Monday, August 15, 2011

Oh the Humanity

The humanities have always been a tough sell. I grew up in the '70s and even then the idea was that if you got a degree in the arts (English, philosophy, art, music) you were prepared for any job as you were thought how to think and had a record for completing things. I think that last part had something to do with sticking it out through uni. It is no surprise that liberal arts degrees are in less demand than ever. Seems that all education, from trades to graduate degree is directed at mostly getting a job. Interest groups are the ones focusing on humanities; animal rights, anti vaccination and environmental activists are a style of bioethics, sceptics work the critical thinking arena, philosophy is more directed by feminists and atheists. And all of it is put out on blogs.

Why would this be a bad thing? After all, the humanities have been taken out of the Ivory Tower to the People. This can only be a good thing as it encompasses more people. Am I right?

People are very good at being critical but not as good as provide broad range solutions. Interest groups don't have the power to enforce long term change. Case in point - abortion. Vocal anti-abortion groups are not satisfied with being able to choose not to have an abortion so they attempt to bomb clinics, kill doctors. Mandatory reversible birth control of both sexes where one applies for a reproductive license would be an equally extreme solution. A long term solution would be factual sex education (frequently repeated in the hopes it would stick), accessible birth control and fertilized ova transplant services.

We are also very poor at empathy leading to being good at being manipulated. Studies have shown that anecdotes are effective because the larger the group we consider, the less emotional impact  they have on us. Like it or not, we are part of a global community. How does what we do in one place impact the lives of others? It would be a good thing if somewhere along the education line people were giving critical thinking tools, and these tools are the humanities.

When I was in school we had language arts. Although I did well in it, I can only appreciate the tools we were being given in retrospect. While parents were bemoaning the loss of grammar from the curriculum, we were learning how to use our imagination through short story and poetry composition; effective communication, critical thinking and philosophy through essay analysis. These tools complement the ones I learned in science labs. After deciding what questions to ask I could actually find some answers through experimentation. Using scientific criteria I could determine how consistently the results answered the questions. Ideally this would lead to new questions based on the answers.

Like the Sciences, the Humanities have been "jobified". English has become Communications. Philosophy has become Human Resources. Both are not valued in general because they are not rote series actions and frequently non-intuitive. They are open to structured criticism by peers and not easy because of specialized language so they are difficult to teach well. Most importantly people don't feel the being imaginative and exploratory is integral to daily living. I can't imagine this is much different than any other time.