By Saiorse Walsh
“But what are you going to do with an English degree?” Cue narrowed eyes; probably some poorly masked condescension. Most humanities students will be familiar with this moment in one guise or another.
There is an implicit but increasingly widespread tendency to see humanities degrees as redundant, or at least far transcended by the ‘worth’ of a science or technology-oriented degree. Such misperceived superiority is, however, both unsupported and damaging. The tacit suspicion of Arts and Humanities can be linked to the rapid scientific and technological developments of modern society. These developments are a triumph and credit to humanity, but they have also spurred some less attractive behavioural phenomena.
For one, modern culture is characterised by speed and immediacy. This fixation on efficiency is an almost Darwinian urge, that has transmuted into a sphere where the exclusive focus on productivity has come to evolve its own problems. The attention span of a snake person is, by and large, appallingly diminished. It is now not only possible but customary to consume content at a meteoric rate — we take in a vast amount of information which is, for the most part, purely superficial. Accompanying this absence of depth is the threat of inaccuracy.
The tacit suspicion of Arts and Humanities can be linked to the rapid scientific and technological developments of modern society.
The plethora of sources we consult and encounter has led to an effective crisis of reputability. In our rapid ingestion of information, most of us fail to pause and question the bias or authority of what we see. Modern technology has bred a generation with their heads stuck in ‘the cloud’. We flit and scroll from page to page, from app to app; rarely spending more than a few seconds on any one issue or image.
Ironically, it is perhaps the Arts and Humanities — often designated as ‘escapist’ — that provide the most copious opportunity for us to ‘ground’ ourselves. That is, to pause, to focus and to question things at a deeper level.
More pressingly, the technological age and its efficiency fixation has encouraged a tendency to view human activity through the rigidly polarised lens of practical/ impractical. This both mirrors and informs the idea of an art/science dichotomy. As with any dichotomy, this inevitably involves hierarchy and restriction.
We need to abandon this antagonistic struggle of superiority and stop thinking it is Sciences vs. Humanities. Let’s stop making judgments about the ‘worth’ of one discipline over another. Instead, we need to look at the inherent values of both subjects. We should consider the two disciplines not as competing poles with one bound to dominate, but rather as dynamic fields; complementary, mutually enhancing, and equally essential. To function in society, we need to embrace the distinctive strengths from both the worlds of science and art.
In our rapid ingestion of information, most of us fail to pause and question the bias or authority of what we see.
Once this arbitrary polarising tendency is abandoned, the inherent value of the arts can emerge. Arts and Humanities celebrate the indispensability of creativity as a part of human life. They are not ‘worthwhile’ in the blandly utilitarian sense of the practical advancement we have come to place nearly exclusive emphasis on, but they shape our world in another vital way.
Studying the Humanities prompts a different kind of development — the development of a society and culture at its deeper, most fundamental levels. The ideas and themes explored constitute the very fabric of our culture. Art, as well as science, thereby not only informs but creates our reality; shapes the world. It can express our most pressing dilemmas, telescope the overwhelming nature of our shared human experience and prompt us to better understand ourselves.
There is another point that confirms the need to retain an active interest in arts and humanities. They offer, in their powerful relation to human nature, something that is as permanent as humanity itself. This takes on significance in light of the necessary recognition that the science and technology of our current times is not infallible. If history has taught us anything, it is that our most unshakable beliefs will eventually be tested and destabilised. The currently dominant ‘scientific’ world-view, which goes hand in hand with the denigration of the arts, is highly coherent, impressive and, undoubtedly incredibly useful. But no matter how compelling, it is naive to see the scientific paradigm as unshakeable.
The humanities help us to preserve and develop our attention to detail and clarity of thought.
The humanities can therefore be perceived as ‘practically’ productive in important respects, helping us to preserve and develop our attention to detail and clarity of thought. But beyond this, the humanities carry profound importance in their ability to expand our awareness of how we think and who we are.
In the words of the wonderful Robin Williams: “We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
Photograph: Abhi Sharma via Wikimedia.