Humanities key to our republic

24 October 2010 - 02:00 By Peter Vale

Pretoria's jacarandas are just off their best. As locals know, the resulting purple carpet heralds the end of northern Gauteng's all-too-brief spring.

This year, however, there may be another spring in the Pretoria air; the possible recovery of the humanities in the country's intellectual life.

Two events - a closed policy dialogue held at the Department of Science and Technology last Thursday, and next week's first flight of a report on the humanities from the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf) - are hopeful signs that South Africa may be willing once again to take the humanities seriously. The humanities involve literature, languages, philosophy - generally, the development of critical thinking rather than training for specific jobs.

These hopes were buoyed by the appointment, a fortnight ago, of a Reference Group on the Humanities by the minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande. The group, which is headed by Ari Sitas, a sociologist with the University of Cape Town, is scheduled to make recommendations to the minister early in the new year.

These spring blossoms - if you like - follow upon the initiation of two interesting new initiatives in the humanities in Cape Town.

The first was the founding two years ago of a Centre for the Humanities at the University of the Western Cape and the launch, over the past fortnight, of Huma - the Institute for the Humanities in Africa, at UCT.

Both projects have brought luminaries in the humanities to these shores, visitors who have offered an interesting international comparison. South Africa's tradition of critical inquiry in the humanities is better, they hold, than what is on offer in other countries. Certainly, the level of robust debates on campuses, initiated from within the humanities, is stronger than those elsewhere.

But this is no comfort to South African scholars who fondly remember the role the humanities played in university and national life in the '70s and '80s. And, more importantly, who have witnessed a fall-off in support for the humanities these 15 years past.

This, incidentally, is not only a local pathology: in Europe and the US, the humanities are also under siege, although, interestingly, in India, scholarship and interest in the humanities is flourishing.

The reason for the failing interest is easy to explain. Public discourse and government policy have turned away from supporting the humanities and towards science and technology. Indeed, SA's national research plan is based on the notion that innovation - driven by the so-called hard sciences - is good for economic growth.

In this particular framing, the usefulness of the humanities and some of the social sciences have been found wanting.

So, and this is the real test, student enrolments in disciplines like history, philosophy and sociology have fallen off.

By contrast, student enrolments at the applied end of the humanities - in disciplines like communication studies, public administration and law - have been on the rise.

This switch is readily explained by the urgency attached in everyday conversation to the power of market forces.

Understandably, when faced with this, parents (and university recruiters) are inclined to encourage the young to study something that will get them a job.

But the evidence for this is not as clear-cut as we are encouraged to believe. Clearly, not all the successes of the global entertainment business can be attributed to graduates in accounting and business. And, closer to home, the explosion in Afrikaans cultural production - festivals, DVDs and books - has created an untold number of jobs.

Still, Nzimande's reference group and the Assaf study, which has been under way for several years, have a formidable task on their hands. The idea that the humanities are a worthless pursuit has deep roots.

Teachers are replete with stories of how parents of children gifted in the languages and the arts insist their young are given extra lessons in maths or accounting.

The logic that training in the humanities closes down rather than opens up career opportunities is curious.

This is because it ignores the fact that one of the key purposes of the humanities is to educate for life, rather than simply train for a job. This point is well illustrated in the career paths of very successful people.

Let two examples illustrate this point. Bobby Godsell, who was CEO of AngloGold, studied sociology, not business or engineering, as an undergraduate at the University of Natal.

He remains, of course, one of South Africa's foremost citizens and, not surprisingly, is a champion of the value of training in the humanities.

Godsell's enthusiasm for the humanities is confirmed by evidence from the US and elsewhere. Education other than the humanities is undoubtedly more valuable in earlier career years but after the fifth (or so) year, employees trained in the humanities outstrip their peers. This seems to be confirmed by the second example. Pretoria-schooled Gail Kelly took a degree in history and Latin at UCT: today she heads the biggest bank in Australia!

In addition, Assaf's study on South Africa's graduates, suggests that levels of job (and career) satisfaction are much higher in humanities than they are in graduates from other disciplines.

But, to be frank, the humanities are much too important to be left to academic research and the training of students. This is because they not only enrich our lives culturally, but their critical edges are essential for the life - and, indeed, the success - of every democracy.

To put this point bluntly: without a questioning culture there can be no democracy. This principle has been at the very centre of the debate on press freedom which has raged in the country the past two months.

Reading signals from within the arcane world of policy making is far more difficult that predicting Gauteng's famous thunderstorms. So, although the signs around the recovery of the humanities in South Africa look promising this early summer, ensuring the success of these new initiative and the durability of the humanities will only be judged when Pretoria's jacarandas blossom again.

  • Vale is a fellow of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study and professor-designate in the humanities at the University of Johannesburg. With Jonathan Jansen, he chairs the Assaf Academy Consensus Panel on the humanities.