Bigger maps: Why the humanities still matter

When the Japanese government ordered its 86 national universities to take “active steps to abolish [social science and humanities] organizations or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs” last June, some of the strongest opposition came from surprising places. The powerful Japanese business lobby, Keidanren, issued a statement denouncing reports that the business community “is seeking work-ready human resources, not students in the humanities.” It insisted that companies want “exactly the opposite”: students “who can solve problems based on ideas encompassing the different fields of science and the humanities.” The Science Council of Japan issued a similar statement declaring its “profound concern.” It too hailed the role of the humanities and social sciences in the “duty” faced by all academics “to produce, enhance and transfer in-depth and balanced accounts of knowledge about nature, human beings and society.”

No one would pretend that anything this draconian is on the horizon in Canada, but here too, pinched between weak student numbers, a vocational mood that reduces the value of education to its ability to guarantee a good job, and an increasingly shrill emphasis on the importance of producing “useful knowledge”, humanities programs have been struggling. The Japanese example may not be imminent here, but it is getting harder to keep insisting that the glass is half full.

On the other hand, the glass doesn’t seem half empty either. The ability of the humanities to foster “in-depth and balanced accounts of knowledge about nature, human beings and society” has never been more urgently required. The world is showing no signs of becoming a less complicated place any time soon. The digital revolution has unleashed a range of exciting cultural changes that are far more radical than the ones generated by the invention of the printing press over five hundred years ago, and they have made their presence felt far more swiftly. Throw a weak global economy, the rise of extremism, and environmental problems into the mix and it can begin to feel like a perfect storm of exciting breakthroughs and intractable problems. Taken together, these developments recall an advertisement I once saw: “You’ll need a bigger map.” The humanities can help us to develop these maps, less because of the answers they offer than because of the ways that they challenge us to think about the questions that we’re asking.

Arguments for the importance of the humanities tend to highlight two related benefits. On the one hand, as Arnold Weinstein put it in an article in the New York Times, the humanities can help us to understand the “shape-shifting” nature of modern life, both as individuals and as members of diverse communities, in ways that our “data-driven culture” and endless faith in new technologies never can. “A new technology like GPS provides us with the most efficient and direct route to a destination, but it presupposes that we know where we are going. Finding an address is one thing; finding one’s way in life is another.”

On the other hand, business groups in North America continue to emphasize the same message as their Japanese counterparts. According to a recent study from the Business Council of Canada, employers’ highest priorities are on the side of communication and critical thinking rather than technical expertise or applied knowledge. All of which should give us pause when we hear the phrase “useful knowledge” being bandied about in ways that don’t properly address the question of what “useful knowledge” might be in the first place.

None of this is new. Thomas Love Peacock’s 1820 denunciation of the poet as “a waster of his own time, and a robber of that of others,” whose cultivation of poetry had been “to the neglect of some branch of useful study,” sounds eerily familiar today. Read against the backdrop of these much older debates, our own struggles today seem like déjà vu all over again. But it is precisely that long historical perspective, which the humanities are uniquely equipped to offer, that can help us to better understand the problems and possibilities of our own age in strikingly new ways. And that may be the most useful knowledge of all.

Paul Keen is Associate Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs and Professor of English at Carleton University. He is co-organizer of an upcoming national conference on The Future of the PhD in the Humanities, to be held at Carleton from May 16-18.

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