Humanities for Humanity’s Sake 5: Resisting Idols in the Transformation of the SSHRC

by D.M.R. Bentley


Readers of “The City of the End of Things,” Archibald Lampman’s dark vision of “The Issue of Things that Are,” will recall that as the city crumbles into “rust and dust” all that remains of its builders are four “carved idols,” three of which sit “face to face” in an “iron tower” while the fourth—the one destined to survive the rest—is a “grim Idiot” without “mind or soul” that sits at the city gate staring “toward the lightless north.” Although the temptation to think so is sometimes very strong, Lampman’s visionary city is not Ottawa and the “grim Idiot” at the gate is not the quintessential Canadian politician. Nor is Lampman’s poem being advanced here either as a simulacrum of the federal government or, heaven forfend the gloomy thought, as a reflection of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council; rather, I would like to think of Lampman’s four “carved” figures in Baconian terms as representations of the four classes of idols that the SSHRC appears to be in the process of avoiding as its transformation proceeds from consultation to policy—the idols of scienceolatry, instrumentolatry, productolatry and—perhaps more controversially—researcholatry.

     It seems like eons ago—actually, it was in 1940—that the American educational theorist John Dewey (in)famously argued that the “future of our civilization depends on the widening spread and the deepening hold of the scientific habit of mind.” Yet anyone who has observed the changes even in the SSHRC’s application forms over the last decade or more can scarcely doubt that the “widening” and “deepening” has continued almost unabated. So it must be with relief and gratitude that we in the Arts greet the Council’s abandonment of “Human Sciences” and the retention of “Humanities” as the term for what we do in our disciplines. The scientific method was designed as an instrument for exploring physical nature, and useful and fruitful as it is for examining those aspects of human beings that belong to the physical realm and for thinking and theorizing about how we approach our subjects, it sits to one side of the realm of human values and the world of human, often imaginative, artefacts in which humanists live and work. The debate about the relative educational and social importance of the Arts and Sciences that so exercised Matthew Arnold, T.H. Huxley, and others towards the end of the Victorian period continued into the twentieth century, and echoes of it can still be heard today in discussions of federal and provincial funding for research. No less now than in previous decades, the interests of both society and the universities are surely best served by adequate funding for research across the full spectrum of the Arts and Sciences, a goal that is unlikely to be achieved by papering over the contributions of the Humanities and Social Sciences with graph paper to make them seem other than what they are and, it must be said, other than what a great many people readily recognize and value as one of the university’s and society’s most important components.

     Just as scienceolatry has been resisted during the SSHRC transformation process, so too has instrumentolatry—which is to say, the call for scholars and researchers in the Humanities and Social Sciences to view their work largely in terms of its value to users of knowledge in the public and private sectors. Few have doubted the value of emphasizing the pragmatic or utilitarian aspects of work in the Humanities and Social Sciences when it is possible and prudent to do so: the generosity of benefactors is better encouraged by magnanimity than aloofness. But time and again the point has been made during consultations and in reports flowing from them that under no circumstances should work in the Humanities and Social Sciences be conceived or regarded as a tool that must be engineered or adjusted to fit the screws and nuts of the political and social machine, however demanding and important that machine may be. In the early nineteen sixties, Claude Bissell, who by then was not merely a distinguished commentator on Canadian culture (his Our Living Tradition was published in 1957), but also the president of the University of Toronto, spoke eloquently of the dangers inherent in the “governmentalization” of Canada’s universities. By resisting instrumentolatry, the SSHRC and its constituent scholars and researchers have protected the independence and resisted as far as is possible and prudent the “governmentalization” of research and scholarship in the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

     Closely enough related to instrumentology to be easily mistaken for its twin is the third idol that seems to have been successfully resisted during the SSHRC transformation process: productolatry—that is, the urge to define scholars and researchers in the Humanities and Social Sciences as producers of products that can and should be marketed and consumed by the public at large. This is not to say that the importance of making the public as aware as possible of the ideas and findings of scholars and researchers in the disciplines supported by the public funds through the SSHRC has not been recognized and accepted, but, rather, that the task of marketing those ideas and findings has been properly understood as best undertaken by the SSHRC itself with the assistance of the scholar and researcher, possibly through easily accessible statements that can be regularly collected and circulated, as appropriate to local, national, and international media. A division of responsibilities along these or similar lines would, it has been suggested, make good use of the media expertise available in the SSHRC (and, perhaps, the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences) and allow scholars and researchers to maximize their capacity to generate material of actual or potential interest to the general public.

     As intimated at the outset, the fourth and final of my idols—researcholatry—is perhaps more controversial than the others, the reason being the suggestion that in the Humanities especially (but not exclusively) too great an emphasis on research may be a danger, not merely because it brings with it a whiff of scienceolatry, but also because it has the potential to result in the severance of research from teaching. It was partly to preclude such a severance that the concept of “confederation of learning” was proposed to the SSHRC as a means of thinking about its place in Canadian society, for learning brings with it the sense that scholars and researchers in the Humanities and Social Sciences are at once seekers of new knowledge about human life and human creations and imparters of new and received knowledge to others, be they students and peers within the educational system or members of the general public. It is our task as research-teachers and teacher-researchers both to discover all that we can about our subjects and to share our findings with our students and peers. Today we are gathered together under the aegis of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English to reflect upon the transformation of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada: we are gathered as teachers and researchers whose very identity as humanistic enquirers and educators can be confirmed by an emphasis on our place in the learning process.

     Almost needless to say, much hard work and mutual understanding lies ahead if the SSHRC is to convince the federal government of the need for more funding for research and scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences. That funding may not be forthcoming, at least not in the amount requested, but even if it is not there is good reason to hope that, thanks to an open and comprehensive process of—dare it be said?—learning, the “mind [and] soul” of the Humanities and Social Sciences have asserted themselves, the “carved idols” recognized and, so far as possible, resisted, and the great city of which humanists and humanistic sciences are the rightful custodians saved, at least for the time being, from “rust and dust.”


(An earlier form of this paper was presented at a session on the transformation of the SSHRC at the ACCUTE conference at the University of Manitoba in May 2004 and published in the September 2004 number of the ACCUTE Newsletter.)