In Defence Of The Humanities

With the nation focused on addressing the shortage of STEM skills, Anthony Sharpe ponders the state – and status – of the humanities.

Every time South African public schools break up for the holidays, trainers from Pretoria-based tech skills outfit Geekculcha kick into action. Over the last four years, its popular #VacWork programme has taken high school students from all over the country through programmes as diverse as basic digital literacy to the future of the green economy.

It’s no secret that South Africa desperately needs to produce more graduates skilled in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). As digital technology slowly takes over every industry, programmes like #VacWork are springing up to prepare youngsters for the future.

But as governments and universities from all around the world race to find ways to address the shortage of STEM-related skills, are we in danger of stigmatising the humanities?

A 2015 paper, ‘Report on the State of the Arts, Humanities and Social Science in South African Universities’, written by Ahmed Essop for the Andrew W Mellon Foundation found that arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) are not in crisis, “but [are] thriving at South African universities, albeit unevenly. However, they continue to play second fiddle to STEM in the public perception and domain, given the priority accorded to STEM in the National System of Innovation NIS) and public pronouncements linked to high-status projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project.”

The problem seems to be one of perception: That STEM subjects are intrinsically harder and more valuable. But, we ignore the humanities at our peril, and the idea that these disciplines need be mutually exclusive is also wrong, argues Professor Johann Mouton, director of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University and the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Scientometrics and STI Policy.

“We conducted an employer survey on the main skills required of a PhD graduate,” says Mouton. “It’s not just about being ready for the job, because most companies have to train employees on the job anyway; it’s about having the appropriate conceptual, problem-solving and decision-making skills, which you learn in the humanities and engineering, for example. If you only want to produce people with technical skills, you’re missing the boat.”

Mouton stresses the importance of studying history, too, especially in a country like South Africa. “You sit with a generation of students whose historical horizon is probably last Saturday. They don’t have a historical consciousness, no understanding of key events and their meaning for today.”

Collaboration is the way forward

Mouton sees collaboration and experimentation as the way forward for universities, citing the example of universities in Europe and America, where students enrolled in science can take an elective from the humanities faculty.

“The problem in South Africa is that our faculties operate in silos. It’s nearly impossible for a student to register in one faculty and take an elective from another, because each faculty fills up their student’s courses. I know of incidental cases where faculties build a course in logic and philosophy into their first year, but these are the exceptions.”

The Andrew W Mellon Foundation report also cites collaboration as a way to shift public perception around humanities, recommending, among other findings, “the initiation of an ambitious interdisciplinary national research project on a theme that addresses a key national challenge and that has the potential of capturing the public imagination and impacting beyond the academy. Such a project, aside from its impact on knowledge production, could contribute to the enhancing the role of AHSS in the public sphere.”

So who needs to be driving the conversation around opening up courses? Mouton believes it doesn’t necessarily need to happen at a national level, but rather that universities themselves should be more flexible.

“There is a forum of deans of faculties from different universities that meet from time to time,” says Mouton. “I think the initiative may have to come from that level. “I think if there’s an understanding and appreciation of the kind of graduates that we need to produce for the 21st century, for the fourth industrial revolution… there might be an acceptance that people need to put less emphasis on technical content in curricula, and more on broader conceptual and other skills.”

Image: ©Shutterstock - 297919265
Image: ©Shutterstock - 297919265

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