Comment: Calculating the net worth of the humanities

Thousands of delegates to the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences have descended upon the University of Victoria this week from across the country and, indeed, around the world. There could be nothing better for the local economy: eight days of meetings, hundreds of hotel rooms booked, thousands of meals eaten, a plethora of taxis taken.

Are those 7,000 humanists and social scientists good for anything else?

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In this time of budget cuts and bottom lines, of temporary foreign workers, one of the recurring, popular diversions from issues of governmental accountability is the increasingly virulent attack on the liberal arts in the media, typically phrased in the form of the question, “How will studying that get you a job?”

Should these scholars pack up their books, their words, their debates, and apply themselves to something useful, such as welding, dental hygiene or designing bridges?

The humanities represent a fundamental component of a university, a fundamental component of a vital democracy, a fundamental reaffirmation of the value of each and every individual to the totality of the human experience. If we believe that each individual deserves an opportunity to learn, grow, contribute, discover his or her own path to a responsible place in the human community, we inherently recognize the value of the humanities.

If we find the interaction between art and its time — as a critique, comment, reflection, acceptance or denial of ideology — fascinating and necessary, we recognize the beauty of the humanities. If we question the relationship between the past and the future, if we look to that relationship to guide social progress, we recognize the indisputable necessity of history, of philosophy, of religious studies. If we value the power of language to change lives — private and public, individual and international — we realize the value of linguistics, of literature, of film and of drama.

The humanities disciplines understand that each person, as an individual and as a member of thriving communities, represents more than mere data for experimentation to prove or disprove a theory; more than a mere consumer to whom a corporation will market its goods; more than a mere ledger item to be minimized, downsized or economized.

If we value democracy, if we want to live in a society where we can question our leaders and their integrity to govern, we need people who can wield words, arguments, enter debates, measure and test ideas. We need people who are trained to think critically and who are unafraid to speak out. We need the products of the humanities and social sciences, guardians of ideas and wielders of words.

In 1852, John Henry Newman rose to defend the very idea of a university against the charge of inutility. His detractors, he said, insisted that education should be “useful.” They demanded what was the “market worth” of a liberal education, “if it does not at once make this man a lawyer, that an engineer, and that a surgeon; or at least if it does not lead to discoveries in chemistry, astronomy, geology, magnetism, and science of every kind?”

Sound familiar?

Newman’s answer is as valuable today as it was more than 100 years ago: “Society itself requires some other contribution from each individual, besides the particular duties of [a] profession.” In Newman’s view, training the intellect — the training provided by the liberal arts — best enabled people meet that duty.

In 2013, we don’t often talk about social duty. Duty is a word that we utter with a sense of awkwardness, as previous generations might have whispered about sex or divorce.

But we in the humanities believe in the social duty that we owe to our nation and to the globe. We have a duty to speak freely. We have a duty to question. We have a duty to defend right where it is weakest and to unearth wrongdoing where it is most silent and unspoken.

And that duty is best met by people whose minds have been forged by university training in the liberal arts and social sciences — by those who have studied human history, human ideas, human societies and human foibles.

We are the humanities — the humanity that is, unalterably, the foundation upon which, for which, and by which the global community survives.

So bring on the congress. It’s worth more than tourist dollars to our city. It’s worth the world.

Lisa Surridge is a professor of English and Timothy Iles is a professor of Pacific and Asian studies in the faculty of humanities at the University of Victoria.

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