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Besieged Humanities, Worldwide

March 7, 2013

DUBAI -- If it's any comfort to humanities professors who feel that their jobs, budgets and disciplines are being threatened, they have colleagues facing the same challenges pretty much all over the world.

That was the consensus of a session here at Going Global, the international education conference of the British Council. A panel of scholars discussed problems that they see for the humanities (and social sciences too), and panelists agreed that the threats faced by humanities departments are quite common around the world. And they worried not only about the cuts, but about the arguments being made about the humanities. In something of a surprise for such discussions, the only optimistic comments came from the dean of a business school.

"The humanities are in quite a dangerous place," said Jo Beall, director of education and society for the British Council and former deputy vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

Beall described going to university websites in Britain and finding the humanities "positioned in very functional or utilitarian terms." She found many references to how students gain from taking humanities courses "because it will help them do well in science and technology." In other cases, departments describe how much employers value the "transferable skills" that one picks up in humanities courses.

While not disagreeing that the humanities can help in those ways, Beall noted that many scholars are "very uncomfortable with this marketing of the humanities" and lament that it is no longer possible to argue for the value of "art for art's sake." Instead, the humanities end up "as co-dependent" to other programs, she said.

Martin Hall, vice chancellor of the University of Salford, which draws many working class students from the Manchester area, said that "universities like mine" are seeing applications shrink for humanities programs, while they increase in STEM or business-related fields. This shouldn't be a surprise, he said. "Our government's message has been about private benefit from the university, about getting a return on your investment, about pushing people to professional subjects."

Mohammad Nizamuddin, vice chancellor of the University of Gujrat, in Pakistan, described an even more challenging situation. He said that students arrive at his institution never having studied the humanities (or much beyond science and technology), so it's very difficult to interest them or teach them in the humanities or social sciences.

He said that that good textbooks don't exist outside the sciences, and that medical schools in the country are behind those elsewhere in failing to include good social science research about public health or human behavior.

Only one speaker offered true optimism about the role of the humanities -- and that was Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, president of IE University, a business-oriented institution in Spain. Iñiguez talked about how he sees a need "to introduce the humanities into all subjects." He said that management, his institution's specialty, "is not about learning specific techniques for becoming a good financial engineer. It's about leading people."

To that end, he said that the business school at IE has added humanities modules to M.B.A. programs, and expects the study of history (as well as other liberal arts disciplines) to be part of a business education.

Taking the idea further, he noted that IE has created its executive M.B.A. program with Brown University (which doesn't have a business school) precisely to play up the role of the liberal arts. That program in fact boasts about a "beyond business curriculum," featuring courses in such subjects as "Shared History of Slavery & Capitalism," and "Psychology for Managers" and "Nonmarket Strategy." He said that "we want the M.B.A. to be a grand tour of the 21st century," and that humanities is central to that goal.

The key, he said, is not just to worry about the humanities programs of the past, but to "take the humanities out from the confines in which it is now and to spread it across the curriculum."

 

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