Folly of reasoning that study of humanities is no longer necessary

Graduation caps

The study of general knowledge has been on a steady decline in institutions of higher learning.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • Humanities continuously struggle under the threat of being consigned to the dustbin of historical relics.
  • Some have even declared the humanities as ‘useless’ and ‘irrelevant’ courses to the Kenyan economy.

There is no doubt that the disciplines of the humanities (and the social sciences for that matter) are facing a crisis in the contemporary neoliberal context. Available statistics point to declining enrolments, shrinking job prospects, dwindling funding, and growing condescension for the humanities from society.

Most parents, including humanities scholars and academics, steer their offspring away from humanities courses and toward science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses. This eventuality spells gloomy, hopeless, and bleak prospects for the humanities.

Whereas the more favoured STEM disciplines bask in the admiration of society and thereby attract funding for studies, research, and community engagements, the humanities continuously struggle under the threat of being consigned, like alchemy, to the dustbin of historical relics.

Whereas STEM programs can pick and choose from among the best of students, students for the most part only consider the humanities as a last resort. In Kenya, the reality of the humanities in crisis is aptly captured by the pronouncements by some political leaders, bureaucrats, and even administrators in the academy who invariably declare the humanities and social sciences as ‘useless’ courses that are ‘irrelevant’ to the Kenyan economy.

The epitome of this disdain for the humanities was the implementation of ‘reforms’ in 2021 by the University of Nairobi’s administration under Vice Chancellor, Prof. Stephen Kiama, that saw the phasing out of more than 250 courses, mainly humanities including the diploma course in philosophy and the entire Departments of Literature and Kiswahili. It took a court order to get the latter two reinstated.

Arguably, the apparent crisis in the humanities is reflective of a crisis of humanity itself, which manifests itself in in four ways. The first is the tyranny of the contemporary neoliberal economic dispensation rooted in the ideology of free markets. This economic mindset privileges the amassing of private property over concern for the common good. It has led to universities being required to train for the capitalist labour market rather than educate for the welfare of society since it prioritizes short-term over long-term interests and treats money and wealth as the measure of all good.

Declared valueless

University education is not pursued for its own sake, but for the instrumentalist purpose of enabling its partakers to make money in the neoliberal marketplace. University programs that are seen not to directly contribute to this short-term goal are declared valueless.

Within this context, the humanist values of critical reflection, morality, ethics, integrity, justice, equity, truth, respect, and compassion, the forte of a humanities education, are sacrificed at the altar of pursuit of wealth. The idea of intrinsic rightness and goodness of actions has been abandoned in favour of the instrumental good, with economic considerations as the supreme good of all instrumental actions. The power of this tyranny of the market has led to the prevalent culture of worshipping wealth and the wealthy without an iota of care about how such wealth is acquired.

Second, the crisis of humanity is manifested in the mantra of privatization with its focus on the economic bottom line. As a result of the globalizing effects of free market neoliberalism, developing countries were forced to liberalise and privatise, to rationalise and retrench, and to cut back on public spending by eliminating subsidies on staple foods and introducing cost-sharing with consumers of public goods including education and healthcare.

Institutions of higher learning were required to justify continued receipt of public funds by demonstrating their value to the national economy. The resultant effect was decreased funding for disciplines, particularly in the humanities, that could not tangibly demonstrate their contribution to economic development in metric terms.

At the same time, funding for other branches of knowledge, especially in the natural sciences was increased because of their presumed guaranteed contribution to the pocketbook. Many humanities departments in universities were abolished with several disciplines, such as history, philosophy, and religious studies, lumped together into single departments.

Third, the crisis within humanity is manifested in the rise of anti-intellectualism that intensified in Kenya under Moi, and that has become ubiquitous in the world on account of the rise of right-wing populist nationalism. Its essence is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who represent it; and a disposition to constantly minimise the value of that life. The result of this is the current general disdain towards all forms of intellectual activity and a tendency to denigrate those who engage in it. 

Essence of the humanities

Anti-intellectualism is identified with religious anti-rationalism, populist anti-elitism, and unreflective instrumentalism. Religious anti-rationalism is the belief in the superiority of faith over reason and the fear that scientific endeavours will lead to the elimination of religion.

The growth of religious fundamentalism around the world and the popularity of new-age religions in the face of contemporary life challenges is a testament to this. Indeed, as the crisis of humanity deepens, fundamentalist evangelical churches that promise instant miracles continue to prosper and grow in leaps and bounds as adherents flock in, ready and willing to part with their hard-earned meagre resources in the name of planting seeds for the expected miracle of instant material transformation.

Populist anti-elitism refers to the notion that academics view themselves as superior to the general population and encompasses, among other traits, a mistrust of claims to superior knowledge or wisdom. Thus, whereas the dynamics of governing a modern state requires an astute mind with the requisite knowledge of people, their communities, and the affairs of state, electorates are sometimes said to be more inclined to elect a person with whom they feel comfortable sharing a beer, or, in the case of Kenya, the force of affective ties dictate that votes are cast on the basis of ethnic belonging.

Paradoxically, such electorates expect their leaders to be adept in economic management, social relations, and political affairs. Under unreflective instrumentalism, all forms of thought that do not promise relatively immediate practical payoffs are devalued and dismissed off hand. The current crisis of the humanities could thus be said to arise from unreflective instrumentalism, especially since the most common critique of the humanities is that they have no relevance in the contemporary neoliberal marketplace.

Fourth, the crisis of humanity is also manifested in the tyranny of passion, or the rule of the senses. This is related to what some scholars call the seduction by the fleshpots of consumerism. This seduction, so prevalent in contemporary society, has resulted in an unhealthy desire for things that titillate the senses and that enflame the passions, thus leading to a decline in the desire for things intellectual and moral-ethical, the essence of the humanities.

This tyranny of passion has led to contemporary society’s preoccupation with the celebrity culture, the sponsor-sponsee transactional relationships, the slay queen phenomenon, the transient Facebook and Instagram likes and dislikes; and the concomitant dislike and denigration of everything that does not lead to immediate gratification.

Nevertheless, much as the crisis in the humanities reflects a crisis of humanity more generally, it is arguable that humanities scholars also carry some of the blame for the crisis in their disciplines. There is concern that humanities scholars have shifted their attention away from issues that are the immediate concern of society. Critics note, for instance, that philosophy was once written to teach humanity how to live; now, much of it is written to befuddle and mesmerize fellow philosophers. Poems and paintings were once produced to move the spirit and engage the ordinary person; now, many are produced to repel the many and titillate the few. Literature was once thought to convey deep meaning; now, some think it conveys no meaning at all.

Similarly, literary/scholarly criticism was originally intended to improve either the artist’s/scholar’s product or the general public’s understanding of it; now, criticism has become an end in itself. In other words, the humanities have in the course of history redefined themselves to an extent where they are looked upon as irrelevant by their patrons. There is, therefore, a growing consensus both within and outside the academy that humanities discourse has drifted towards the realm of unintelligibility and has stopped being fun both within and outside the academy mainly because humanities scholars have ended up speaking to one another while completely eschewing engaging society.

Humanities therapy

Additionally, humanities scholars have also allowed themselves to succumb to the tyranny of the neoliberal market dictates. Consequently, they are focused on pursuit of money and as a result they do not conduct research of any meaningful breadth or profundity. They simply aspire to publish enough to land the next promotion.

And even in doing this, they take the shortcuts of publishing with predatory publishers whose modus operandi is ‘pay to publish.’ In view of this, one is not sure whether to sympathize with them as victims of market forces, or to condemn them for abandoning their erstwhile calling of true knowledge production.

How could the humanities be recuperated? There are a number of measures that can help redress the crisis in the humanities. These include harnessing the wealth of knowledge within the humanities for practical social use, reengaging more assertively with the public with a view to reasserting the rule of reason over the tyranny of passion and the greed of markets, projecting to the public the critical value of a humanities education in producing a critical civil society, and reasserting the age-old idea of humanities as therapy especially its expressive or creative arts therapy, among others.

Most importantly, humanities scholars need to engage more with society. A reassertion of humanities therapy in all its expressive trajectories is a critical way for the humanities disciplines to engage with the contemporary world that is increasingly enamored with the world of technology even though the vast majority of humanity are technological immigrants rather than technological natives.

In conclusion, one is wont to ask, are the humanities, and social sciences for that matter, really irrelevant courses not worthy of their place at the university? Should universities exist primarily to serve the labour market?

As I have noted before, universities, as degree granting institutions, were established with the purpose of offering tuition primarily in non-vocational subjects; to train the mind in higher thinking; to comprehensively educate the person for society rather than simply train individuals for the labour market. Universities are charged with four main functions of which instruction in skills is only one.

The other three are the search for truth, the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship, and the promotion of the general powers of the mind in order to produce cultivated individuals rather than mere robots for the labour market. Universities cannot achieve these functions without the power of humanities and social science epistemologies.

Wanjala S. Nasong’o, Professor of International Studies; Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee


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