Why the Humanities matter

Published

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Annina Claesson
Writer

In June this year, all Japanese national universities received a shocking note from the education minister Hakubun Shimomura: either axe their humanities and social sciences departments or convert them into programmes that “better meet society’s needs”. This, of course, meant natural sciences and engineering courses. Not even law, economics or teaching training were safe from the education minister’s scythe. Over 50 universities have reported that they will comply in some way, either downsizing their departments or restricting the recruitment to humanities and social sciences courses, while only a handful have refused. What has not been lacking, however, is the backlash: academics, both in and outside of Japan, have joined a public outcry over this narrow-minded and shortsighted view of ‘society’s needs’ and the usefulness of non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects.

We have seen efforts similar to those of the Japanese education minister, here in the UK. Last year, education secretary Nicky Morgan encouraged students to stick to STEM subjects in order to maximise their employment opportunities, opposing the traditional view that an arts degree leaves most doors open for a student who isn’t certain enough about their future to choose a vocational degree. Additionally, humanities and social sciences researchers have long found it more difficult to secure funding, whilst the Research Excellence Framework has been accused of bias against the humanities. The message rings true: humanities and social sciences are not seen to be as important as subjects with a ‘direct impact’ on the economy. Although we have yet to see a similar death sentence being passed down to humanities departments at UK universities, many worry that their budgets will be cut or that they will be axed altogether, as rising tuition fees affect demand for certain subjects; languages departments being particularly vulnerable.

How can this be allowed to happen when the prospect of a country made up entirely of engineers is so obviously ludicrous? A country where no one studies or researches law, economics, political science, languages, philosophy, literature or history is one deprived of creativity, as well as analytical and critical thinking abilities. It becomes a country unable to understand itself. Worryingly, it also becomes a country in which citizens do not have the analytical capacity to question the decisions of the government – something Japanese critics of the education minister’s proposal have been quick to pick up on, especially as it followed years of increased government interference in the affairs of national universities. This may sound like a familiar refrain to those of us studying in Scotland, in the midst of controversy over the higher education governance bill, that threatens the financial and academic autonomy of Scottish universities.

No one is denying the benefits that STEM subjects bring to our economy, as well as what they add to the sum of human knowledge. Faced with baffling hostility towards humanities and social sciences, however, many of us are left to wonder why we have not bypassed this childish stage in the higher education debate. It does not take long to realize that ‘the needs of society’ go beyond the immediate economic needs of the country. Not all humanities and social sciences research is stuck in an insular ivory tower, unconcerned with the world outside academia. Nor does all STEM research result in an increase in GDP. There are many pressing issues that STEM fields are wholly unequipped to address. What about the ticking time bomb of an aging population that looms over Japan, as well as many other countries? Finding an effective solution will require the input of people with a deeper understanding of how society, and the various groups who live in it, work – meaning sociologists, economists, social policy researchers, and other experts from a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

The benefits of collaboration between STEM fields and the humanities, both in business and research have been proven many times over. “Technology alone is not enough”, as Steve Jobs said at the launch of the iPad2 in 2011. “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing”. The creativity so often cultivated by the humanities is vital in achieving workplaces defined by innovation, the buzzword humming around the entire tech industry. Bringing together differing perspectives and backgrounds has rarely proven to be fruitless.

Axing humanities and social sciences is like cutting off one’s left foot; it leaves a society with a lot less to stand on. Figuring out the needs of society and the best ways to meet them requires more than computers and balance sheets, but individuals who have chosen to deepen their understanding of communities, culture, constitutions, and everything else that has appeared ever since human beings started to organise themselves in groups. It does not take a genius to realise that it might be a good idea to understand how humans, and not just computers, work.