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Chin up, humanities

Believe in yourself. Get over the complex. It’s one thing to feel criticised, it’s something else entirely to internalise it. Nor is it necessary. The humanities have something going for them, and, whether the critics like it or not, their time is coming around

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1963 drawing by Danish cartooning legend Bo Bojesen depicts a Norwegian, tall, handsome and upright, declaring »without boasting« that no country in the world has as big an inferiority complex as Norway.

It’s a Wednesday in January, and as leading figures from humanities programmes at Danish universities gather at the old Niels Bohr honorary residence on Copenhagen’s Valby bakke, the Bojensen springs to mind. Because this gathering of eminent scholarly figures, leaders in their fields, absolute top people, have come to discuss whether they have any right to be doing what they do. Whether the humanities are in fact legitimate.

Imagine a group of physicists convening to question what the point of physics is! So what’s going on here?

Perhaps this is a result of this ‘humanities-bashing’ we’ve heard so much about? Ulf Hedetoft, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, described the phenomenon a few years ago in an op-ed in Politiken by enumerating all the swipes taken at the humanities because of a “reigning mythology” about the field, i.e. claims about unwanted degree programmes that were unnecessarily long, needlessly specialised fields of study, students who were not only unmotivated but also unqualified to meet the rigors of academic study. And money, of course, just how much, it was asked, do the humanities contribute to GDP anyway?

Whenever you accuse someone of bashing, you wind up making yourself smaller.
Charlotte Rønhof, deputy director of Dansk Industri, the country’s largest corporate lobby group

Could all this have led the humanities to develop an inferiority complex?

The answer, according to Charlotte Rønhof, is ‘yes’. For those unfamiliar with the name, Rønhof is deputy director of Dansk Industri, the country’s largest corporate lobby group. Word is that she gets a calendar alert every six months reminding her to point out that Denmark churns out way to many kids with humanities degrees. But of course, Rønhof doesn’t consider her criticism bashing. Just the opposite in fact: if she were in charge, she says, humanities programmes would get just as much funding as they do now, but wouldn’t have to educate as many, and could spend more on research. Spread the money over fewer students earning better degrees, she says.

»Whenever you accuse someone of bashing, you wind up making yourself smaller,« she says.

Victims of their own self-marginalisation

Aalborg University professor David Budtz Pedersen, who heads the Humanomics research project, which looks into the value of humanities agrees: »The humanities are victims of a strategy of self-marginalisation. They have come to see themselves as being under attack. They see themselves as victims, and that prevents them from taking a proactive approach and telling others what role they see themselves playing.«

The past few years have been rough for the humanities in Denmark. Even though the amount of money set aside for humanities programmes has risen as funding for universities as a whole has gone up, reforms and cuts in the amount of money the state reimburses universities for each student has forced schools to make do with less. This is one of the main reasons why the Faculty of the Humanities has been tens of millions of kroner in the red in recent years, and has had to eliminate faculty and stop offering degrees in certain subjects.

Why haven’t we come up with our own scientometric that can show the value of our fields of study?

David Budtz Pedersen, professor MSO, Aalborg Universitet

On top of that, according to Pedersen, the humanities have had the misfortune of not fitting into the current economic mindset that views technology as the true source of growth and progress.

Morten Ebbe Juul Nielsen, associate professor in philosophy at UCPH, suggests that a change in the way we value learning requires the humanities to be more proactive about drawing attention to their potential to contribute to society.

»The humanities cannot contribute in the way that medicine can, for example,« he says. »In medicine, you come up with a new pill that can cure an illness and earn money. When we talk about what we can contribute, we often go on the defensive and turn to clichés about the pursuit of knowledge or the importance of being cultured. I get why that might not sit well with bean-counters or people who run companies that employ thousands of people. They need something more tangible, and we’re not good at that.«

 

Who do you say that you are?

Nielsen says he firmly believes that the humanities can make a contribution to the sciences.

»Philosophy professor Finn Collin put it nicely when he said that people who study the humanities are well equipped to understand symbol systems, how people understand the world, how they interpret symbols, traditions and values. But we’re not good at talking about that. Maybe people are afraid of being backed into a corner and asked just why what they do is so important. Why is it so important for us to learn about the development of the potato peeler on the island of Lolland in the 18th and 19th centuries? Of course that’s an exaggeration, but if we’re going to put effort into the history of the potato peeler, we damn well better be ready to explain how that contributes to a better understanding of the way we understand our symbol systems and their importance. It’s hard to talk about it without it turning into a discussion about money,« Nielsen says.

If we leave it to the economists, we’re going to end up with a mess.
Philosopher Morten Ebbe Juul Nielsen, UCPH

During the past few years, Nielsen has teamed up with academic staff from all of the university’s faculties. One of his big projects was a multi-year »intensively cross-disciplinary« study of the increasing rate of obesity amongst Danes. Here, he says the humanities had a clearly defined role.

»Tell a million doctors to study obesity, and you’ll get hundreds of reports back telling you that people will lose weight if they eat fewer calories than they use. Surprise! But what we want to know is why people get fat. Why don’t they just eat fewer calories? That’s not something the doctors can answer. But people who have studied the humanities can tell you how people live their lives, what their living conditions are, what their values are. And if you are talking about values, then you’ll need a philosopher to help you out with questions like whether it’s fair to hold people responsible for their actions: do they have a free will, or are they just biological machines that are responding to their environment? These are the sorts of issues we can help sort out.«

Save us from the economists

Another of the current economic and social trends we face today is the increasing integration of robots into our lives. That, according to Nielsen, is something that should light a fire under the humanities.

»There are a lot of people out there who argue – and I tend to agree with them – that we’re on our way into a fourth industrial revolution, in which we automate labour and introduce artificial intelligence that will be better, for instance, than judges at ruling in court cases and handing down sentences. We’ll probably also be seeing surgical robots in our near future. It’s pretty realistic to assume that this is going to result in waves of people losing their jobs because a machine could do it cheaper,« Nielsen says.

Figuring out what the effect of this will be on the economy will be the job of the economists, but, according to Nielsen, it will be up to people with degrees in the humanities to deal with the more normative questions: should we open the door on the fourth industrial revolution? What does it mean for people to feel like they are making a contribution to society? Is that something that also has value?

»If we leave it to the economists, we’re going to end up with a mess. It’s like climate change. We need to understand that this is an ethical issue, too. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a problem.«

When we talk about what we can contribute, we often go on the defensive and turn to clichés about the pursuit of knowledge or the importance of being cultured

Filosof Morten Ebbe Juul Nielsen, KU

Charlotte Rønhof says there is a value in using the humanities to help us understand how humans respond to social and technological change. But she’d like to see more in the field be like Nielsen and show some initiative.

»It’s about just doing it,« she says.

But has humanity really slipped off the radar? According to David Budtz Pedersen, the humanities generate a lot of what he calls “quiet knowledge”. Unnecessarily quiet, perhaps.

»It’s nuts. The humanities are widespread in our society and in our culture, but we won’t attract attention to ourselves. It’s taken for granted we will take part in discussions about our society and our culture. It’s assumed we’ll be there, and this is a paradox for us.«

His advice to people in the humanities: speak up.

»Why haven’t we come up with our own scientometric that can show the value of our fields of study?” Pedersen says. »Instead, we’re a part of a system that rates you based on how many patents you have, or how often you publish. The only thing that results in is people trying to get themselves published in as many international journals as possible as quickly as possible. Instead, we should be using our time to discuss what the value of our work is.«

 

Wake-up call

If you think about it, it makes sense that the humanities should be evaluated according to their own set of criteria, and that doing so would get people to appreciate them more.

Lone Frank, respected science journalist and a PhD in neurobiology, argues that the humanities should take the discussion about their usefulness as an opportunity to improve the field. She moderated the conference that this article began by characterising as an expression of an inferiority complex, but she doesn’t see it like that at all.

»If you do something, and if you take it seriously, then of course you’ll respond if it comes under fire. That’s a reasonable reaction. But,« she says, »the humanities should also use this as a wake-up call and ask whether what they are doing is good enough.«

The more we know about the world, the more deeply we experience it, and the better our chances of doing what we can to improve it. It’s no different when it comes to culture, and, when it comes right down to it, that’s what the humanities are
Lone Frank, science journalist and PhD in neurobiology

One problem she brings up is the tendency for humanities dissertations to be based on other people’s research, rather than offering something new.

In addition to her academic work, Frank has made a name for herself as a radio host and an author of books about medical issues. She’s not known as an aficionado of the humanities, but that’s beginning to change.

»It’s exciting to take up a topic on my radio show that brings me out of my comfort zone – talking with an archaeologist about Palmyra, for example, or discussing Rome during the reign of Caesar with a historian. When you learn about the way people thought and wrote during different historical periods you get a sense of the depth of our intellect, and the way cultural influences affect the we live and think.«

In Hedetoft’s op-ed urging an end to humanities-bashing, he argued that the field »contributes by exposing people to culture, by giving them a broader outlook, by enriching their discussions. It also contributes by making people more generally satisfied with their lives. By providing answers to societal problems. By strengthening the trust and equality that serves as the foundation for civil society.« It’s a grandiose song of praise for academia. Doesn’t Lone Frank agree that Hedetoft is being way too abstract and lofty in his defence of the humanities’.

No, she says.

»If you think about it, it’s not that lofty. Learning about the world around you is good for us.The more we know about the world, the more deeply we experience it, and the better our chances of doing what we can to improve it. It’s no different when it comes to culture, and, when it comes right down to it, that’s what the humanities are.«

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