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Humanities: A Death Story

Philosophy is dead, declared Stephen Hawking in his new book last year. In Mr Hawking’s view, philosophers have been mulling over the same thoughts for centuries, failing to catch up with science.

He is not alone in this stand. The rivalry between the two disciplines is long known, and if we believe novelist C.P. Snow’s declaration at Cambridge in 1959, then we might think that science and humanities are at completely opposite poles.

Unless we consider History and Philosophy of Science, an interdisciplinary subject as old as philosophy that does precisely this: combine humanities and science.

Perhaps the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Dean (FASS), James Donald, had Hawkins and Snow in mind when he decided to cut History and Philosophy of Science from majoring and minoring options two weeks ago.

Perhaps, too, knowing that his staff and students would understand that learning is not a means to an end, he thought it best not to consult them about the cuts.

What do we lose if we lose the humanities of science?

Associate Professor Peter Slezak says HPS explores the great ideas that have existed in the history of Western civilisation.

“HPS provides you analytical thought, insights about the history of ideas, the nature of scientific knowledge and its development, and we are abandoning all these things. As soon as you have to start explaining to people why this is important you know you have lost the battle.”

Professor Slezak ran an public trial of Galileo, which was broadcast as an ABC 1 Compass special last year, called The Trials of Galileo. This program, which turned out to be a success, was an attempt to keep the subject alive.

From a practical vantage point, history and philosophy are important for anybody embarking on a career in science, says New Scientist journalist, Wendy Zukerman.

“I think philosophy is relevant to so many other disciplines, even to the way scientific research is funded. History of Philosophy sets a foundation for how we look at science and categorise it, from biology to chemistry to physics. The more we learn, the more we realise they are integrated.”

A humanities approach to science, she adds, also helps scientists communicate research.

Yet the School of History and Philosophy is not the only one experiencing cuts. The notion that humanities are no longer relevant or conducive to job-finding is neither new, nor exclusive to UNSW.

The idea that universities are somehow supposed to churn out profitable products has become a worldwide phenomenon, if it can be called as such.

Former Associate Professor at Yale University, William Deresiewicz, recently wrote in The Nation: “Knowledge, as we’re constantly told, is a nation’s most important resource, and the great majority of knowledge is created in the academy—now more than ever…It isn’t just the sciences that matter; it is also the social sciences and the humanities.”

And The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a response to the famous column by Thomas H. Benton, titled ‘Graduate School in the Humanities: Just don’t do it’.

At UNSW, the School of Languages and Linguistics suffered especially, with the loss of Russian studies in 2006.

An online petition from the University of Sydney called ‘Save the Russian Department at UNSW’ argued “that Russian language and culture have a significant place in contemporary Australian society…we thus disagree with the possible COMPLETE closure of the Russian Department.”

“We also disagree with the decision NOT to officially inform students, including those who have already chosen Russian Studies as a Major in an Arts Degree.”

But so it goes. Instead the School of Languages now runs a much more profitable, much more vocational option of Russian – English translation.

Professor Slezak says it is part of a top-down managerial climate at universities that implemented very widely, not just at UNSW.

“The worst part is that these things are being run without consultation. Everything is top down and the curricula are being decided without academic staff input.”

Tim Kaliyanda, who recently won a position as President of the SRC, says changes to FASS don’t come up in the biannual Faculty board meetings, but are resolved by the Standing Committee, which excludes student members.

“Students don’t have a voice at grassroots level because they are not involved in the meetings, and don’t have a role in putting things together. A lot of students are keen to get into meetings but they only get called twice a year.”

SRC councillor and Social Sciences undergraduate student, Alex Peck, says program simplification is also affecting politics courses, and the options for majors subjects are reducing from year to year.

“Program simplification looks good at a chancellery level and the faculties have used it as an excuse to cut courses for economic reasons.”

Pro-Vice-Chancellor for students, Joan Cooper, when asked by Alex whether there would be more class cuts, answered that there may be. Unfortunately, Professor Cooper did not respond to this question in time for the issue.

That the humanities do not generate as much money as medicine or engineering is nothing new. But does this make them superfluous? Whatever happened to the prestige of academia?

“If you look at the courses at the postgraduate level at UNSW,” Professor Slezak says, “there are no liberal arts like history, literature, or music.”

Universities, he adds, are of course a business. But “they should not be regarded money-making down to the level of individual courses. The misguided model is that everything has to pay its own way regardless of its intrinsic academic or intellectual value.”

A great professor once told a class full of blank-faced politics students (amongst them, yours truly): It is our duty as parents, and lovers, and friends, to educate our lovers and children and friends. He was speaking in connection to our ignorance about Nobel Prize in Literature winners, not politics.

Education is never in excess, and universities should be the first place to defend ideas. To eliminate the traditional academic disciplines and the great ideas of our culture is, in the words of Professor Slezak, “a tragedy”.