Humanities must stick up for themselves, insists scholar

The fields have been far too shy in leaping to their own defence, argues paper

August 21, 2016
Knights seeking cover from arrows behind shields
Source: Alamy

A scholar has called on those working in the humanities to be far more proactive in responding to “assaults” on their disciplines.

Today, claims Iain Hay, Matthew Flinders distinguished professor of geography at Flinders University in Australia, there are “many fronts” on which “the humanities are under attack”.

His paper, recently published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy, points to everything from “student enrolment decisions” to “political pronouncements” such as a Japanese education minister calling in 2015 for the country’s national universities to ensure social science and humanities departments “serve areas that better meet society’s needs”. Professor Hay even mentions the comments “scrawled on toilet walls (e.g. graffiti above the paper dispenser saying ‘BA – please take’)”.

This climate, he goes on in “Defending letters: a pragmatic response to assaults on the humanities”, has had the effect of “silenc[ing] humanities advocates” or encouraging them to “reframe their public pronouncements”.

Yet in reality the humanities offer students and society a number of invaluable benefits.

Their “language-based work on interpersonal and intercultural understanding”, suggests Professor Hay, gives us the “opportunity to develop more highly tuned skills of empathy, learning better how to regard the world as others do, countenancing the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see, or may indeed see it more ‘accurately’”.

They “offer understandings of the contexts within which science takes significance and from which it draws its power (and liabilities)”. Even many scientists now recognise that “the humanities help make better scientists, engineers and medical practitioners (and vice versa)”, for example by “help[ing] to recalibrate power imbalances between patients and providers in healthcare”.

Furthermore, Professor Hay cites evidence pointing to “the technological, employment and commercial skills of humanities graduates”, such as the fact that 34 per cent of FTSE 100 companies’ chief executives have degrees in arts, social sciences and humanities, compared with only 31 per cent in science and technology.

Since the humanities have been central to the life of universities for hundreds of years, their continuing presence also “lend[s] intellectual authority to those institutions that present themselves publicly as universities and which might otherwise struggle to distinguish themselves from technical institutes or colleges”.

Given the vast gulf between what the humanities actually deliver and what they are perceived to deliver, Professor Hay ends his paper with a call for humanists to respond to all “the utilitarian and ideological assaults” on them with “more hard-nosed action…for their defence”.

They need to “work to rebuild self-belief and ensure ‘positive messaging’ about the humanities in our everyday conversations, in our communications with students and in our dialogues with colleagues” and fight back against “university policies and procedures” that implicitly take science subjects as the model.

Above all, they must overcome any “high-minded reluctance”, realise no one else would do it for them and add “the very defence of the humanities” to their core professional activities.

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