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Opinion: It’s time to reject the dominant narratives about the humanities

The humanities needs to be comfortable asserting its dominance to address modern issues
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ANANYA ANANTH/THE VARSITY
ANANYA ANANTH/THE VARSITY

It’s time to face the harsh truth: the field of humanities is in a slump, and I say this out of a place of love and concern.

Whether or not they want to admit it, the humanities knows it’s facing a tough battle. For the last few years at least, the liberal arts have been associated with poor employment prospects and head-in-the-clouds naïveté over shrewd financial realism. 

We owe this current predicament to a variety of culprits. Decades of breakneck technological advancement have highlighted the predominance of scientific inventions in a modern, industrial society. This has led to the glorification of STEM fields such as engineering, medicine, and computer science. 

What’s more is that academia itself has become dominated by an increasingly competitive, resource-scarce environment. University departments compete with each other for funding and prestige, and within themselves for tenure and recognition. 

Concerned parents and students anxiously make decisions about their futures. Though their judgements are sometimes motivated by economic concerns and sometimes by social prestige, they’re usually a combination of both.

In the end, if the humanities wants to climb out of the hole it finds itself in, then it must assert its dominance, adapt to the modern world, and address the issues of our technological age on their own terms.

Just how much of a slump are the humanities in?

An article in The Atlantic argued that in the aftermath of the 2008 recession in the US, humanities enrolment numbers crashed as concerned parents and teenagers flocked to STEM fields instead. According to the United States Department of Education, history and English enrolments have fallen to just over half of their pre-2008 peaks, with other fields seeing similarly dramatic declines. Despite economic recovery since the 2008 recession, the dropoff in enrolment has only become steeper since 2013. What’s worse is that pandemic-era economic instability might herald even lower humanities enrolment figures in the coming years.

Although these numbers come from American universities, the phenomenon of lower enrolment in humanities programs isn’t uniquely American. In 2020, 12 per cent of all undergraduate degrees awarded at U of T were in the humanities — this marks a decrease from the 17 per cent in 2008. 

The decrease in the number of students choosing to study the humanities is usually attributed to the fact that the humanities, or at least its pursuit in higher education institutions, have come to be perceived as somehow less than STEM fields. 

Parents of teens across Canada pridefully boast that their child is going to study computer science, chemical engineering, or microbiology. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that it’s all too common for friends, classmates, and family to ask a prospective classics, philosophy, or history student like myself, “what are you going to do with that degree?”

What do advocates of the humanities have to say?

Advocates for the humanities retort that the arts have plenty of intrinsic value. They say that the humanities teaches you how to think and how to be human, and that the arts make life beautiful.

The advocates are right, of course. Not only does the study of Percy Shelley, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sappho impart critical thinking, analytical writing, and effective communication skills, but they give us a roadmap of where we’ve come from. The arts illuminate the mysteries of human nature, contextualizing and informing the wonders of scientific discoveries and technologies.

Any scholar of the humanities can eagerly provide all these reasons and more in support of their relevance. Much to the chagrin of scholars, comparisons of the humanities with STEM subjects and other more supposedly worthy fields dominate the popular consciousness. In our modern digital age, the humanities are regularly viewed as simple matters of opinion, or little more than a pleasant pastime for elites with too much time on their hands. A gifted mathematician or a doctor is unanimously subject to praise and admiration. A brilliant historian is little more than an obscure, dusty scholar — certainly not a role model for children. 

English and gender studies majors occupy the lowest rungs of the prestige hierarchy; they are reduced to objects of ridicule and the butt of jokes. Compared to the hard sciences, the humanities are routinely derided as elementary, foolish, and unimportant. In short, the humanities retains little prestige in a world where productivity and scientific advancement are king. 

What can be done?

Intellectuals and academics have proposed numerous solutions to restore the humanities to its rightful place. Some believe that recognition and relevance just requires that the humanities become more scientific, turning to increasingly quantitative methodology, as if showing off a little more statistical analysis might redirect public opinion. 

Others argue that arts education has become somehow too easy or insufficiently competitive to be taken seriously. Others still argue that the humanities needs to revert to a heavily fictionalized nostalgic past, arguing the arts had once been driven by a rigorous study of Latin, the classics, and a proper study of Bloom’s The Western Canon. These voices echo traditionalist conservatives who call for a recoronation of “great thinkers of the past,” arguing that modern academia has become soft, progressive, and relativist at the expense of worthwhile instruction. 

These attitudes are all wrong-headed. Instead of constantly and obsessively comparing the humanities to STEM achievements, the humanities needs to become comfortable asserting its relevance on its own terms. 

For starters, capable and relevant humanities must modernize by taking on interdisciplinary challenges in our world of unprecedented interconnectivity. U of T has already taken some steps: our philosophy department offers a bioethics program, where students tackle the moral questions of the latest cutting-edge biomedical research. 

Just as importantly, the humanities must remember its past while moving into the demands of the future. The literature of the future will not be limited to books and plays, but will include the ranks of great video games, comics, and interactive experiences. Our most celebrated philosophical orientations need to account for the technological breakthroughs of genetics, the dilemmas of modern politics, and psychology’s forays into the mysteries of the human mind. 

The critical and creative ways that social issues such as feminism and systemic racism are addressed in great novels need to addressed in our modern world.

However, the most integral component to modernizing the humanities is improving the way that the humanities are taught. Instead of pushing to make the humanities harder or restore a mythologized past, the humanities needs to empower those experts who know best how to teach: professors. Teaching needs to be liberated from its labyrinth of restrictions and bureaucracy. Professors need to be enabled to impart their teachings how they know best, instead of being forced into an endless competition on the staircases of university rankings or the ladders of careerism. 

Departments need to exercise fewer bureaucratic controls limiting what and how professors can teach, while universities need to remove from academia the ever-present threat of death by a thousand budget cuts. But most importantly, the rest of us need to stop worshipping the rigor, competition, and prestige that is all too common among STEM fields. Instead, we need to take a step back and let humanities professors do what they do best. Only then can the humanities truly be prioritized once again. 

Tony Xun is a fourth-year student at New College studying political science, international relations, and history.