Are the Humanities an endangered species?
- 28 March 2022
- Posted by: Nona Morris
- Category: Intercultural Ink
28 March 2022, by Nona Morris, Director of Educational Programmes, EarthDiverse
Yes, they are. Universities here and abroad have been following an unsettling trend of downsizing their liberal arts programmes, while simultaneously placing greater emphasis on the degree-to-marketplace style of education. Business, IT, Law, Engineering and technical specialties are given attention, status and funding, while the study of religion, music, literature, philosophy, history, and languages are relegated to the archives. While we do need engineers, lawyers, managers and computer programmers, we also need to be mindful of what we are doing to ourselves as a society by diminishing the range of disciplines that promote creative and critical thinking skills.
If we look back in history at the earliest academies of learning in the ancient world, some of which date to 5th century BCE and probably earlier, in ancient Greece, Persia, India, Egypt, Tunisia, Mali, Korea, Japan and China, we observe an important commonality. These were places to learn about and discourse on culture, arts, theology, philosophy, logic, law, and in some places, medicine and military skills. This not only aided in the preservation of the history, culture and religious thought of that place, but also provided a space for growth of thought and ideas.
Since the 1960s, the heft that the humanities once carried has been eroding. In 1964, author J.H. Plumb explored this issue in his book, The Crisis in the Humanities, in which he attempted to reveal the origin and nature of this crisis. Plumb observed that in the late 1700s and early 1800s the shift away from the arts and humanities began with the shift towards modern science and specialisation in a scientific field. This ultimately led to a hierarchical structure with sciences at the pinnacle and liberal arts sitting well below.
What happened then? By the mid to late 1800s, the aims of western education changed: from preserving the knowledge of past thinkers and writers to researching and publishing new information, and from educating citizens to contribute to the decision-making process of their society to training independent scholars who worked in their own niches.
What did we end up with? The compartmentalisation of the disciplines. A departure, in the sciences, from philosophical debate. A blanket notion that the scientific method must be applied to all disciplines and that scientific truth is the only truth. The result is an impoverishment of thought in both sciences and humanities. Essentially, the loss of humanities has meant a loss in discourse concerned with ideology, aesthetics, morality, spirituality, and a loss of exploring and understanding the human condition as complex and interconnected.
In the last six years, New Zealand’s universities have accelerated the decline of the humanities. What does this mean in quantifiable terms? RNZ recently reported, “Otago cut 16 jobs from its humanities division in 2016, the University of Waikato cut 17 humanities and social sciences teaching roles in 2017, and AUT… cut [about] 40 full-time positions from its Society and Culture faculty.” Likewise, the University of Auckland cut staff from its School of Language, Linguistics and Culture and closed the doors on three of its arts libraries.
We, as a society, have allowed the original intent of the academy to be replaced with a factory-to-workplace model in which degrees are merely commodities that are only worth something if they lead to employment and economic gain. As Massey lecturer Hannah August observes, this model caused the humanities to get left behind.
Why do we need to protect the humanities? University of Auckland researcher Sean Sturm explains, “[Humanities looks] at why people think, believe, do things … That still remains its real distinguishing feature; it’s the fact that it’s concerned with why questions, not so much how and what questions. And that’s it’s real strength.”
August affirms this need to ask why: “We are in the era of fake news… it’s absolutely crucial to…enable [students] to perform that type of critical thinking that involves not taking something at face value…”
Stanford University Dean Debra Satz sums up the vital role of the humanities in education and in society as “cultivating critical imagination, sympathetic understanding,” and importantly, “drawing together people from diverse backgrounds working toward common concerns.”
In its early days, the EarthDiverse team discussed this concern repeatedly. With the humanities suffering loss after loss, we asked, What can we do to save the humanities? And how can we make this type of knowledge and means of discourse accessible to all? We found one answer – let’s fill the gaps and teach what is missing. 120 courses per year later and we’re only just getting started!