlessly from one Montreal hotel ballroom to the next like so many Flying Dutchmen. And then David Thomas of Calgary’s Mount Royal College applied an obscure line of American constitutional scholarship on “abeyances” — the hard subjects a society chooses not to address in its written constitution — into the Canadian context. Thomas’s “Whistling Past the Graveyard: Constitutional Abeyances, Quebec, and the Future of Canada” was a tremendous contribution to this country’s political discourse, because it provided a serious intellectual framework for understanding the simple choice not to talk about the Constitution for a while. Thomas gave the nation’s navel-gazing industry permission to get on with other tasks. It was a breakthrough moment.

Having argued for the merit of education research, criminology and constitutional law, I could go on indefinitely, arguing for the hard-nosed real-world merits of research and scholarship in those fields of study that stick pretty closely to the subject matter of the various government ministries. We have better justice ministers if we have better constitutionalists. Our transport ministers will benefit from schools of urban studies. Our Indian and Northern Affairs programs will be more intelligently designed if a few of the people who put them together know something about the history, culture, languages and interactions of First Nations communities. If not obvious, this sort of thing should be self- explanatory once mentioned.

Other benefits are just as real, even if they are harder to track. I have here in front of me the website for Second Story, a new media design firm based in Portland, Oregon. They make those interactive displays you run into at the finer museums, where some colourful menu entices visitors to spend a few minutes digging deeper into the story behind some figure or moment from history. Second Story was co-founded by Brad Jonson, an artist from the San Francisco Bay area with a B.A. in philosophy, and Julie Beeler, whose degree was in graphic design and art history. They employ a B.F.A. in illustration; a B.A. in English lit; a B.F.A.; a B.A. in television, radio and film; a B.A. in Spanish language and literature; a B.A. in French and journalism; and assorted other mongrels — along with a couple of colleagues whose degrees are in useful disciplines like math and engineering.

I mention Second Story because in September Calgary’s Cantos Music Foundation announced the winner of its open competition for an architect to build its proposed $100 million National Music Centre in Calgary’s East Village. Of more than 60 firms from around the world that entered, only one Canadian firm made it to the short list, and it didn’t win. The winning firm was Allied Works Architecture of Portland, whose principal Brad Cloepfil has worked with Second Story from the start to ensure that his new building will use cutting- edge multimedia to provide a deeply interactive experience to visitors.

To recap: an artist and an art historian hired a bunch of linguists and a film studies guy to build a firm that’s all about looking at old knowledge in new ways. Because that firm happened to be in Portland, its architect neighbour was able to win a lucrative design competition in another country. They are all going to be rich as thieves. None of them could have predicted their field of study would lead to this outcome. They didn’t know what they would need to know. But it is good for them that they knew it. It would be better for Canada if more Canadians knew the same sorts of things and could come together in such surprising and fertile ways.

So the utility of research and scholarship in these soft and squishy subjects is demonstrable. It is hard to be too enthusiastic about making that case, however, because so many accredited spokesmen for the social sciences and humanities already spend so much time making it, and it always sounds strained. In September, to take one example out of many, Noreen Golfman, the president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, testified before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance in the annual ritual known as the pre-budget consultation. The notes for her presentation read, in part: “Today, I would like to talk about the contribution of social sciences and humanities research to innovation, and to our nation’s ability to compete globally and be an effective partner in the international community.”

The problem with this kind of talk is not that it is false, exactly. As we’ve seen, social science and humanities research can indeed go some considerable distance toward creating an environment that encourages the kind of people who help a country compete and who give it a voice in the world. The problem is that almost nobody in these fields actually thinks that way. I took my undergraduate degree in political science at the University of Western Ontario in the 1980s. I have rarely been far out of touch with students and academics in the social sciences and humanities since then. I don’t think I’m speaking out of school when I say that the number who have “innovation” or “our nation’s ability to compete” in mind when they enter their field is vanishingly small.

Yet this seems to be the dance we all must dance these days, so the members of Dr. Golfman’s federation served up more of it in their written submission to the finance committee: “Research activities in the social sciences and humanities make an essential contribution to our country’s efforts to improve prosperity and social well-being, both by stimulating the need for economic recovery in the short term and by shaping the broader prospects for Canada’s future.” That’s a gem of sorts. You can practically hear a bell ringing when you hit the word “stimulating.” One feels a little let down that they didn’t argue that Proust and Hobbes are “shovel-ready.” Surely that’s why Yorick’s skull shows up in Hamlet?

Of course, it’s easy to understand why their most ardent advocates are trying to shoehorn the social sciences into a category like economic stimulus. Stimulus gets money by the billions, and with little pause from policy-makers to debate the details. A decade ago, during a perceived national crisis in health care funding, public servants used to describe for me the contortions they were willing to go through to portray their pet projects’ links to health care. In yet another public policy universe, it would be easy to imagine similar effort being expended to demonstrate that the humanities are “green.” (“Most of our research materials are re-used. Many of our conclusions are recycled.”)

But if all of this rhetoric about innovation, competition and the cutting edge was a clumsy fit for the past decade, when the economy and governments’ manoeuvring room were growing, it threatens to be a more serious mismatch for the period we are heading into. The recession of 2008-09 seems to be near an end, but the global recovery is likely to be slow. Governments have saddled themselves with short-term budget deficits and will discover, as governments always do, that returning to budget balance is more difficult than they thought. They will be looking for places to cut spending.

In that environment, life will be very uncomfortable for administrators who have spent a decade accrediting the idea that government resources should be allocated according to straight-line assumptions about direct economic benefit. In recent budget years, we have already begun to see what that kind of world would look like. Even as it felt free to spend in the last years of prosperity and then in a year of slump- inspired stimulus, the current federal government has tightly targeted its incremental dollars for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
First, there are fewer of those incremental dollars: the granting councils for natural sciences and the health sciences received 40 percent each from one new program for graduate studies, but SSHRC received only 20 percent. This sort of allocation, which isn’t new, reflects the belief that social science research is cheaper because all you need to do it is a library card. That’s an increasingly debatable article of faith, because new techniques, like database analysis of longitudinal surveys, are driving the cost of a lot of social science research steeply upward. But never mind. What is new is the stipulation that all the new money for graduate studies for SSHRC will go to “business-related research.” To me, that means research into film studies and Spanish, which was good enough for Second Story in Portland. But I’m pretty sure the federal government has a narrower definition.

Even more telling is the list of projects selected for Phase 1 of the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program, which seeks to “attract the highest calibre of researchers to this country” by giving up to 20 chair-holders and their research teams up to $10 million each for ambitious multi-year research programs. Theoretically, the CERC grants can go to any field of study. And the squishy disciplines are superbly represented on the CERC selection panel, which includes economist and former newspaper publisher Rob Prichard; diplomat and political lifer Derek Burney; think tanker Tom Kierans, who is chairman of SSHRC’s governing council; and historian Margaret MacMillan, whose books about arid old political conferences sell like hotcakes.

But these people have learned their scripts. They are all about improving prosperity by stimulating the need for economic recovery in the short term. And so the successful proposals for Phase 1 of the CERC competition are a relentlessly hard-nosed bunch, from Alzheimer’s disease to broadband convergence to green chemistry, prostate cancer genomics, quantum computing and cardiovascular disease.

As Harry Truman said, if you give the voters a choice between a Republican and a Republican, they’ll pick the Republican every time. No social scientist can win a fight for scarce funds if the debate is framed in terms of return on investment, because nobody who will make the investment will be able to tear their gaze away from the competition’s lab coats and microscopes.

Maybe eventually policy-makers will understand that tinkering with the kind of research that goes on in universities has little influence on economic prosperity. For this insight we owe a lot of gratitude — more than has yet been offered by policy-makers and public policy observers — to the Council of Canadian Academies, whose report Innovation and Business Strategy: Why Canada Falls Short should be required reading for anyone who wants Canada to make smart choices that will enhance its prosperity. The report’s authors ask, if innovation is good for business, why don’t Canadian businesses innovate as much as their competitors in other countries? They note: “To address this question requires a shift of perspective away from innovation activities themselves — e.g., inputs like R&D and investment in M&E — to a focus instead on the factors that influence the choice of business strategy. This reframing of the innovation puzzle is the most important contribution of the panel’s analysis.”

The report’s authors go on to point out that, while Canada performs a lot of university research in comparison with similar countries, and a lot of it seems to be high-quality stuff, Canadian businesses put less effort into the kind of constant transformation that ensures success in a fast- moving world. Canada’s level of private sector information and communications technology investment, for instance, is barely half that of the U.S.; in transportation and warehousing, the proportion falls to one-fifth. So a U.S. trucking firm is far better equipped to track its freight and intelligently orchestrate its deliveries than is a Canadian firm. Fixing that gap would do much more to ensure our prosperity than keeping CERC money out of the hands of a philosopher. Yet our governments have invested the kind of massive intellectual energy that used to go into post-Meech constitutional reform conferences on this latest red herring.

The Council of Canadian Academies report sends a red-light message: stop micro-managing the kind of research that goes on in universities. This is so counterintuitive, and runs so strongly against the ingrained policy-making habits of the past decade, that perhaps an analogy will help clarify the point.

Imagine U.S. President Barack Obama wakes up one morning and decides that, on top of everything else that needs fixing, he has to start worrying about the lousy movies coming out of Hollywood. The plots are hackneyed, the scripts are tired, the acting is rote, the car chases lack punch. It’s becoming a serious competitive problem for the U.S. More and more Oscar nominees come from overseas. The box office is rewarding New Zealanders like Peter Jackson instead of proper Americans. Obama tells himself his nation’s prosperity is at stake.

Now imagine that Obama responds the way a generation of Canadian policy-makers has responded, and decides to start fiddling with inputs. Surely if Hollywood movies stink, he says, the problem lies at the beginning of the production chain: with the film stock. India and Britain and New Zealand must use a higher grade of celluloid than Americans do, he tells himself. Only the finest film makes great films. So the Obama administration pours billions into celluloid-related research and starves non-celluloid-related research in a bid to make American cinema great again. Then he watches the trailers on the Apple website and discovers that Michael Bay is still making action movies about children’s toys and Eddie Murphy is still making movies about fat people with gas problems. Back to the drawing board! Maybe it’s the lighting. Obama sets up a National Lighting Excellence Review Board, which hands out grants to studios that use the latest low-emitting broad-spectrum lighting. And then Jim Carrey announces he’s started production on Dumberer and Dumbererer. Panic! Could it be the distribution? How are the films getting from the studio to the cineplex? Could trucking routes be improved?

Okay, I’ll stop. The point is that fiddling with inputs only gets you so far. In the end, the general climate of ideas matters too, a willingness at the top to take risk and trust the public’s ability to tolerate a certain level of quality and imagination. When entrepreneurship is encouraged and complacency is not coddled, businesses with a bold streak find that bold streak being rewarded. When that happens, they become ravenous for talent and not too picky about studying the fine print. Jim Balsillie, the co-CEO of Research in Motion, has said that he is as eager to hire bright kids from a social science background, for some aspects of his company’s work, as he is to hire engineers for others. Probably when Brad and Julie founded Second Story they weren’t actually looking for a Spanish studies grad. At first they were simply trying to get taken seriously by the museum industry. Then when that started to happen, they began casting about for anyone with a soul, some depth and a willingness to bring their imagination to the office every morning.

The humanities are good for that. Here at last we begin to discard the more elaborate, and misleading, arguments for strong government investment in the squishy subjects. Here at last we grant ourselves the right to be honest. Very few of the problems our society faces admit to narrow technical solutions. There is no genome for crime or poverty or the listless emptiness that comes from punching a time clock. There is no subatomic particle which, once discovered and mapped, will coax a song into giving up its secrets or make the subjunctive verb tense easier to conjugate. These things are mysteries and they will remain mysteries right to the heart of them. It is helpful, then, to have people around who are used to mystery.

If you spend a few years wrestling with the idea of society as propounded by Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Rousseau and Marx, you come away with a better understanding of all the alternative ways our own society might choose to configure itself, with their attendant risks. If you study the fur trade in British North America, you learn something lasting about the contribution of aboriginal Canadians to our politics and economics, and you begin to understand the behaviour of today’s Canadian businesses a little better. Read Goethe or Cervantes in the original and you understand things about Germany and Spain today that Goethe and Cervantes cannot have imagined.

Will this knowledge come in handy? Will it have direct application in some lucrative enterprise? It might well. Stranger things have happened. In the meantime, this sort of study instills in the student an appreciation for the richness of our human enterprise. It shows that the way we live is not the way we have always lived, nor is it the way everyone lives. It demonstrates the role of ideas and the possibility of massive change. It is harder, having contemplated such things, to go back to a rote existence. Not impossible, but harder.

Is it the role of government to pay for such things? There can be no authoritative answer, but I think there is a reason why it has usually been governments that did pay. First, it offers a kind of insurance. Since you never know what you’re going to need to know, it is handy to have a stock of people around who know all sorts of curious things. They study parts of the world and moments in history we didn’t know would be relevant again. They think about theatre or music, which is pleasant enough but can provide very concrete benefits when the time comes to make some money off tourists looking for theatre or music.

Second, more important but harder to measure, investing in the social sciences and humanities makes us more human because it multiplies our conscious links to one another and to everyone who has lived. When we value these things we value ourselves, and we understand more deeply why we are worth valuing.

At McGill University there is a Flemish pianist named Tom Beghin. Working with two colleagues of similarly far-flung provenance, he has recorded Haydn’s keyboard sonatas on replicas of the original instruments. But an instrument’s sound depends on the room it is played in, so Beghin and his colleagues digitally captured the acoustic characteristics of a bunch of European salons and concert halls, then reproduced those acoustics in a Montreal studio. The resulting recording comes very close to showing us what Haydn heard when he imagined some of the most influential music anyone ever wrote.

The performing arts are neither social sciences nor humanities, but a project as ambitious as this one extends far past the normal boundaries of any discipline. There’s physics, acoustics, engineering involved. But mostly Beghin’s project is rooted in the social history of a half-dozen countries in the late 18th century. So Beghin received a SSHRC grant to make his recordings. They will be sold commercially. He may do very well with them. Determining the wisdom of the grant, in mercantile terms, essentially can’t be done. In the meantime, however, when we study what Beghin has done, we come closer to understanding what made Haydn who he was. We pay closer attention to the confluence of technology, society and economics that helped shape his music. We come closer to beauty, and in so doing we come more fully alive. Your tax dollars at work.