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Humanities ‘stagnant’ for years

Declining student enrolments in the humanities and the post-1994 government’s heavy prioritising of science and technology disciplines are major causes of a crisis in the humanities that threatens their survival in South Africa.

This emerges from the first-ever study of the field in this country, the Academy of Science of South Africa’s (Assaf’s), Consensus Study on the State of the Humanities in South Africa: Status, Prospects and Strategies.

  • And now? Mapping the way forward

  • Released this week, the study’s shock findings include that, apart from isolated pools of excellence, the field has been “intellectually stagnant” at universities for 15 years. On top of that, the ageing of the academic cohort that still produces the most work in the field poses the “single most important threat to the growth of intellectually vibrant scholarship in the humanities”.

    “The study addresses issues that Assaf has been occupied with for years now,” says Professor Robin Crewe, the academy’s president.

    “We’ve felt there have been a series of perceptions about the humanities that needed clarifying — a picture than needed turning around — by means of evidence on what’s actually happening,” he says.

    The study acknowledges from the outset its deep unhappiness over the international trend “towards the commercialisation of knowledge” — this has promoted a “shallow interpretation of what it is to be human in the early 21st century” and “closed off the possibilities for a deep and fundamental critical engagement”.

    The disciplines that collectively make up the humanities, which include the social sciences, “are indispensable, producing an essential set of analytical skills, along with bodies of knowledge, without which our society and the wider world would be inscrutable”, the study says.

    “It is the humanities that nurture the intellectual lifeblood of a democratic project through powers of informed analysis, judgment and creative critique,” it says.

    But, aside from some university departments that produce internationally recognised experts, there are “extremely worrying signs of decline that need to be arrested and reversed as a matter of urgency given the important role the humanities have to play in our society”.

    The study uses the contemporary and fairly recent South African deployment of the term “humanities” to include the social sciences and performing arts as well as law and education, “which are intimately linked with the humanities”.

    “If it were possible to distil a single goal of the humanities,” the study says, “it would be this: imagining and promoting the idea that humans comprise community and, following the Enlightenment … this community should be jointly shared and managed in the common good.”

    The skills the humanities set out to instil in its graduates involve “close reading, analysing, arguing and writing”. These are “generic skills that are required in every place of work and every moment of life”.

    Integrating these skills with an appreciation of cross-cultural differences “makes the humanities graduate especially important”, the study argues.

    “The truth is this: economic growth will produce jobs but social understanding and nation-building will only come through the appreciation that difference paradoxically matters for social cohesion.”

    Analysing post-1994 government policy and financing, the study argues there has been a steady narrowing of the roles of the humanities, “a growing instrumentalising of [them] in the service of innovation, and a declining service and support base”.

    From 1996 to 2008, funding for the humanities decreased by 13% (in real rands) and university enrolments — excluding education, which has grown — declined on average 2% every year in the same 13 years: this against an overall increase in tertiary (headcount) enrolment of 2.6% every year in the same period.

    Further narrowing the field, by 2008 nearly two-thirds of all humanities students were enrolled in only five fields — law, public administration, communication, economics and psychology.

    Addressing a common public perception that humanities graduates struggle to find employment, the report incorporates a detailed tracer study of recent graduates showing that 63% were employed, 19% self-employed and 18% said they worked both for an employer and themselves.

    “Popular assumptions about the plight of humanities graduates are largely misrepresented, or mistaken, or are simply mischievous,” the study concludes about the “marketability” of qualifications in this field.

    But these graduates did earn “significantly less than their counterparts in other science fields”.

    Anatomy of a crisis
    The Academy of Science of South Africa study arrives at 10 main findings:

        1.The crisis in the humanities is reflected in declining student enrolments, falling graduations and decreasing government funding (in rand terms) in institutions of higher learning.

        2.The evolution and administration of government policy in the post-apartheid period has systematically benefited science, technology, engineering and mathematics to the exclusion and even detriment of the humanities.

        3.The humanities are in a state of intellectual stagnation and, singular innovations notwithstanding, have been moribund for more than 15 years.

        4.Almost all recent humanities graduates are employed. The vast majority (more than 80%) work for an employer, the rest are self-employed and there is a fair spread of graduate employment across the public and private sectors.

        5.The decline of the humanities has many causes including government policy and funding, institutional choices and decision-making, school guidance and counselling, and parental and student preferences.

        6.The weight of scholarship in the humanities lacks international status and standing, with most of the published work appearing in local journals and most of these in non-accredited (non-Institute for Scientific Information) publication sources.

        7.The scholarship of the humanities still strongly reflects the racial inequalities in knowledge production in the national science system, with all but one (education, at 21%) of the humanities fields falling well below 20% of total output contributions on the part of black scholars.

        8.The single most important threat to the growth of intellectually vibrant scholarship in the humanities is an ageing academic and research workforce, a factor that must be read alongside the evidence of a decline in doctoral graduates in the humanities.

        9.The low proportion of academic staff with doctorates means that the institutional capacity to reproduce and replace high-level scholars and scholarship in the humanities remains compromised into the near future.

        10.The performance and prospects of the humanities vary considerably across different fields of study (theology and education versus law and languages, for example), and this means that any interventions will require fine-tuned strategies among these fields rather than a blunt instrument of policy change for the humanities as a whole.

    The faces behind the study
    The Consensus Study on the State of the Humanities in South Africa: Status, Prospects and Strategies was three years in the making. In 2008, the Academy of Science of South Africa appointed Professor Jonathan Jansen (now vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State) and Peter Vale (now professor of humanities at the University of Johannesburg) to co-chair it.

    Grants from the Ford Found­ation and the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust enabled the research to take flight. The department of higher education and training also assisted with funding. On the study panel with Jansen and Vale were:

    • Sakhela Buhlungu, professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria;
    • John Higgins, fellow of the University of Cape Town;
    • Catherine Odora Hoppers, who holds the NRF Research chair in development education at Unisa;
    • Shamil Jeppie, senior researcher at UCT’s Institute for Humanities in Africa;
    • Zine Magubane, associate professor of sociology at Boston College;
    • Gerrit Olivier, professor of Afrikaans and Dutch at Wits University;
    • Deborah Posel, director of UCT’s Institute for Humanities in Africa;
    • Mpilo Pearl Sithole, associate professor in the community development programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal;
    • Keyan G Tomaselli, senior professor and director of the Centre for Communication, Media and Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal; and
    • Andre J van der Walt, who holds the South African research chair in property law at Stellenbosch University.

    Reaching consensus
    The humanities report is the second major “consensus study” that the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf) has produced in less than a year. It follows its landmark PhD study in 2010 and is its 12th since the academy’s formation in 1996.

    Assaf describes the protocols of its consensus studies as follows: “Following proposals from Assaf members, the academy’s council appoints experts and interested parties to form a ‘consensus panel’. These panels conduct and commission research and can take evidence from various bodies; they deliberate and compile a report. The panel through consensus then agrees on the findings and recommendations of the report, which is then sent to external referees.

    “Following this, the report is considered by the academy’s council, which then releases it for public debate. The report therefore reflects the considered views of the panel and this then becomes the deliberated view of Assaf.”

    Assaf president Robin Crewe says: “We’re careful to appoint panels consisting of individuals who have recognition in their fields and who represent a diversity of views. Out of that diversity, they have to then reach consensus.”

    Assaf’s mandate states that its function is to provide “evidence-based advice to the government on crucial scientific questions. Evidence-based study-project activities therefore form the core of the academy’s function.”

    Science academies around the world are generally divided into those with a narrow focus on the natural sciences and those with a broader conception of knowledge, Crewe says. “Assaf is an academy of the latter kind. This is ‘science’ in the broad sense to include all forms of scholarship.”

    One of the study’s 10 recommendations to address the crisis in the humanities is that Assaf redesign itself so that its commitment to the humanities is more evident.

    “The academy must reassess itself to give weight to all the different parts of academe,” Crewe said.

    Still looking for answers
    The 200-page Academy of Science of South Africa study claims to be comprehensive but not complete. It identifies what needs further research and debate, including:

    • The quality of teaching and of scholarship in the humanities;
    • Student and staff numbers, and why student numbers are declining;
    • The nature of employment of recent humanities graduates;
    • What employers want and how they interpret “employability”;
    • Who the potential stakeholders for the humanities might be;
    • The importance of academics in their engagement with public spheres; and
    • How scholarly work influences society and social change, directly or indirectly.
      One of the study’s co-chairs, Peter Vale, said: “If we say we’re teaching critical thinking, we have to do that. Humanities teachers must take seriously how they’re teaching the ‘skilling’ aspect.”

    The full study is available at

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    David Macfarlane
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