A guest post by Sandra Grey, National President of the Tertiary Education Union:
#LoveHumanities is a day of action here in New Zealand which responds to a worldwide and long running attack on the value of the arts, humanities, and social sciences in tertiary education.
These attacks have been ramped up over the past two decades because of narrow government policy requiring tertiary education to meet the needs of the economy and labour market. Policies and funding mechanisms have been used repeatedly to tame public education institutions and make them behave like businesses. Similar approaches that threaten liberal arts teaching and research are seen in Great Britain , Australia , and many other places.
But with the world’s attention fixed on the erratic US President, it seems timely to ask if attacks on the humanities are alive and well in the US?
In January, The Independent reported that an unnamed member of Trump’s transition team had said the Presidency would “eliminate both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and privatise the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.” Susan Nossel described it as “an attack on reason itself.”
With the world facing a range of existential crises – environmental degradation, rising inequality, violence in our homes and between nations – now is the very time we need people undertaking studies that train them in critical thinking. In the ‘post-truth world’ where lies are presented as “alternative facts” these skills help us filter out the ‘bullshit’ from the reasonable, plausible, and logical.
You don’t need a BA to spot the latest falsehoods peddled by Trump to advance his anti-immigrant, racist and ethnic nationalist agenda. Realising there was no terror attack in Sweden is just common sense. However, not all issues are as easy to spot.
Mounting a sound argument about why poor people vote for politicians who take away their access to healthcare, for example, needs evidence that isn’t always easy to find. Similarly, understanding any parallels between the direction of geopolitical events today and other times in human history. Answering these sorts of questions requires training in selecting legitimate sources; examining narrative devices; and argumentation.
The humanities and social sciences equip us with these skills and enable robust public debates about the kind of world we want to live in and how we make it happen. As Philosopher Martha Nussbaum said, we have to “understand ourselves better, to see why we have arrived at this state of division, hostility and non-communication.”
Even engaging in debate about the purpose of universities, institutes of technology and polytechnics, and wananga, requires an ‘argument’. One that is not only thought out, reasonable, and backed with facts; but one that has stories that help to make sense of the world.
It’s not just the humanities and social sciences we must promote. The fine arts and music enable us to reflect more immediately global events than is possible in academic journal articles. I could spend hours researching and developing arguments opposing Trump’s tyrannical administration, whereas a couple of clever artists can do it in three minutes and reach a much wider audience.
So why #LoveHumanities? Well, alongside the engineers, mathematicians and scientists that help us understand how the world works; alongside advertisers and spin doctors that sell things, realities, and political ideologies; we need sceptical and curious minds that explore the human condition (their own and ours). It is these minds that will ensure we have a future worth living for.
While I don’t agree with everything Sandra wrote, I am a big fan of the humanities. My personal love is Classical Studies – I have scores of books on the old Roman Republic.