Monday, 24 October 2016

Oh, the humanities

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. It’s 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 I’ve 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 wouldn’t fix the bigger problem, which is the government’s attitude. Statements from the Ministry make it clear – education is for fitting young people for the workforce; anything else is an indulgence. Here’s 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 Education’s own words, prefacing that document:

The new Tertiary Education Strategy 2014–19 has been developed to... contribute to the Government’s focus on improving New Zealand’s economic outcomes. The “Building Skilled and Safe Workplaces” programme of the Government’s Business Growth Agenda aims to materially lift New Zealand’s 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 that’s not the way to build a counter-argument. If you want rational debate, start by taking your opponent’s concerns seriously. Education costs society money; don’t 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, shouldn’t they stump up their own cash for it?

Well, I’ve argued before that education should be fully publicly funded, and my views haven’t 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 won’t 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 don’t get people jobs). That’s 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 can’t?

On this question I must respectfully, but firmly, dissent from what’s become the stock response. They made an ad of it a few years ago. Truth to tell, I’m not sure now whether I’m 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 doesn’t 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 I’ve 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 I’ve taken notes in – economics, accounting and finance – conspicuously don’t 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 don’t 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 can’t 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, it’s scientists, not sociologists, who actually talk to communities about the pros and cons of proposed conservation measures.

Shaw adds

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. I’m always limited by the particular classes I’ve attended, of course, but those have included sociology and political studies, and frankly I’m not impressed. In sociology, if sacred cows are prodded, it’s 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 Shaw’s 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. You’d think people who pride themselves on grasping the deep links between knowledge and power would stop and think about that, wouldn’t you? I’ve 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 work’s meaning.

Postmodernism begins by extending a legitimate political grievance. It is quite true that those in power will distort and manipulate people’s perceptions of the truth to suit their own purposes. And it doesn’t 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 don’t 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 can’t 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 I’m right and you’re 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 isn’t going to convince anybody.

Truth has this property: what’s 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 don’t 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 one’s 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 don’t 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.

Here’s 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 that’s only the start; due to the history of colonial suppression, much of the original knowledge will have to be reconstructed using comparative analysis methods. That’s not the sort of thing pharmacologists are trained for. It is the sort of thing cultural anthropologists are trained for.

Since what’s true is true for everybody, the sciences routinely borrow each other’s 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 isn’t 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 didn’t go down well.

The humanities do deign to fill in each other’s 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 it’ll be inventing nuclear bombs and designer babies all over the place. Science can keep its dirty tradesman’s 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 can’t help thinking this attitude is what’s dragging the humanities down – I mean, after the wooden-headedness of the financiers, but the financiers also control science education funding and science isn’t 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 can’t do without or replace. It just isn’t what Shaw and his ilk think it is – the role of a wise and benign arbiter. Actually, I’m 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. Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s 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”. Frankl’s 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 Shaw’s entire essay, and his insinuation that science doesn’t 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. I’ve 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, I’m afraid. I think I managed to sell a grand total of two websites, and one of them the buyer subsequently took down. That’s 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 one’s 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 don’t 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. What’s 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.

I’m a writer, I’m 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 they’re not fundamentally different kinds of thing.

How does this help answer our original question – what the humanities do that other disciplines can’t, 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 you’re 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 product’s 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment