The Cheat Sheet

Why the study of humanities is getting a bad rap today

Venky Vembu | Updated on June 24, 2020 Published on June 25, 2020

Are they really?

You bet. Last week, the Australian government announced an overhaul of tertiary education. As part of this, it hiked the fee structures for humanities subjects drastically, and slashed the fees for courses oriented towards what the government considers “the jobs of the future” — in healthcare, science and technology, education and construction.

Is that a problem?

It’s part of a larger problem we are seeing around the world, with humanities degrees being “devalued” on the ground that they don’t provide the skills that the job market demands. In India, too, we have witnessed calls for defunding liberal arts education in premier universities (including the JNU). Similarly, in 2015, more than two dozen Japanese universities reduced — and, in some cases, eliminated — their academic programmes in the humanities and social sciences to focus on disciplines that “better meet society’s needs.” There have been other such calls in countries around the world to prioritise funding for STEM disciplines over the humanities.

Again, why is this a problem?

For a start, such a framing paints the science and the humanities streams as being poles apart, when in fact they both work, in different ways, to make sense of the world around us. In the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, the lead character John Keating (played by Robin Williams), an unorthodox English teacher at a disciplinarian US boarding school, inspires his students through the teaching of poetry. In one scene, making a distinction between science and the humanities, Keating tells them: “Medicine, law, business, engineering: these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

That’s a neat way of putting it.

Yes, and although the film has been criticised for presenting a “sentimentalised” version of the humanities, we understand the larger point. As important as the sciences are — and the Covid-19 pandemic has only validated their merit — it is art, music and literature that makes our soul sing; and it is the study of philosophy that elevates our thinking about moral issues. In fact, studies have established that even in the jobs marketplace, the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills that the social sciences inculcate are valued just as highly.

Then why are they not valued?

Over time, liberal academic studies have become so abstruse on the margins that even experts cannot distinguish between scholars who make genuine claims and those who fake it. In the late 1990s, Alan Sokal, a New York University professor, had a parody article published in a revered academic journal — as an illustration of the lowering of academic standards. And a couple of years ago, three academics — James A Lindsey, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian — similarly perpetrated a year-long hoax on peer-reviewed ‘progressive’ journals. They wrote 20 ludicrous ‘research’ papers, mostly in the cultural/identity/gender studies space, almost of all of which were published and “recognised for excellence”. In one extreme case, they reproduced passages from Hitler’s Mein Kampf and passed if off as feminist research!

Whoa!

Yes, but even science journals have in recent days experienced some reputational damage.

How so?

Over the past fortnight, three papers published in prominent medical journals — The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, and Annals of Internal Medicine — retracted studies that had been published in a hurry in the time of coronavirus.

Bottomline?

Both science and the humanities serve humanity in their own ways. But when they compromise on rigour, they fail themselves and others.

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Published on June 25, 2020
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