/ 3 December 2010

The humanities in all of us

Can the humanities sing again? This was the question hidden deeply within the conversations among a small gathering of academics in Cape Town late last week. Under the auspices of the Royal Society of Canada and the Academy of Science of South Africa, they met to test the state of the humanities in both countries and to chart a path for future cooperation in the humanities between the two bodies.

The memory of a South African who is now resident in Canada offered an instructive classification of humanities departments in the two countries. Farms in the bleak rural setting of the expatriate’s childhood were invariably divided into three categories: “Prosperous”, “Getting By” or “Likely to Sell Up”.

Ironically, this classification was upbeat, even helpful and hopeful, when set against the report of the recent Browne Commission on the future of higher education in the United Kingdom that, if its recommendations are followed to the letter, will consign most of the humanities to George Orwell’s infamous “knackers’ yard”. In no small way this Orwellian outcome is the result of a global discourse that in recent times has coalesced around the purported advantages to society of developing knowledge that favours applied science and free-market economics.

Public funding of universities, especially national research strategies, now emphasise the idea of innovation, which has become a code word for quality. As a result, in both Canada and South Africa, solid academic fields in the humanities — comparative literature is a good example — are either threatened or have already fallen away. Given this thinking, it is not surprising that students and their parents came to consider higher education as a form of private investment rather than, as it once was judged, a public good.

But the old saw remains: making things happen in a university (or elsewhere, for that matter) doesn’t mean that thinking happens. The challenge for the humanities remains not to return to some “golden age” but rather to inspire students — and, quite simply, this can happen only by encouraging them to think.

Paradoxically, the humanities share this challenge with natural sciences, which in recent times have also been under increased public scrutiny. This is ironic because in popular thinking the humanities did “belief” while the sciences did “knowledge”, as the French sociologist Bruno Latour once observed — a distinction not unlike that between thinking and feeling.

These are misleading alternatives, and choosing between them is like choosing between being isolated and being overwhelmed, between being marooned on an island and drowning in the sea. Nobody should have to make that choice. Indeed, nobody can make that choice. But there is perennial pressure to choose; and one of our responsibilities at our universities is to make sure that nobody thinks they have to.

Which brings up a fundamental question: What do we actually do at our universities? We tell stories. Or to be more precise, we tell old stories. And we make up new ones. We call the first teaching, and the second research; but whatever we call them, it puts us in an ancient tradition of elders, experts and eccentrics, telling tales and singing songs.

At the centre of all societies, there are stories and songs. These go by a lot of different names and take a lot of different forms, from the elegant theories and elaborate explanations of the sciences to the poems and performances of the arts and on to the storylines of the professions, through which they pass on their ethics and their expertise. In one way or another, these stories and songs define the meanings and values of our society — the ways in which we perceive our relationship to the forces that surround us and the terms in which we understand them.

They include our explanations of the origin and purpose of things, of causes and effects and sequences of events, of what holds us together and keeps us apart; the institutions we establish, the covenants we enter into and the songs we sing (from Amazing Grace to Nkosi Sikelel’ i’Afrika); the ways in which we organise our communities, how we lay out the land, our patterns of ownership, the buildings and roads we construct, the spaces we make open or closed; the priorities we give to healthcare, education, law and order, commerce, clean air and water and the arts.

An idea worth pursuing is the reinsertion of the liberal arts curriculum for undergraduate education. This would enable students in mathematics, say, to appreciate the discipline’s ancient roots in philosophy, or to expose students in economics to sociology — where, if truth be told, they could see that monetary policy matters most to the poor and not the rich.

Evidence from the United States, in particular, suggests that solid training in the liberal arts is enormously beneficial to the professions. Helpfully, Canada has a small but impressive — group of colleges that offer training in the liberal arts. In South Africa the recent talk of a four-year undergraduate degree may provide space for a conversation on the importance of a liberal arts curriculum. And the Cape Town gathering decided to take forward a binational conversation on reviving the idea of liberal arts training, which would of course include both the sciences and the humanities, as well as the foundational principles of the professions.

Another area of cooperation lies in the “digital humanities” — an area poorly developed in South Africa but in which the Canadians have some expertise. The true promise of this comparatively new field lies beyond the digitisation and classification of archives and the like. It lies in unlocking new understandings in the humanities from manipulations of digital material.

As has happened elsewhere, understandings of history, say, or literature may shift completely when subjected to this new computational power. Whatever their instinctive misgivings, serious minds in the humanities would have to reach out and test the idea that the digital humanities were — as the New York Times recently claimed — the new disciplinary frontier.

Another area earmarked for exploration is indigenous knowledge, which in both countries presented new challenges — in epistemology, in policy terms and in the renewal of respect for intellectual and imaginative traditions across cultures. In both South Africa and Canada claims to knowledge are far too often driven by crude politics or material interests, or both. Not surprisingly, both Canadians and South Africans thought that this dialogue should be continued.

International cooperation can help with these conversations as last week’s gathering showed. But it cannot be done without the critical skills that the humanities bring to social issues, to free us from the prison of our separate disciplines into the company of all those who watch and listen and wonder and bear witness, so that the categories of reality and the imagination become as arbitrary as the categories of “them” and “us”. And one of the places to begin this is with deepening critical inquiry into contemporary economic thought. Not only did its theory, its methodology and its practice bring near ruin to the global economy, but its continuing dominance in public discourse also reinforced the idea that utilitarian knowledge matters most.

At our universities, we need to do more of what we do all the rest of the time anyway: to wonder about things. This includes wondering how totalitarian states arise, or why cancer cells behave the way they do, or what causes people to live in the streets; and it also includes wondering at a poem or a mathematical proof or a supernova.

These are the wonders that lead to understanding and delight; and the wonderings lead to the impatience that produces new perceptions and new paradigms. They are closely related, wonder and wondering. At the university, we try to keep them together. If we separate them, we get the kind of amazement that is satisfied with the first explanation; or the kind of curiosity that is incapable of genuine surprise and therefore of serious inquiry.

The Viennese call a person who looks after a house for someone else a hausbesorger, which literally means a “house-worrier”. The humanities are the house-worriers of wonder. And of wondering.

There is no human society in the history of the world that has been without music; and how we take up the challenges facing our universities may well be the real test of whether the humanities can sing again — and whether international efforts can improve the rhythm and melody of our songs.

J Edward Chamberlin is professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at the University of Toronto and Peter Vale is professor of humanities at the University of Johannesburg. Together they chaired the “Canadian-South ­African Dialogue on the Humanities” held last week in Cape Town.