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The dissing of the humanities

9 November 2013

Twenty years ago, between 1990 and 1994, a new South Africa was taking shape. Talk of “transformation” was in the air, and some of us in the University of South Africa (Unisa) thought there was an opportunity to contribute to the transformation of the university from a Broederbond institution into a real university, and getting academics to produce better and more useful study material would also make our task as editors easier.

The Editorial Department tried to contribute to this by arranging a series of seminars on course design, and the first of the series was held in November 1993 at a new facility at Unisa Park in Irene. Most of the arrangements had been made by Sam van den Berg, then the head of the Editorial Department, and Glynn Meter, who had found Fred Lockwood of the Open University in the UK. and invited him to lead the seminars, which lasted for three days.

The seminars were generally successful, and both the academics and members of the Editorial Department who attended were enthusiastic about them, and left with plenty of ideas for improving their courses. The university administration, however, which was still dominated by the old Broederbond mentality, thought otherwise, and thought that the Editorial Department was exceeding its brief (or remit, as the Brits say) by arranging the seminars. No more seminars were held, and a couple of years later Sam van den Berg was fired for refusing to accept inferior study material from the Education Faculty, and sending it back to the lecturers.

I was a little disappointed, however, when Fred Lockwood disparaged the humanities, and said that he would take as an example a course on something useful and more practical in the real world — the production and and marketing of cosmetics.

Twenty years later that remains my predominant memory of his course — that he thought the humanities were useless and that useless fripperies like cosmetics were useful. Even the Communists’ obsession with steel production was better than that.

The trend represented by Fred Lockwood, however, seemed to be the main trend in Western and thus globalised culture. The disparaging of the humanities continues.

This could be seen in the categories of web sites that showed links to different blogs, or other web sites. For example,  Amatomu, a South African blog aggregator, had the following categories:

  • News & politics
  • Business
  • Technology
  • Entertainment
  • Sport
  • Life

As a result of complaints from several people who thought that their blog posts did not fall into any of the above categories, a couple of new categories, Humour and Religion, were added. But where do you put books and literature, language, history, or the humanities generally?

The same used to be true of an international site, Digg. That has changed now, and Digg’s categories seem to be hidden from the users. But when they could be seen, there was no place in them for the humanities.

But there are also signs of a backlash — Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God – Tara Isabella Burton – The Atlantic:

Several of the great Medieval universities, among them Oxford, Bologna, and Paris, developed in large part as training grounds for men of the Church. Theology, far from being anathema to the academic life, was indeed its central purpose: It was the “Queen of the Sciences” the field of inquiry which gave meaning to all others.

And something of this could be seen in some of the initial efforts made by Unisa to transform itself for the new South Africa. The Unisa top management consisted predominantly of pale males, and appointments had to have at least tacit Broederbond approval. But, realising that they times they were a’changing, they began to look around for some people who did not fit the mould. And where did they find them? In the Faculty of Theology, that’s where.

The Faculty of Theology was the smallest in the university, but it had to see at least three of its most talented academics poached to go into the university administration, because they were the only qualified black people available. As a result the faculty was deprived of some of its best teachers and researchers, but it nevertheless underlines the point made in the aritcle cited above: that theology was and still is “the field of inquiry which gave meaning to all others.”

Fred Lockwood’s approch to education was pragmatic. There’s little money to be made from theology, or history, or Latin or literature. There is more money to be made from making and selling cosmetics, therefore universities should teach about that.

And, under President Jacob Zuma’s leadership, South Africa seems to have been following that pragmatic path. Unlike his immediate predecessors, who stressed ubuntu (humanity), Zuma and his associates seem to be more interested in money than in ubuntu. So the dissing of the humanities is likely to continue, and ubuntu will be a forgotten dream.[1]


[1] I am aware that “dissing” as a verb is derived from “disrespect”, but I’m old enough to still regard “disrespect” as a noun, not a verb, but it fits the verb “disparage” equally well, if not better.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 November 2013 8:52 am

    Reblogged this on the harsh light of day….

  2. 10 November 2013 2:01 am

    Hello! I found this post because Clarissa linked it, and I just wanted to say I know exactly what you’re talking about because it is a huge problem in my country (the USA) too. For us, I think it derives from our universities getting less public funding due to budget cuts (because both of our political parties are dominated by people who think spending cuts are a moral good), and I can’t tell from your post if anything like that happened in South Africa, but it does look like both of our countries’ university systems are plagued by the notion that whatever makes the most money is the Queen of disciplines.

  3. 10 November 2013 4:39 am

    There was a recent storm in a teacup over this, as we will have on this very matter from time to time, when a couple of Members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote an op-ed (and a rather dishonest one, at that) in USA Today on Federal funding for the social sciences and in particular took shots at anthropology. There was a bit of a brouhaha in the anthropological blogosphere as a result. I’ve also seen some other essays more generally about whether it is worth it to get an education in the Humanities. I find the pragmatism of such approaches to be false, of course. Civilizations are not great for their marvelous accomplishments in cosmetics alone, and certified cosmetologists are not the only minds trained in manners of thought and techniques of inquiry useful to mankind.

  4. Don Phillipson permalink
    18 November 2013 5:14 pm

    The OP may find comfort in the history of education in places
    like Canada and Australia, viz.:
    — regarding themselves as an extension of the British tradition,
    — and particularly sensitive about being a “junior partner” in
    either the American or the British worldwide culture. This topic
    used to be a mini-speciality under the label “centre and periphery.”

    Although educator Lockwood seems to be British, his general
    thesis here is characteristically American, not British, seeing
    education as principally training for future employment. For
    whatever disputed reasons, the 19th-20th century British
    tradition was that beyond core literacy and numeracy,
    education (from primary school to college) was mainly the
    education of the future citizen, for his private as well as his public
    life. This was the reason primary schools taught music and
    drama, as well as the three Rs, as core curriculum (not
    optional extras), this was the justification for compulsory
    sports in higher education, etc., associated with slogans
    about the well-rounded personality, mens sana in corpore sano,
    and so on.

    Two 19th century changes altered this in the 20th. The
    professionalization of research (first in the natural sciences, later in all
    disciplines) altered universities from teaching establishments,
    that processed a continuous stream of pupils, to self-replicating
    institutions, that valued most highly the students who adopted and
    developed the staff’s research interests. Secondly, the USA (always
    less class-bound than Oxbridge) invented the “land grant college” viz.
    offered college-level education to anyone of adult age. US universities
    of 1860-1960 maintained high standards of quality (i.e. failed and
    expelled students whose performance was not good enough) but
    encountered new incentives late in the 20th century to enrol as many
    as possible and to fail as few as possible.

    What bonded these two influences together was increasing emphasis
    on college-level education as job training, viz. professional education
    for an economically productive career. One indicator of this is
    departments of Creative Writing, that offer to teach college students
    how to write poetry and novels and magazine articles. Nearly
    everyone thought in 1950 this was folly (you could help people
    write better poetry etc. but you could not devise a reliable
    curriculum to teach it); but by 1975 many Americans and a few
    English people thought this quite sensible — reinforcing the
    professionalization of the university, as (1) the place to train
    everyone, nurses, composers, bankers, engineers, lawyers,
    brain surgeons and bond salesmen, and (2) the independent
    home of monopolies (so far as college credentials were
    increasingly required for a majority of economic occupations.)

    Professional education had long been present in all American
    universities and some in Europe (notably such foundations as London
    Univ. and Birmingham) and was abundantly debated 1900-40, but
    never at that period excluded or overshadowed the traditional idea of
    the education of the citizen, for future private and public life.
    But times have changed, so far as more educators like Mr.
    Lockwood have adopted as a primary principle that colleges
    ought to teach what the economy rewards (e.g. cosmetics
    chemistry and marketing) and ought not to teach what the
    economy does not reward (e.g. theology, Latin, music, etc.)

    This extreme position is supported by “credentialism” (the demand
    for college certification for work that earlier had no formal qualifications)
    but represents the forfeiture of the old tradition, that higher education
    prepared the whole man for a rich private as well as public life.
    (Perhaps its promoters believe the public library or the Internet
    can do what universities used to do 50 years ago.)

    We debate today the same situations in different language. When hiring
    (say) an economic forecaster or a salesman, yesterday’s enlightened
    businessman might have said he would welcome a BA in literature or
    philosophy because those disciplines “trained the mind.” Nowadays
    graduates in those disciplines try to sell themselves by emphasizing
    their technical training in data ananalysis, design of meaningful
    experiments and so on. This looks to my eye like the same general
    discourse, rephrased in the jargon current today in the (new)
    specialization of Human Resources. What has been lost (or possibly
    just obscured) is the ideas of the liberally educated man: (but plenty
    of other documentation impeaches this as historical conspiracy
    to maintain privileges enjoyed by the few.)


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