Sunday, August 25, 2013

Humanities, Arts, Critical Thinking? There's an App for That

Image Source: S. Gross via Living Life Forward.

It has become popular to label the arts and humanities as useless subjects whose graduates will never find jobs and will become a burden on society. In an arrogant and wrong-headed article, The New Republic blamed non-science specialists for the decline of their own disciplines, asserting that they display a "philistine indifference to science," and a dated devotion to dead end Postmodernism:
The humanities are the domain in which the intrusion of science has produced the strongest recoil. Yet it is just that domain that would seem to be most in need of an infusion of new ideas. By most accounts, the humanities are in trouble. University programs are downsizing, the next generation of scholars is un- or underemployed, morale is sinking, students are staying away in droves. No thinking person should be indifferent to our society’s disinvestment from the humanities, which are indispensable to a civilized democracy.
Diagnoses of the malaise of the humanities rightly point to anti-intellectual trends in our culture and to the commercialization of our universities. But an honest appraisal would have to acknowledge that some of the damage is self-inflicted. The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.
The article also suggested that scientific principles should be applied to the humanities in order to help humanities specialists learn how to find 'real' and 'objective' truths in human affairs:
History nerds can adduce examples that support either answer, but that does not mean the questions are irresolvable. Political events are buffeted by many forces, so it’s possible that a given force is potent in general but submerged in a particular instance. With the advent of data science—the analysis of large, open-access data sets of numbers or text—signals can be extracted from the noise and debates in history and political science resolved more objectively
Right, that's just what we need: to equate algorithms with keys to objective truth and to associate Big Data crunching with solutions to human problems. One could just as easily suggest that Big Data crunching is a source of many human problems.

Calls to remove humanities include the arts and liberal arts, although the arts are deemed so insignificant as to be mentioned only rarely by pundits indulging this anti-cultural trend. One glance at the number of articles at the bottom of this post suggests that perhaps this is more than a trend - it is a new movement.

These calls are coming from both sides of the political fence, along with people working in two sectors: high tech and finance. These two sectors are presently climbing to a pinnacle of power. Yet they arguably were the source of much distress over the past few years. They, along with their political guardians, have failed in their core assumptions about economic productivity, while focusing overly on marketing and consumption. And that is only the start of what is wrong with them. As the failures of these sectors have become more obvious, their commentators have gone on the offensive against the only preserves in society which offer any genuine alternative voice. What they cannot commandeer, they attack.

The frightening message to young students is, "Join the technocracy, or starve." If you can't be an engineer, a technocrat, a financial drone, or a marketer, what good are you? An article from Forbes on the 10 "least valuable" degrees reads like a checklist for building an unhealthy, plugged in, spiritually impoverished and blindly unconscious police state, with no connection to the past, no understanding of cultural context, and no way of recognizing or combating political oppression. The 10 "worst" college majors listed are:  (1) Anthropology and Archaeology; (2) Film, Video and Photographic Arts; (3) Fine Arts; (4) Philosophy and Religious Studies; (5) Liberal Arts; (6) Music; (7) Physical Fitness and Parks Recreation; (8) Commercial Art and Graphic Design; (9) History; (10) English Language and Literature.

This is a serious attack on arts and humanities disciplines. This is not about the so-called realities of economics. It is not about common sense. It is not about what is wrong with teaching in the arts and humanities. It is not even about the fact that the arts and humanities supposedly cultivate navel-gazing, lazy hipsters.

This trend against the arts and humanities is a vanguard bid for control of the establishment, from two sectors which (given their records so far) do not deserve even to make a bid for control at all. It is a battle for the right to communicate, to broadcast dominant social messages and to shape cultural values. It is a battle over the immense profits to be won through technologically-driven social control. It stems (no pun intended) from a larger awareness that politics, government and the economy are on the verge of massive transformation via technological advancements. Normally, the humanities would dominate this transformation because the change is occurring in the area of communications. Instead, people who work in these areas are being devalued, ignored, criminalized. The move to channel undergraduates away from these subjects reveals a need to diminish the numbers of those who understand particular branches of knowledge. It would be foolish and dangerous to see this as simple philistinism.

In the wake of the Great Recession and with the slow birth of a surveillance state, suddenly there are calls for the erasure of subjects which foster critical thinking of human behaviour, and meaningful understanding of grey areas in human affairs? Because they don't pay in the current economy? Well, what does pay in the current economy? Superhighways through archaeological sites and virgin rain forests? Global contracts to build nuclear power plants, based on faulty engineering? Construction bubbles in China which have built gigantic, empty cities? Giant dams to control water resources for one country at the expense of security in an entire region? Facial recognition software which puts the 'face' into Facebook? Where is the common sense in any of these projects? The argument against the arts and humanities reflects the consolidation of power away from, and isolating attack upon, any part of global culture that has not already been safely packaged, industrialized, appropriated and monopolized in the service of the fledgeling technocracy.

Anti-humanities pundits argue that humanities specialists only have themselves to blame. The latter don't deliver value for money. They are mired in Postmodernism. They are politically skewed. They dispensed with standards. Nitty gritty problems in the humanities and arts fields are being used by critics to obscure much larger developments here: a failed economy and an incipient surveillance society. The Great Recession did not transpire because there are Philosophy majors in the world. If anything, we need more Philosophy majors: it would be nice if we still had people around who could distinguish fact from fiction in the Information Age.
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