Humanities bedevilled by affinity to dated ideas

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IN THE wake of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a small contingent of health workers and scientists has been on the front lines of fighting the disease in laboratories, hospitals and makeshift World Health Organisation care centres in under-resourced villages and towns. The commitment of front-line health workers demonstrates that courage, compassion and social sensitivity are core traits for highly skilled science professionals.

This humbled me as a humanities scholar because, historically, we have explicitly identified our disciplines, such as history, sociology and literature, as being at the forefront of ethically minded, socially
transformative scholarship. This was particularly the case in the '70s and '80s at the height of anticolonial and countercultural struggles, when radical scholars became a kind of intellectual vanguard that shaped ideas of freedom and human dignity.

In spite of this illustrious past, in the past two decades, debates have emerged on the value and relevance of the humanities to South Africa's 21st-century development. There was a sense that the state was skewing research funding towards a corporatised conception of innovation by favouring science, technology, engineering and management.

Scholars said that universities were under pressure to submit to market-driven ideologies that saw a rise in managerialism and performance management systems, whose aims directly opposed the ethos and purpose of public scholarship. Academics were being turned into consultants, or lost to higher salaries in the government and the private sector. Students were also seen to be persuaded by this market triumphalism to define the usefulness of a degree through narrow ideas of employability; humanities thus fell out of favour, with a decline in enrolments from 273,000 to 215,000 between 1996 and 2008.

Over the past few years, leading humanities academics have been formulating a response to this decline. The outcome was a nuanced and visionary Charter for the Humanities and Social Sciences published in 2011. Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, a sociologist himself, said in the report that "the humanities and social sciences in the post-1994 period are playing a less prominent role in public discourse than they did during the late apartheid period. They seem also to play a less prominent role in the lives of students, in guiding their thinking about the crucial issues that face

The charter envisaged an education system in which the humanities played their intellectual role alongside science, producing students as adept with the scientific method as with literary analysis. This future student would have a strong sense of their intellectual lineage, drawing from Mapungubwe to Greece, as at ease with Descartes as with Achebe.

Powerful as it is, the charter does not go far enough to scrutinise the internal dynamics that have led to stagnation in the humanities. Anti-intellectualism is rife and the traditionally radical left is as guilty of presenting political orthodoxy as scholarship. There continues, for example, to be a conceptual affinity for dated notions of "the revolutionary", "people's power", "mass mobilising" and "grassroots
struggles", even though everything about the post-Cold War world tells us that mass-based politics is fragmented, gravely weak and in retreat. We continue to speak about US imperialism even though our students are growing up in a world where the rise of China has shifted international relations for Africa. We warn our students about the predations of financial capital while our own pension funds are being managed by the investment funds we criticise.

Thus, while the humanities have a deep critical tradition, this tradition is no longer sufficient to grapple with today's social and economic complexity.The humanities need to confront their own limitations and to continuously borrow from the sciences and other fields to forge new frontiers of knowledge.

Right now, we should at least acknowledge and respect the activist scholarship of our peers in the West African medical community; while we theorise in our offices, they are at the helm of rolling back Ebola, and are paying with their lives.

Article by: Nomalanga Mkhize

Article source: Business Day Live