Sunday, November 24, 2013

The New Humanities Education

Humanities education needs to be reinvented.

Most of the conversation about humanities education today, led on by the Professors of Humanities, is defensive: It is about the value of humanities and why it needs to be protected for the sake of a democratic society. While the proposition is possibly correct, the style of reasoning creates three problems: One, it denies the obvious need that we must interrogate humanities education as it is done today; two, it somewhat projects that humanities subjects are somewhat superior than other subjects in fostering democratic values, which makes the argument elitist; and three, it overlooks the needs of the individual middle class students, of the kind of flocking to the universities today, and forgets to establish the link between humanities studies and jobs and careers.

The flaws mentioned above makes the case for humanities elitist and fails to appeal to people thinking about university. That it is important for democratic society will be appreciated by middle class students, but they will indeed be thinking that humanities should then be the preserve of those who can afford an education for the sake of social good, those who don't have to worry about a job afterwards. 'It must be a good thing, but not for me', would be their response.

Indeed, the point of this argument is less to impress the students and more to appeal for state funding: But this in turn misses the point how state funding priorities are, and should be, decided in the era of mass education. If the students are not wanting to do humanities, it is even less likely that the state will want to fund it.

However, an alternative view of the case for humanities education could be made on the basis of the need for judgement in modern professions: As we move from industrial to post-industrial professions, progress from process orientated decision making to more creative challenges, the ability to deal with complex information sets and make judgements, deal with things such as ethics rather than laws or rules or processes, and accommodate aesthetic imperatives alongside functional ones, become critical. A training in humanities can indeed further these abilities: This is not just social good, but also for better employability, and professional success, of the learner.

Surely, humanities is not the only way to do this. Sciences can do the same. No one should claim that creativity only lies in the realm of humanities, because great scientific creativity has got us where we are today. However, the point is to allow creativity and judgement to flourish, and variability to accepted and established. Sciences in our education system is too often too closely associated with technologies, and humanities present a viable alternative to nurture these creative instincts and abilities in the learner.

So, we need humanities education back in the agenda, but indeed, in the context of the changing requirements and the aspirations of the students. The new humanities education should embrace technology and not treat this as an enemy. It should step outside narrow disciplinary boundaries and treat the students' aspirations as the start point. It should indeed embrace the learners of today, often from a different social background from that of yesterday, who are driven by the aspirations of living a better life than their parents rather than taking the previous generation as the benchmark. The new humanities should ready the students for the uncertainty, the changes and the dilemmas of globalism, rather than putting walls around their thinking and rejecting these developments as a devious conspiracy.

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