It is high time for the Humanities and Liberal Arts to stand up and assert their value, to resist the bankrupting and monetization of Western societies. European and North American governments have long entertained the short-sighted notion that “job-friendly” disciplines ought to receive more encouragement and more funding. This has recently hit a renewed pitch in the US. Given the recent, flagrant resurgences of barbarism amongst our countries, it is time to say the answer is more humanity, not less.
First, the fallacy of the so-called STEM argument. This argument is the idea that somehow technology is in itself a money-maker, and therefore has more value than other pursuits. This argument confuses quantifiability with value. It also ignores that without content, values, or purpose, technology on its own is barren. This statement is not to knock the physical sciences in any way; the disciplined study of the material world is important. But these disciplines ought to be pursued for their own sake, and not for the imagined bling they can bring to the economy. Moreover, this focus on monetization is based on an economic paradigm assuming endless “growth,” something that any person with half a brain can see is impossible. Even capitalist economists will admit that unfettered growth merely leads to greater cycles of bust to correspond with the so-called growth. We need to focus on sustainability, not on growth. This means the entire foundation for the STEM-priority argument is merely sand.
Second, the narrative being spun is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It claims that only certain fields are profitable, and discourages creative ways of seeing the benefits of the others. This feeds prejudices of employers and politicians, resulting in the predicted difficulties. (Incidentally, it is also based often on an out-dated model of western industry–as if large scale manufacturing jobs are ever going to return, despite technology superseding them). Indeed, this sort of penalizing is built into a system that treats education like a business in the first place, and allows (at least in the US) students to rack up huge debts to the profits of a few administrators and debt-collectors.
Third, and more importantly, the current crises in Europe and North America–refugees and racism, economic inequality–are both symptomatic of a lack of knowledge that is amply available from within the liberal arts tradition. Migration? We’ve seen it before. War? we’ve seen it before. Racism? we’ve seen it before. Robber Barons? All of these problems have been debated and dealt with before, leaving a rich legacy in literature, in philosophy, and in history–subjects the STEM prophets think are “impractical.” Far from being a luxurious frivolity, a solid foundation in the various liberal arts is the very basis for a liberal, tolerant, and democratic society–something we all supposedly desire. This is something much more valuable than the ability to form a start-up. It is a question of in what sort of society we wish to live. If we want to live together as humans this is a necessity.
What is the rhetoric of a demagogue like Trump, but a lack of engagement with the history of the early 20th century and the surrounding political, philosophical, and moral problems it raises? The parallels have frequently been drawn, but the press and the populace are more concerned with questions of cash. What is the mass hysteria over immigration but a deep amnesia over both its previous occurrences and its current causes, and a lack of imagination for potential solutions?
It is time for the Humanities to make this case, loudly, repeatedly, publicly. Beyond the foundational importance of the humanities, beyond the issues of quality of life the arts provide, beyond the political implications of a humanistic electorate, we need to trumpet a cultural value shift from money to human values per se. Like many, if not most things, worth pursuing, the pursuit of the arts and the humanities for their own sake will produce the sorts of ancillary benefits the STEM-demagogues demand. Further, a culture that values critical and humanistic thinking will also be a culture that hires and rewards people who study them, and one that can find creative, humanistic solutions to the problems of our contemporary societies.