What to Make of the Arts and Humanities

Recently, Professor McDayter spoke of the notion that the study of humanities is beginning to become considered by society as an inadequate field of study. The need to prove its benefits continues to increase as general emphasis is further placed on the value of degrees in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S.T.E.M). I could provide a number of reasons to explain why this is the case. This does not, however, persuade me that this change is altogether good. I am a humanities student; I earned a diploma in arts and science, am currently completing a major in philosophy and am a student in the School for Advanced Studies in the Arts and Humanities. Needless to say, one can assume that I have a certain bias. It should be noted, though, that I had initially spent two years studying environmental technology. My courses ranged from fluid mechanics to land surveying. But one day at Algonquin Park, I was counting a sample of macro invertebrates (or more commonly known as ‘bugs’) and it occurred to me that I found little reward in the pursuit of becoming an environmental technologist. That’s not to say that I do not value the field or that I mean to undervalue my colleagues. I felt at that moment that my calling was to pursue the deeper questions at hand—questions pertaining to environmentalism of a more philosophical nature. I recognized the need to think through the problems at hand and to formulate solutions that might change the direction in which we are heading. One day in class, I proposed that the world needs an ethics committee—a think tank of the most respected and credible ethicists, law makers and such whose sole role is to regulate our affairs by the publishing of its intellectual inquiries. Clearly, if I were to concern myself with these kinds of things, I would be better suited to study philosophy, ethics and law at university.

The humanities has been defined by some as a non-marketable degree; the ‘skills’ gained cannot possibly be quantifiable in the way that education in STEM can. This is because my degree in humanities does not lead to a distinct end; there is no clear-cut definite path in my life unless I choose to create one. The benefit, however, is that various options are made available to me. What is gained through the study of the humanities is the opportunity to invest the time and effort necessary in order to understand my own views—and the views of others– on a very intimate level. For example, every philosophical quandary that has either liberated or plagued me is open to revision. The process of engaging in a philosophical inquiry leads to a more refined world view and it is this very engagement that allows for theory to be presented and tested. Without an understanding of the underlying theory behind the actions or inactions of society, we are collectively much less discerning and less likely to derive positive, beneficial conclusions that serve our wellbeing.

It was once stated that “It takes more courage for a person to question that dark corners of his/her soul than it does for a soldier to die on the battle field—courage to hope, courage to love, courage to think critically.” Dr. Cornel West spoke about the interrogating nature of being a philosopher and how a university education is not necessary in this process. Anyone can be a philosopher and anyone can question his/her ‘tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions.” The problem, however, is that many of us choose not to. It is much easier to rest our conclusions, our faith and our actions upon clear-cut and definite answers meant to satisfy the intellect and comfort the masses. On issues such as environmentalism, however, many of us are beginning to recognize that steps must be made now in order to curtail and status quo and to change the direction of the future. If the environmental impact had not been so evident, I gather, it may not be such an easy pursuit to convince the masses that we are consuming too much and preserving too little.

The concept of preservation can be tied to the very notions that have governed us in forming conclusions of the moral nature such as: the golden rule, the corrective nature of the justice system (rather than punitive), and notions of equality for all genders, ethnicities, minorities. All conceptions of our actions have been described by one theoretical distinction or another. In effect, we have—and continue to—build the foundation which we can use to explain our actions and we can place these theories under scrutiny, criticism, debate and interrogation for the sake of finding solutions. This process generally does not differ from the pursuit of a humanities degree. The only difference is that the mechanism, the category, or the vehicle for discovery is located and utilized through various means. The discourse surrounding environmentalism, for example, is not solely found among the philosopher or the policy makers. An Artist can expressed a concern for the future actions of society and a desire to influence our behavior. Art is just as effective-and in cases even more effective—than implementing wide-scale awareness of the issues at hand. When a star celebrity or a well-known musician latches on to a cause or an issue, the response can be substantial. When an individual engages in the aforementioned ‘philosophical’ interrogation and discovers a sincere, refined version of her/himself, the presentation of that message can be all-the-more powerful and moving.

A means by which this can be expressed is through online media platforms such as Youtube or Facebook, which are accessible to many and liberating for those who feel as though they have no voice. A post from the Philippines can reach the shores of Florida in the matter of a day (or less).  As a post is deemed valuable and viewed by many, it gathers momentum and acts like a tsunami sweeping through the barriers put in place to stop it—of course, provided it is not censored. The need to publish material that is accessible to all is evidenced by the growing speculation in regards to the scrutiny—the perceived inadequacy– that the humanities has suffered. Rather than the traditional way in which academic material is published, it appears to me that the academic institution ought to adopt for itself a similar platform that can present itself to the world in a way that does not mean to subjugate the viewer as one who is not worthy of calling into question the claims made by the author. In other words, the masses ought to be able to concern themselves with the ongoing discourse(s) that the academic elites are undertaking for themselves. The problem with this claim, though, is that an open-access platform may begin to appear like the comments section on a Youtube video whereby childish insults, slander and meaningless ad-hominem attacks will take place. In turn, this would almost- certainly trivialize the very nature of Academia and the work invested in its causes.
This requires us to determine whether academic publishing ought to remain a distinct entity that is apart from the realm of the sort of ‘public discourse’ that occurs on platforms such as Youtube or Facebook. However, if we should make efforts to delineate the academic sphere from the Youtube sphere, and if we should define academic articles as being superior to the comments section on social media, then we may be at a loss. This is at least true in the case of the humanities.
As the humanities begins to ‘diminish’ in the eyes of the public sphere and if STEM is consistently regarded as the better option for university students, then ‘the humanities’ needs to collectively agree to either merge with STEM or find ways to evolve to meet the growing demand to have access of information.

The world is undergoing a rapid splintering like Pangaea whereby those who lack the means to access information face imminent isolation. An Academic discipline, generally speaking, can face the very same consequence if it should retain its splendor yet remain oblivious as to the growing dynamic of technological advancements and rapid globalization. This can be viewed as either a doom-and-gloom scenario or it can be seen as a grand opportunity. The reading of Shakespeare need not be defined by the masses as a ‘back-ward-looking frivolous activity’ conducted merely by an undergrad on his/her spare time.

The humanities face being deemed as an island of isolation that is reserved for either the social elite (who can afford the education) or the overly-optimistic and perhaps delusional teenager who is unaware of the pressing economic concerns of the ‘real world.’ We must continue to think about ways in which the humanities can adapt, evolve, or influence the way in which the world works so that we as a collective society do not lose out on a very important and relevant aspect of the human endeavor. But, based on my understanding of the humanities as a whole—and the people working in these fields– I am confident that we are well-seasoned in the ‘business’ of doing so.

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