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Opinion - Why humanities hang in balance in digital dispensations

2021-03-05  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Why humanities hang in balance in digital dispensations
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Prof. Jairos Kangira

The inexorable approach of the digital way of doing things in almost everything has sent some shock waves to academics in the humanities disciplines in higher education institutions, as there is literature that points to the imminent demise of these fields of study if care is not taken. The fact that there has been cynicism against the study of humanities seems to worsen their ordeal vis-a-vis natural sciences and technical disciplines that fit in the grand framework of the digital revolutions. 

Some of the questions that have been asked in the denigration of humanities are: Why bother students with studying William Shakespeare’s plays like The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar? What is the significance of studying Sifiso Nyathi’s novel The Other Presence or God of Women? Why do we teach languages like Oshiwambo, Afrikaans and Otjherero when mother-tongue speakers of these languages can effortlessly acquire them and speak them fluently? Is it necessary to study history, visual arts, performing arts, and heritage studies? Why study political science, religion, philosophy and sociology? There are more questions of this nature that have caused angst among scholars in humanities and social sciences who are waging a protracted struggle to have their disciplines prevail in the industrial revolutions. 

If one considers these questions on the surface, one might get the feeling that truly speaking, there is no point in studying say philosophy and literature. There seems to be no tangible benefits of studying these humanities if we compare them with studying pure sciences like physics and chemistry. If given a choice between humanities and sciences, most students would choose the latter, of course, backed by their parents or guardians. 

Our society has socialised people to believe in the superiority of science subjects over humanities to such an extent that spending time studying humanities is viewed as wasting time and resources. In this regard, the future of humanities looks bleak and the argument here is that, if they do not get the support of national and international bodies, we may wake up one day with curricula without humanities and social sciences in our higher education institutions. Education systems have tended to support science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at the detriment of humanities.

This has resulted in a culture where STEM subjects are put forward before others are considered. To illustrate the danger that humanities disciplines are in currently, I refer to Maria Tymoczko who way back in 2001 predicted that “If the university is re-conceptualised as the multiversity, … small fields may be left behind, particularly if the university is restructured as a business and the survival of departments and academic fields is predicated (based) on enrolments and other cost-indexed measures.” Small fields here refer to the endangered disciplines in humanities. As stated before, there appears to be no incentives at all in the teaching of languages, literature, cultures and heritage studies and other humanities in the new dispensation in higher education institutions. Research work in these and other humanities is trivialized and taken for granted and treated as cheap quality research. It is not an understatement that people who had PhDs in languages and literature, for example, are despised as having conducted research of no consequence or magnitude. The stigma associated with languages, literature and cultural studies, in general, have resulted in increasingly dwindling numbers of students enrolling for these disciplines. It is not uncommon to find only three or four students registering for a language programme. This has bolstered the misguided belief that humanities disciplines have no significant roles to play in society, much to the chagrin and disappointment of scholars in these fields. 

As I see it, if the situation is not arrested in one way or the other, there are clear indications that humanities fields are going to be annihilated or forced out of higher education curricula in the near future. As this is most likely to happen, scholars in humanities will lose their jobs in higher education institutions. It is likely to begin with scaling down on university programmes by stopping to offer the not so viable programmes which fall most of which are incidentally in the humanities. Some scholars have argued that even if digital humanities are introduced, the difference is the same in the sense that it is just the use of computing and technologies on disciplines that have already been condemned as unviable. Some scholars have asked what difference will that make, when the relevance of these disciplines is questioned, whether digitalized or not. 

But, as Portia as judge says in The Merchant of Venice, tarry a little, and consider these situations. We read newspapers like the New Era, and The Namibian and others. We watch NBC and One Africa programmes in the comfort of our homes. It is because of trained journalists and other media personnel that we read newspapers, watch TV programmes, and listen to radio programmes. Journalists get their training in media studies in humanities. Our national museums and galleries preserve our heritage for future generations to understand our cultures, our histories and our struggles – our happy moments, and our trials and tribulations. Curators and other staff who work in the museums and galleries get their training in humanities. Contemporary art pictures hanging on the walls of our homes and offices – these are works of the visual artist. I could go on giving examples of the wonderful work humanities have produced for society, showing how important and relevant humanities disciplines are in society.

In conclusion, I suggest the #Humanities Disciplines Matter campaign. The digital age should not be allowed to destroy our languages, our literature and our cultures.

2021-03-05  Staff Reporter

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