By Robyn Schnell, Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria
Since the 1990s, people have turned away from the humanities and focused on science, technology, and innovation to aid economic development and growth. There is also a strong public perception that a humanities degree limits a student’s career and employment opportunities.
But what role do the humanities play in our development?
The disciplines that make up the humanities are often misconceived. Images of starving artists, graduate students packing groceries or working as waitrons, are hard to debunk. But the humanities include a variety of disciplines that study and explore what it means to be human—our behaviour, our culture, and our society.
These include disciplines such as linguistics, literature, philosophy, and social sciences including history, social work, law, criminology, anthropology and, at the University of Pretoria, programmes that teach scarce skills such as speech-language pathology and audiology to name a few.
In 2011, the Academy of Science for South Africa (ASSAf) published the report, Consensus Study on the State of the humanities in South Africa: Status, Prospects and Strategies. This report stated that the humanities are experiencing a crisis characterised by:
- fewer students enrolling in humanities courses;
- declining government funding for humanities students; and
- higher undergraduate dropout rates
Humanities still have a crucial role to play in a developing South Africa
Despite this crisis, the humanities still have a crucial role to play in a developing South Africa and her society. Unlike other faculties, the humanities provide a fundamental ‘human factor.’ Since the humanities help us understand what it means to be human, these courses determine how we discuss social issues that affect all aspects of our lives.
Although disciplines that focus on science and technology enhance economic growth and development, such disciplines and their solutions also create unintended problems such as poverty, inequality, and unemployment. The humanities and the human factor they provide are key to combatting such problems; the critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills we teach are fundamental.
The humanities also play a crucial role within academia and higher education. Many humanities disciplines focus on complex and abstract ideas—a crucial component of creative and critical thinking. The humanities teach students to think beyond the realm of the conventional and creatively solve problems, a valuable skill that is often overlooked by other faculties and disciplines. These are the skills that today’s employers want to develop. These are the skills those who have studied in the humanities practise.
In South Africa, specifically, the humanities play an essential role when discussing and questioning the legacy of the apartheid system and its influence on the present. The past must be considered when attempting to understand the present and the future.
As humanists, we examine problems of the past and trace their influence on today’s societal struggles. Professor Premesh Lalu, former director of the DSI-NRI Flagship on Critical Thought in African Humanities of the Centre for Humanities Research, said, ‘We need to question how the arts and humanities can enable a more meaningful and enduring practice of freedom.’
Clearly, the humanities play a critical role in developing our country.
Humanities are critical as we move towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution
In addition to its valuable role in academia and higher education, the humanities are critical as we move towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Since students from all faculties and disciplines need to understand how humans interact with technology, the humanities will become more relevant and necessary than ever.
In addition, the humanities are becoming increasingly important when attempting to mitigate the growing social inequality this new revolution will create. This is achieved using the humanities to inform policies on various social issues, such as gender and race. Advances in technology result in the growth of issues such as social inequality, poverty, and unemployment, all of which would contribute to the demise of our democratic society. Social problems such as these require skills of the humanities to solve.
Although the humanities have faced a crisis in South Africa over the past decade, their role has remained important, and they are more relevant than ever. Without the humanities, society will cease to exist.