Why the humanities matter

I have just returned from the Read My World Writers Festival in Amsterdam, where I felt somewhat out of place in the company of so many outstanding novelists, poets and artists - me being the odd one out, the badly dressed academic hobbling about on his walking stick.

Yet it was an important event in so many ways, not least for the simple reason that it brought together European and South-east Asian writers to discuss the pressing issues of the present, ranging from migration to violence to political change and the uncertain future that humanity faces today.

It was clear to all that the issues that impact upon us now are humanity's common lot - be it the threat of war or the very present problem of cross-border pollution and the degradation of the planet.

The illusion of a safe space, a private comfort zone, where one could insulate oneself from the horrors of the world is long gone.

Yet what seems to be missing is the vocabulary that captures the anxieties and challenges of today in a manner that brings the problems we face into close, meaningful focus.

I was struck by this during one of the longer panel discussions I took part in, which looked at the tragedy of the human conflict in Syria, and which addressed the manner in which nations and regions today no longer have a conception of a wider humanity that we all share and where human beings can simply be seen as that, and not as "refugees", "boat people" or, worse of all, a "security problem".


It seems astounding that at a time when almost all of the problems that the human race faces today are the result of human agency - from wars to the destruction of the environment to climate change and transnational radicalism and crime - that states and the market have turned away from the humanities.

In some countries, disciplines like political science have been abandoned altogether on the grounds that it has "no scientific basis"; while in others, entire departments and schools of humanities have been shut down on the grounds that disciplines like history, politics, sociology, anthropology and the arts bring no value to the economy and add little to the net worth of the nation-state.

The humanities have been depreciated worldwide, and art is seen by some as decorative and functional instead, things you see hanging in the lobby of a dentist's office and forget almost immediately.

It would be naive to think that our understanding of the world around us could be improved in any way by adopting a non-humanist perspective of the world, as if problems such as wars and migration can be explained away, or predicted reliably, through a set of statistics or algorithms.

Yet this is the irony of the age we live in, where the market-technocratic approach has superseded all other vocabularies, and where human beings and human lives have been ranked, classified and appropriated according to market-determined calculations of worth and productivity.

Hence, it was doubly ironic for me to be part of a panel discussing the politics of human migration, for it was painfully obvious to all concerned that those of us who spoke were in the capacity to do so as we were already configured - in positive terms - as productive units of human capital who were worthy of travel.

Yet this calculating mindset permeates our societies at all levels, impacting on academia as well, where teaching is less and less seen as a vocation or a commitment of love for knowledge, but more as a commercial transaction between "knowledge providers" and "knowledge consumers" - with the underlying assumption that the "consumers" will all be entitled to a degree or diploma at the end of their studies as they had, after all, paid for it.

Such an approach, when taken to its most illogical extreme, distorts the teaching process altogether and demeans the work of teachers, for it fails to take into account that teaching is a more personal and holistic process, and that knowledge production occurs in the public domain, where failure and misunderstandings are also part of learning.

Indeed, it could be argued that from an academic's point of view, the lessons learnt from failure may well be as important as learning itself.

Pessimistic as my world view may be, here is where academia and art can come together, to re-inject the human element in our relationship with others and the world at large, and to inform and colour our understanding of it.

For wars are not the result of drones accidentally flying off and blasting buildings to smithereens, and environmental degradation never happens because forests decide to spontaneously combust on their own accord. In all these instances - be they cases of human conflict or instances of great human achievements in the sciences and arts - it is the human subject that is at the centre of the stage of history.


Artists and academics can write and theorise about the human condition, and we may do so by foregrounding the human or relegating it to the background.

In the film Saving Private Ryan, there is the heartbreaking scene where a mother receives news about the death of three of her sons at the same time, bringing to the audience the reality of war.

(In my opinion, that is the only way one can and should depict the reality of war - not with glitzy images of fancy war machines, but with images of pain and burial of the dead, for that is the true human cost of war.)

As artists and knowledge producers, it is vital that those of us in the humanities bring to the centre the human once again, humanising our sciences and the attendant knowledge that accompany modern life today.

The conflict in Syria or the flight of the Rohingyas are not instances of "natural disasters", but are human-made crises that call for an analysis of the human-determined processes involved, and an accounting for those who were responsible for it.

In the face of the very real challenges to come in the decade ahead - where the wars of the future will be fought for the most basic of resources necessary for human survival: space, water, sand - we desperately need to step beyond the zero-sum logic of International Theory calculations, and to emphasise the inter- connected nature of societies that have coexisted for centuries before.

The most common rebuke of the humanities is that they do not offer simple solutions to the problems we face, but that would be mistaking the role of the humanities in academia or even art.

For the humanities are there to reflect, as accurately as possible, the complexities of life as it already is, and do not seek out complexities that do not exist.

If that in turn means that the work of artists and academics render hollow the attempts by demagogues or securocrats to render the world simpler via a binary logic of "us against them", then that may well be a good thing.

For the world was never simple in the first place, and in many instances, attempts to render the world simple - through the divisive language of "in group" versus "out group" - have been the problem to begin with.

So if we are genuinely concerned about the state of the world today, and fearful for our children's future, it might be high time for us to allow the academics, writers, artists and media practitioners to do their work unfettered by the narrow language of the market or the singular exclusive state.

With the advances we have made in our global communications architecture, we are in a better state today to bring about a re-evaluation of our common humanity and to re-inject the value of humanity in the world that is rapidly changing around us.

That vocabulary has been sidelined of late, thanks to the dominance of one particular market-mindset that has reduced all of us to units of labour or consumption, but at the cost of our human worth and our common human bonds.

And if such a human and humane vocabulary is not presently at hand, then we - academics and artists alike - better begin finding one, and finding it soon.


The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

This article was first published on October 20, 2015.
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