Why the humanities are in crisis

The humanities are in trouble - but what can be done about it? Humanities image from www.shutterstock.com

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal titled Humanities Fall From Favour reveals a further escalation in the crisis affecting the humanities. Harvard University, “a standard-bearer of American letters”, is failing to attract students to its humanities courses seemingly on the grounds that there are no jobs for graduates.

The solutions proposed in the article are for humanities departments to aggressively market themselves, create broader interdisciplinary networks and develop internship networks.

I want to focus on the second of these and argue that the problem for the humanities is not their failure to create interdisciplinary networks but the lack of trans-disciplinary ones which include them. Trans-disciplinary networks are ones in which disciplinary differences are recognised and respected because those involved meaningfully engage in each other’s ways of knowing.

However, there is a growing “scientism” dominating today’s universities. This is the view that science is the only legitimate way of knowing, a view that is being driven by the market. This dominant ideology has slowed the development of the imagination, empathy and capacity for understanding necessary for trans-disciplinary approaches and has fragmented academia, including science and mathematics. The humanities have been left isolated and cut off from other disciplines leaving them open to attack by those who fail to comprehend their significance.

The truth is, the humanities and the sciences have a strong co-dependent history. But the idea that the humanities are just an interesting add-on to fill out one’s education is pervasive.

A good example is a recent article, Why Arts and Science are Better Together, which argues that if science students were to study the arts as well, they could “also learn about developing arguments, and about understanding, moving, and changing the minds of diverse audiences.”

Others argue that all the humanities need to do is assert themselves in a similar way, or, the humanities need to become more scientific. Many in the humanities, particularly post-modernists, have contributed to this isolation by completely disengaging from science and mathematics.

The common assumption is that the humanities need to either justify their independent existence or start complementing science in order to survive. This is, however, both an inversion of reality and a false dichotomy.

The sciences emerged as a complement to the humanities. It is the humanities that are the conditions for science to emerge at all and to make sense, because it is only through the humanities that the question of why we engage in intellectual inquiry can be both asked and answered.

The answer is and has been for thousands of years, to understand ourselves, our relationships with everything else and how we should best live. Intellectual inquiry is a human centred activity. The rocks don’t care what the geologist’s report says about them, we do. We observe, record, write the report, read it, interpret it, contextualise it and try to understand what it means for us.

In becoming lost in the high abstractions of science we seem to have lost sight of this. We behave as though scientific investigation is purely about producing data for its own sake committing what English mathematician and philosopher Alfred Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness”, treating abstractions as reality. Science presupposes knowledge generated through the humanities, such as the ability to read, write, interpret, make sense of data and communicate our understanding to others.

But now it seems, in our modern universities where the demands of customers are more important than the institutional responsibility of preserving intellectual traditions, the humanities are seen either as an optional luxury most cannot afford or as redundant.

But if you studied the Humanities you could appreciate a profound irony emerging, because in this same period in which the Humanities are being seen as redundant, modern science, particularly in fields such as complexity science, ecology and bio-semiotics, is revealing them to be more important than ever.

Historical narratives, in particular, are crucial conditions for science and mathematics. In fact, because inquiry is always based on reflection after-the-fact, we are all, fundamentally, story-telling historians.

Without narrative history, without an appreciation of what has been achieved in the past and what problems have arisen, what are the important problems because they are fundamental and what are less important, science and mathematics must disintegrate into fragments. This is just what they are doing and why science education is in crisis more generally.

A general education in the co-dependent nature of the humanities and sciences is essential, not only to the continued development of both, but also to democracy by developing the capacity to have a mature conversation about the future purpose of science and technology.

It is time to transcend the childish and abstract distinction between the sciences and the humanities and begin a meaningful and necessary re-integration. It is time to create trans-disciplinary networks rather than inter and multi-disciplinary ones. It is time the wayward son was re-united with his father for all our sakes.