En artikel i Times Higher Education av Philip Gerrans (som av tonen att döma är en analytisk filosof). Artikeln går ut på att det, som inom ekonomin, kan uppstå bubblor och ”toxic debt” även inom akademin. Medan naturvetenskapen har lättare att vara självreglerande så är det värre inom humaniora, menar Gerrans.
I worry that there are no similar mechanisms for correction in the humanities – and not because stocks in the humanities are intrinsically worthless. Historians, anthropologists, linguists and even philosophers (on a good day) are able to discover or explain things. But a lot of the market is unsecured and highly leveraged. By this I mean that people in the humanities often do not write about the world or the people in it. Rather, they write about what somebody wrote about what somebody else wrote about what somebody else wrote. This is called erudition (not free association), and scholars sell it to their audience as a valuable insight about the nature of terrorism or globalisation or the influence of the internet (preferably all three). Almost every grant application in the humanities mentions these three topics, but the relationship between them and the names and concepts dropped en route are utterly obscure.
None of this would matter if the market were basically self-correcting like the science market, or erratic but brutally self-correcting like the financial markets. When people do not write directly about the world, it is hard to compare what they say against the world. So the main corrective mechanism in the humanities is reputation built on publication and, since publication is often based on reputation, the danger of a bubble is extreme. Someone who takes a supervisor’s advice to base a career on writing about Slavoj Zizek is in the position of an investor deciding to invest in Bear Stearns on the advice of Lehman Brothers. The price is high and predicted – by those who have a vested interest – to rise further.
This is not the familiar philistine bleating about the pointlessness of the humanities, or the inaccessibility of academic writing. Humanities have never been more to the point, and academics are entitled to use specialised technical language where necessary. It is a worry about the possibility not of a market meltdown, but of a gradual dawning of comprehension on the part of governments and the public that their investment in the humanities is contaminated with toxic debt.