Decline in soft skills ‘driven by trivialisation of humanities’

Treating the sciences and the humanities as separate worlds does employers and students no favours, says award-winning interdisciplinarian

June 13, 2019
Macquarie University bioarchaeologist Ronika Power

The perceived erosion of the soft skills coveted by employers is a direct consequence of the trivialisation of humanities research and teaching, according to this year’s winner of one of Australia’s top academic awards.

Macquarie University biocultural archaeologist Ronika Power said it was no surprise that Australia’s indifferent performance in the humanities, highlighted in last year’s research assessment exercise, had coincided with employers’ increased clamouring for graduates with better teamwork, communication and creativity skills.

Dr Power said humanities, arts and social science courses provided the “essential skills of our society” such as problem-solving, adaptability, creativity, critical thinking, ethical judgement and “the ability to consider, appreciate and evaluate multiple points of view”.

“We’re beginning to see what happens when those outputs, those values, are unappreciated,” she said.

Dr Power claimed the 2019 Max Crawford Medal, a 27-year-old honour billed as “Australia’s most prestigious award for achievement and promise in the humanities”. Presented by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, it is named after eminent historian and academy foundation fellow Max Crawford, whose bequest funds it.

Dr Power’s research involves scouring ancient evidence – including human, animal and plant remains – to build a picture of how early societies responded to upheavals such as disease, climate change, violence and mass migration.

With her feet firmly planted in both the humanities and the sciences – she was named one of 30 inaugural “Superstars of STEM” to promote women’s participation in science and technology – she is a self-confessed “interdisciplinarian”.

“My work traverses the arts and sciences, and I am on a one-person mission to challenge the notion that science and culture should be studied, interpreted or communicated separately,” she said.

A recent Times Higher Education analysis revealed that the proportion of academics working in arts, humanities and social science fields was lower in Australia than it was in most comparable countries. The quality improvements tracked in Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) evaluations have been far lower in arts, humanities and social sciences than in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, with the assessments also showing that the disciplines’ share of academic staff has shrunk in recent years.

Last year it emerged that former education minister Simon Birmingham had secretly vetoed the allocation of A$4.2 million (£2.3 million) in research grants – all for humanities projects – while the 2018 federal budget pledge of A$1.9 billion for major research infrastructure completely overlooked facilities for humanities research.

Dr Power said Mr Birmingham’s blocking of the research grants was symptomatic of the government’s attitude to the humanities, and exercises such as ERA tended to support a utilitarian view of science. “This is about the way we set our goalposts,” she said.

“We all know that those measures, in and of themselves, are problematic. [They] are reflective of the very specific ways that the government is seeking to measure output in higher education.”

She said such views undermined teaching and learning as well as research. “If we teach our students that this is science and this is art, they’re going to perceive them as separate.

“At Macquarie University, we look at research questions like what humans do under pressure. How do humans approach the biological imperative of death? What are the physical and cultural responses? In asking students to consider those questions, I give them a whole range of methodologies. I don’t place higher or lower value on any of them. They’re just skills.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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