The value of the humanities

There is no doubt the humanities are under siege at universities around the world.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called Stem subjects, have the kudos and the official backing. 

Our Government, like many others, sings their praises and adds support to those endeavours.

Then there are the courses leading to specific professional jobs, be they in the popular health sciences or elsewhere. 

Humanities — the foundation of universities and of liberal arts education — are left floundering, under-loved and under-funded.

Not surprisingly, in the age of accountants and specific accountability,  the humanities are an awkward fit.

Their research, seemingly, lacks direct benefits to the wealth or wellbeing of the nation.

Less tangible programmes lack the measurable "outputs". 

Their  ethos is, apparently, an antithesis to a technocratic and technological world.

It is little wonder, then, students vote with their wallets and pay their fees elsewhere. 

Humanities numbers at the University of Otago have during the past five years declined from about 5900 to 4800 (nearly 20%). 

Even this year  overall humanities dropped 152 despite a university-wide increase of 90 equivalent full-time students on 2015.

Against that backdrop, the university has little choice but to cut, or put departments through "management of change process". 

It is the turn first of anthropology and archaeology, English and linguistics, history, languages and culture and music.  

The College of Education is next to be considered for the  firing line and an eye is being kept on philosophy, social work and classics with possible "management of change process" being considered at the end of next year.

The university should not be ruthless in its approach and needs to maintain as much flexibility as possible.

It also needs to limit its managerial costs and managerial burdens.

But staff numbers inevitably suffer when students go elsewhere.

Departments through the years have been amalgamated and subjects — like Russian — dropped altogether.

Adjustment never stops.

How ironic, though, that some of the subjects under the most acute pressure are among those the university, with justification, brags about. 

Among the 13 subjects this year in the top 100 in the QS World University Rankings are five from the humanities: archaeology, anthropology, education, English language and literature and history. 

Modern languages, politics and international studies, communication and media studies and philosophy are in the next band, the top 100 to 150.

The humanities division’s home page on the university’s website introduces the area thus: "Investigate the human world, what it is to be human, and how human beings relate to their diverse and changing environments."

The idea is that humanities’ graduates take all sorts of skills into society. 

They learn to analyse, write and think critically about the world. 

Undertaken effectively,  students with a BA and post-graduate add-ons should have grown through their study years to be ready to embark on all sorts of careers.

There are only so many direct professional jobs, and, as we are constantly being told, employees of the future will need to be flexible, creative, capable, able to solve problems and analyse.  

As iconoclast Sir Bob Jones is so fond of saying, he would much prefer a decent BA graduate in his businesses than a commerce graduate.

The humanities at Otago are not helped by another international trend,  the long-running tendency towards group think and subtle and not-so-subtle suppression of genuine and wide-ranging debate. 

A smothering  reign of political correctness collides with what universities and the humanities in particular should be all about — an interplay of diverse ideas and viewpoints, "a critic and conscience of society" role that is robust  and fresh.

The university, the Government, and wider society need to recognise the value of the humanities.

In a technological age, they are needed all the more.

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