Are the humanities on their way out?

June 27, 2021

An emphasis on the humanities is needed not only to recover worthwhile programmes and practices that took a backseat but also to formalise insights gained during the Covid-19 experience

We started with three basic assumptions about Covid-19 and its impact on academia and various sectors of society. One, that it has caused a temporary disruption and things will get back to their pre-Covid state in a few months. At the same time, we realised the importance of emergency measures in order to have some control on the state of affairs.

Two, that things will change forever and we need to move from our familiar normal to a ‘new normal’, coloured with its own challenges. Hence, we talked about revising and revamping policies, developing new strategies and innovating to create a better defence mechanism to handle a crisis.

Three, that this ‘new normal’ was going to become our normal for perhaps many years to come. The silver lining about the pandemic was seen as its encouraging us to be always in a state of readiness. So, instead of reflecting about ‘to be or not to be’, we took transformative steps without wasting time. In this context, the institutions that foresaw an impending disruptive future, fared quite well.

However, categorically speaking, a few areas of knowledge faced double threat; one, due to the intense focus on corporate culture and, two because of the digitalisation of content which orientated more towards STEM education and less towards humanities.

In this situation, the immediate task, it seems, is to cut the academia off from its tendency to doubly colonise those fields which balance societies and their ethos. It is not only to recover worthwhile programmes, pedagogies, and practices that were blurred during the pandemic but also to retain and formalise creative and innovative insights gained during the Covid-19 experience.

The humanities are academic disciplines that study, research on, and promote various saspects of human society and culture. They include various areas of knowledge that delve into the study of ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy, history, archaeology, anthropology, human geography, law, politics, religion and the arts. These subjects are often disregarded under the influence of a misconception that they lack institutional emphasis on professionalism, vocationalism, and careerism – market-driven traits that are popularly associated with life sciences, business studies, computer studies, engineering (in short STEM education).

A fallacy is created by the assumption that popular majors do not require what humanities have to offer. Parents would either consider them as luxuries lacking substantial benefits or they would like to see their children acquiring lucrative jobs and not creating ideas. Isn’t it phenomenal that humanities teach us to learn to live with questions rather than prodding us to acquire the answers that may be relative to the context and hence unreliable? A major in the fields of humanities negotiates with ambiguity, uncertainty, and diversity – the most important features to be learnt during our times.

The humanities already had dismal prospects in Pakistan. The situation deteriorated further owing to the less technically-equipped faculty in the fields. What then should be done to improve the status quo and infuse some practical and creative approaches to meet the challenges of preserving humanities and save them from oblivion?

In order to introduce innovative approaches to respond more effectively to challenges faced by humanities in higher education, a few measures have become indispensable; such as, saving the relevant institutes and departments and programmes from budget cuts; repurposing the humanities for greater relevance to society and highlighting their pragmatic functions; spawning opportunities for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary collaborations; creating a more cohesive and integrative classroom environment through intercultural programs and activities; encouraging internationalisation by planning student exchange programmes, promoting pedagogic innovations through social media projections, rethinking the pedagogical uses of social media, and most importantly improving virtual exchange and other online technologies to save time, energy and formal procedures.

“Curriculums across the borders”, whether in terms of geography or with regard to the boundaries of any one of the programmes or fields in humanities, are what may turn out to be the best way to implement some of the measures mentioned above. Institutions offering programmes in humanities should focus to incorporate diverse topics and cultures across academic disciplines, thereby enhancing the translingual and transcultural competence of their students and raise the level of relevance of fast disappearing and overlooked subjects.

Meaningful and authentic second or multiple culture texts and intercultural insights should be used in the curriculum to understand and to critically evaluate the utility of the content and experiences gained from peers across the borders. A more profound, more critical and more intercultural context should be developed to design the content in order to advance the repurposing objective and widen the scope and utility of humanities.

Multicultural perspectives under the umbrella of internationalisation can immensely help in informing curricular and co-curricular practices in the learning of humanities and enhancing its market value. Such practices demand a reassessment of the established power structures, academic divisions and traditions in higher education institutions in Pakistan.

We also need to shake up structures in the classroom and on the campus to empower students to access knowledge outside the classroom. Because of the dearth of internships, field work, and experiential learning in some of the major areas of humanities, its impact and interests have dwindled. Hence, we need a system to introduce social labs that give exposure to the students.

It is not just what we teach, but how we teach it that brings about a meaningful change in the reception and retention of humanities. Moreover, it is also not just what students know, but what they do with that knowledge. Humanities are not an add-on and have the potential to be integrated into all aspects of curriculum. Therefore, a careful change in the current conventional approaches to teaching and learning is sorely needed to save humanities from its way out.

Another measure that can enormously help regain due recognition for humanities is the inclusion of technology education in the field. An informed digital transformation can happen with technology-savvy faculty and with the adoption of digital literacy.

As for the advocates of humanities, by re-evaluating their academic restraints, they should make themselves and their subjects more accessible, flexible and open to change. It is, indeed unfortunate that not many among us realise how humanities can expand the social discourse from quantity to quality and from numbers to concepts and transform our society for good.

The writer is chairperson of the Department of English and Literary Studies, University of Management and Technology, Lahore.

Are the humanities on their way out?