My employers employer, the University of Otago, has decided to cut staff positions in the humanities. Music is going to be hit the worst. As usual, the justification is money. Its been suggested that maybe the University should ease off on its endless construction drive if it needs to free up some cash. (In twenty years Ive never known the campus be without a big hole in the ground somewhere. Face it, Otago, the Richardson Building is a plug-ugly wodge of concrete and no amount of landscaping around it is going to change that.)
However, this wouldnt fix the bigger problem, which is the governments attitude. Statements from the Ministry make it clear education is for fitting young people for the workforce; anything else is an indulgence. Heres the official position in their Tertiary Education Strategy.
Skilled, knowledgeable individuals are essential to the success of businesses and other organizations. Access to skilled workers allows businesses to increase the value of their products and services and to pay higher wages. In turn, people are better off, healthier and happier, and New Zealand is a more attractive place to live and work.
For most young people, achieving a tertiary qualification is a crucial milestone towards a successful working career. Whether they study at a university, polytechnic, wānanga, private training establishment, or through an apprenticeship, a qualification gives them a concrete record of knowledge learned and skills gained that they can use to move up the employment ladder.
And in the Minister of Educations own words, prefacing that document:
The new Tertiary Education Strategy 201419 has been developed to... contribute to the Governments focus on improving New Zealands economic outcomes. The Building Skilled and Safe Workplaces programme of the Governments Business Growth Agenda aims to materially lift New Zealands long-run productivity growth rate while maintaining our high rate of labour force participation. This requires tertiary education to better equip individuals with the skills and qualifications needed to participate effectively in the labour market and in an innovative and successful New Zealand.
Sure enough, Priority 1 in the Strategy is delivering skills for industry. There is nothing anywhere about developing insight or critical thinking. Public education, to this government, is solely a means of polishing up new cogs to slot into the commercial-industrial machine.
My instinctive response to this is a string of expletives, but thats not the way to build a counter-argument. If you want rational debate, start by taking your opponents concerns seriously. Education costs society money; dont we then have a responsibility to pay that money back? Granted that some people derive personal value from knowing all about, say, the anti-imperial politics encoded in the Book of Revelation or the practice of cannibalism in indigenous South American funerary rites, shouldnt they stump up their own cash for it?
Well, Ive argued before that education should be fully publicly funded, and my views havent changed. Knowledge is a public good; the more you know, the more good you can do and the less likely you are to screw things up for other people. Of course knowledge has an element of private good as well, in that it qualifies you for skilled work, but in my view the fairest way to get you to pay for this is in proportion to your improved earnings, i.e., as income tax. That, plus the years of labour you have to put into a degree if you have any intention of passing study is a full-time job. But I made that case in the post I just linked to and I wont go over it again here.
The argument for user-pays education depends utterly on the private-good component (that education gets people jobs), which makes it more than a fraction ironic that the argument for defunding the Humanities is the alleged lack of that private-good component (that they dont get people jobs). Thats an empirical question, of course; the answer seems to be that an arts degree is no worse than any other. It is reasonable, however, to ask whether humanities courses produce public-good knowledge enough to justify the funding being sent their way. What do they teach that other disciplines cant?
On this question I must respectfully, but firmly, dissent from whats become the stock response. They made an ad of it a few years ago. Truth to tell, Im not sure now whether Im remembering posters around campus or a meme on Facebook, but the ad went Science can tell you how to clone a T-rex; Humanities can tell you why that might be a bad idea. Actually, if you watched Jurassic Park, the people who figured out it was a bad idea were two palaeontologists and a mathematician sorry, chaotician. Scientists, not humanities scholars.
Ethics, politics, power relations, social implications, and the rest of it are the purview of the humanities; that much is true. That doesnt mean that they are only taught in humanities courses. Dentistry, pharmacy and physiotherapy students are drilled on politics and Māori culture, then made to discuss complex patient scenarios and come up with plans. I know because Ive sat through hours of the stuff. Even marketing students get talked to about ethics and taste. (I say even marketing students because the other commerce subjects Ive taken notes in economics, accounting and finance conspicuously dont do this. There, money is the only good.)
My own example, for what a single data point is worth, flips the stereotype on its head. Most of my philosophical ideas come from putting together scientific concepts in ways other people dont seem to have thought of. My basic anti-essentialist stance is the fruit of this essay by that well-known postmodernist beat poet Richard Dawkins; my insights on why essentialism is such a tempting error came from the object-oriented programming component of the IT qualification I got at Otago Polytechnic about six years ago. Conversely, the subjects that have earned me the most cold hard cash are my high school Latin and first-semester Classical Greek. If your job makes you deal with unfamiliar technical terms on a regular basis, you cant do better than Latin.
With the humanities under threat and an Education Strategy clearly composed by a bunch of finance alumni, naturally humanities scholars are busy producing editorials to try and change the direction things are going. This one by Professor Richard Shaw from Massey University is representative, in that it bounces from insightful to patronizing and back again sometimes within the space of a single sentence.
Third, the Arts (should) play an important role in humanizing science. While there are those in the biophysical scientific community who are of the view that science should not be contaminated by the messiness of the social (and by no means are all such scientists of this persuasion), the performance and application of science is unavoidably social. From the culture and politics of the lab to the anthropogenic dimensions of climate change, science is rooted in social contexts. The ethical, philosophical and political dimensions of the practice and applications of science are far too important to be left to scientists alone...
Because scientists are a bunch of amoral nerds who never look up, I suppose. Notice Shaw says too important to be left to scientists alone, not merely too important to be left to science alone, despite his previous concession which he evidently considers charitable that not all scientists are like that. I can assure you that ecologists and geologists are very switched-on about both the human causes and consequences of the various ecological challenges facing civilization, of which climate change is the greatest but far from the sole one. After all, its scientists, not sociologists, who actually talk to communities about the pros and cons of proposed conservation measures.
Finally, the humanities and social sciences sharpen the questions we ask of those in power. It is one of the hallmarks of these disciplines that they cultivate the tendencies to question what is taken for granted, challenge established truths and prod sacred cows. These things matter they really matter at an historical juncture when the state is able to keep citizens under perpetual surveillance. In such times scepticism regarding the motives of political and economic élites is essential.
Science has done far more to sharpen my scepticism than the humanities ever could. Im always limited by the particular classes Ive attended, of course, but those have included sociology and political studies, and frankly Im not impressed. In sociology, if sacred cows are prodded, its only to get them to wander around in circles mooing at each other Hegel, Marx, Durkheim, Freud, Foucault. In political studies, entire courses are still based on the outdated misconception that the Left is about collectives and the Right about individuals. Whatever the failings of scientific thinking, it thrives on challenging established truths and questioning what is taken for granted.
The patronizing overtones in Shaws essay and others like it can be traced to a single basic presumption about the humanities place at the meeting-table with the sciences: that they have everything to teach and nothing to learn. Youd think people who pride themselves on grasping the deep links between knowledge and power would stop and think about that, wouldnt you? Ive noticed before that certain popular theories in literary criticism, the death of the author and so on, just happen to raise literary critics to the highest authority in interpreting a works meaning.
Postmodernism begins by extending a legitimate political grievance. It is quite true that those in power will distort and manipulate peoples perceptions of the truth to suit their own purposes. And it doesnt feel like a big step from there to assert that truth itself is simply a manifestation of political power. That assertion can even appear subversive or liberatory you dont need to believe the System if it tells you the sky is blue. Its real implication is precisely the opposite. Truth is the one thing power cant control; take that away, and power becomes absolute.
Postmodernism has been poison for the academic humanities, as it has for the political Left. The two are not unconnected. Sociology has a leftward bias just as economics has a rightward bias. This is bad news, not good news, for those of us who lean toward the left. When I argue with people over politics, I want to be able to say Look, this research says Im right and youre wrong. But that only works if the research is politically neutral. Otherwise, it reduces to These people who agree with me agree with me, which isnt going to convince anybody.
Truth has this property: whats true is always true, regardless of who says it, when or where. Granted, some truths are only apparent from particular angles. You might want to remind me of the story of the blind men and the elephant one thinks that its leg is a tree, one that its side is a wall, one that its tail is a rope, and so on. None of them has a better claim to knowledge than the others. But I would point out that the fable implies a real truth of the matter (an elephant) which is more complex than any of the blind men appreciate.
Postmodernism began with a bunch of mostly white guys trying to hedge their pet pseudoscience Freudian psychoanalysis, as it happened from being debunked by inconvenient facts. Some anthropologists embrace it with the more noble intention of promoting respect for diverse cultural beliefs. If there is only one truth, then only one belief can be correct, which means other beliefs are wrong, which means the cultures that hold those beliefs are inferior. Or, at least, that was the argument that justified centuries of white Christian colonialism throughout the world. Must we choose between that and postmodernism?
I dont think so. People are not absolute fools. If something is true, and accessible to human investigation, sooner or later someone will discover it. Hence, all cultures grasp some of the truth about the world they live in. It is always true, for everybody, that humans share a family tree with other animals, that consciousness and decision-making occur in the head (not the heart), and that washing ones hands is necessary to avoid spreading sickness when dealing with blood to name three truths that Polynesian people figured out before Europeans did.
There is a wealth of traditional indigenous healing lore around the world which has been deliberately stifled by colonizing powers here, in the form of the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907. Nowadays this lore gets lumped together, as alternative medicine, with known placebos like homeopathy and energy balancing. But we dont know what works until we do the research, and the current state of research on Māori therapies is limited to: at least some of the plants (mānuka is especially promising) contain compounds with potential antibacterial and/or anti-inflammatory effects. Whether the traditional therapies actually trigger those effects, no-one has yet investigated. Yes, I heard this in a pharmacy class.
Heres something that the sciences really could use the humanities help with. The literature on traditional Māori medicine is scarce, patchy, and European-biased. Any serious research will have to involve years of finding and interviewing practitioners, and thats only the start; due to the history of colonial suppression, much of the original knowledge will have to be reconstructed using comparative analysis methods. Thats not the sort of thing pharmacologists are trained for. It is the sort of thing cultural anthropologists are trained for.
Since whats true is true for everybody, the sciences routinely borrow each others knowledge and are quite happy to do the same from the humanities. Evolutionary biology, for instance, got its tools of comparative analysis from historical linguistics and textual scholarship. I did once see, on an internet forum, a palaeontologist try to return the favour. Palaeontologists have a mathematical method for estimating when a given species first arose (since the oldest fossil we happen to have found isnt likely to have been the first of its kind). This one applied that method to the Gospel manuscripts, I think it was, to estimate a date for their original composition. It didnt go down well.
The humanities do deign to fill in each others gaps, of course; literary critics help historians interpret old documents, and historians provide literary critics with the political background for their texts. But to at least some (sadly influential) humanities advocates, the idea of doing the same kind of sharing with the sciences is distasteful. Give science an inch and itll be inventing nuclear bombs and designer babies all over the place. Science can keep its dirty tradesmans hands to itself until it learns respect. The kind of help the humanities offer the sciences is the kind where they take over and run things.
I cant help thinking this attitude is whats dragging the humanities down I mean, after the wooden-headedness of the financiers, but the financiers also control science education funding and science isnt sinking. This picture of the humanities as something noble, rarefied, beyond such mundanities as the workings of the brain or the material constraints on technology, is practically the dictionary definition of élitism. You can see how it might fail to appeal to a new student choosing a major in the hope of some day contributing to society at the highest level of their ability.
It is a great shame that the humanities are sinking, and I stood with the crowd to protest the cuts at Otago a couple of weeks ago. Because the humanities do have a contribution to make to human knowledge, one we cant do without or replace. It just isnt what Shaw and his ilk think it is the role of a wise and benign arbiter. Actually, Im being slightly unfair; Shaw does in fact mention this vital function in amongst the other claims he makes for the humanities.
Relatedly (and this may have both work and non-work applications), the Arts can enable us to make sense of the circumstances in which we live. Mans Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankls account of his experience in Auschwitz, stands as one of the great expositions of the importance of comprehending the meaning that lies in every moment of living. Frankls is an especially harrowing story, but the lesson at its centre is no less relevant today. And so it is to the Arts we turn for the means of distinguishing knowledge from data, recognising how (and what) meaning is attributed to phenomenon (and by whom), and of weighing the relative merits of competing truth claims. Bluntly, it is through the Arts that we avoid leading Socrates unexamined life.
That last sentence is perhaps the most patronizing in Shaws entire essay, and his insinuation that science doesnt weigh the relative merits of competing truth claims is another calumny. Nevertheless, Shaw here has hit the nail on the head. The humanities are the science of meaning.
Information science and information technology have been hot stuff for the last couple of decades. Otago has two departments devoted to them, though they seem to have got their labels swapped: Computer Science concentrates on the abstract logic of manipulating information, Information Science more on the practicalities of using computers. Ive taken lectures in both, and as mentioned I also have an information technology qualification from the Polytechnic. And I can tell you that information and meaning are two different things, and the former is completely useless without the latter.
My career in IT after graduating would not be a great advertisement for the Polytechnic, Im afraid. I think I managed to sell a grand total of two websites, and one of them the buyer subsequently took down. Thats why my cultural anthropology degree is not on my list of the money-earning elements of my education. Because it turns out that database design a surprisingly interesting way to spend ones time; the computer does the boring bits uses exactly the conceptual skills that they teach you in cultural anthropology. You have to tease out the logic of a complex social and economic situation and determine what has implications for what.
The same goes for the other humanities. Language studies describe ways that particular cultures communicate meaning. From there linguistics steps outward, generalizing those particularities, whereas literature and art scholarship focuses in on specific acts of communication. History reconstructs the human past on the basis of the meanings people have captured in written records, which gives it direct insight into matters that archaeology, the more sciencey method of reconstructing the human past, can only guess at. (When archaeologists ascribe religious significance to artefacts merely because they dont have an obvious practical use, I always wonder what future civilizations will make of garden gnomes.)
But in my view the conceptual wall of separation between the humanities and the sciences has to come down. Whats true is always true, even if it means different things to different people; to that extent the postmodernists are wrong. On the other hand they are quite right to stand against essentialism, the Platonic idea that things have distinct and immiscible essences; and the division between one kind of truth and another including scientific truth and cultural-artistic truth is just one more manifestation of essentialism.
Im a writer, Im a web programmer, and I have a social disability which has forced me to learn conversation skills explicitly instead of instinctively. And I find that writing, web technology, and conversation all share a common principle, which is this: The more effortlessly a receiver (listener, reader, web user) can intuit the meaning of a piece of communication, the more effort the communicator (speaker, writer, web designer) has put into it. Now conversation falls into social psychology and web technology into information science, which are both sciences; but writing is literature, which is one of the humanities. They use different methods and work in different spaces, but theyre not fundamentally different kinds of thing.
How does this help answer our original question what the humanities do that other disciplines cant, that justifies their funding? I think the answer is the same as for any other theoretical science. Civilization as we know it is built on the applied sciences, and every applied science needs a theoretical science backing it up. Engineering needs physics; pharmacy needs chemistry; agriculture needs biology. And design needs the arts. Now have a look around you. Unless youre reading this on your satellite phone while sunbathing naked on a mountain peak or something, you are surrounded by designed objects. Even the most practical product design depends on conveying meaningful information to the products users as to how it should be used. If you want good design, you need somebody somewhere to be studying how meaning is made and communicated.
Shaw recognises that if the humanities are to survive, we need a compelling story to tell and that story must engage with and shift the present employability narrative. I think Our field is the science of meaning is a more compelling story than We have a patent on critical thinking. It does, after all, have the merit of being true.