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What does the Future hold for Ph.D.s in the Humanities? What does the Future hold for Ph.D.s in the Humanities?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-12-01 10:04:56
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“… a PhD does not warrant that the candidate is broad thinker across domains (necessary in public administration), or creative (management and innovation gurus would espouse that this is an ideal management trait). In actual fact the PhD could be considered as being the antithesis of creativity, teaching candidates that methodical rigidity is the way to get things done. It's a rigid process which takes out most opportunities for any candidate to demonstrate practical creativity.”
                                                                              --Murray Hunter

The above quote is from an article which appeared in Ovi magazine on the 24th of November 2014 with the title Debunking the value of a Ph.D. One must assume that the good professor is out to debunk all Ph.D.s in whatever field of knowledge, which would include not only the humanities and liberal arts but also  scientific or technological fields. As per the quote above the rationalization for doing so is to ensure that those who study those fields of knowledge remain “broad thinkers across domains” with “practical creativity” unencumbered by the “methodical rigidity” that the obtaining of a Ph.D. allegedly engenders.

I also assume that the good professor’s domain is not the humanities or the Liberal Arts. He himself  acknowledges that much when he confesses to the readers that he wants to obtain a Ph.D. in Divinity in his golden years once he has finally retired from academia and he no longer needs the practical knowledge that has served him so well thus far. In fact, as per quote above, he would logically end up pursuing a useless and unnecessary knowledge of a humanistic subject by obtaining a Ph.D. in it, which will paradoxically and invariably make him rigid and unpractical. At that point it will not matter any longer. The implication obviously is that at that stage he will no longer need practical studies and can dedicate himself to useless unpractical knowledge as that afforded by Divinity or perhaps philosophy.  I don’t see how else one can interpret his debunking, despite that at face value he is debunking all Ph.D.s in any field. But the more I look at the quote above the more I suspect that it may have to do with a bias that has less to do with Ph.D.s and their practical or impractical use and more to do with useless subjects such as the humanities or liberal arts, a bias the good professor intends to remedy on his retirement by obtaining a Ph.D. in Divinity. This is laudable of course, for as the saying goes: better late…

I must have written at least a dozen articles in Ovi magazine on the importance and the relevancy of the Humanities and the Liberal Arts for the survival of a civilization intent on suicide. Just to mention two, almost at random: “Revisiting C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures” at  http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/9533 and “Musings on Liberal Arts Education within Modernity” at http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/7244 . So there is no need here to rehash what’s already been previously written. What I wish to list here are the reasons why the humanities and the Liberal Arts remain as crucially important for the survival civilization and indeed of the whole of humankind. Also, how misguided is the positivistic approach to the apprehension of reality, alive and well since the 19th century.

I would forcefully argue that the 21st century needs high quality humanities research and teaching more than ever. The need has to do with the undergraduate education of tens of thousands of young students each year. It also has to do with how the kinds of knowledge borne of the humanities can contribute to clearer, more historically informed, and more ethical understandings of problems that face modern society.

Those of a positivistic mind-set continue to maintain that the sciences have far more to offer than have disciplines such as ancient languages, history, literary studies, art history, political science, or philosophy, especially to a world facing global warming, shortages of food and water, and unequal access to resources and opportunities. To the contrary, I would argue that the humanities foster understanding across lines of national, ethnic, racial, and gender difference, which is an urgent requirement in an increasingly global world. To take one central example, critical humanities work has been foundational for the advances made by women over at least the past sixty years. The humanities make it possible to address—critically and historically—first-order questions about value, justice, ethical practice, and the principles of human dignity that must guide policy decisions and technological development and implementation.

In more immediate terms, there are those who would argue that Economics, Management, and Engineering are the kinds of majors that ensure students their first job and a jumpstart on a successful career. I would argue that the careers of the future call for people who can think both deeply and flexibly, write persuasively, and question productively.   Employers want universities to teach students the so-called “soft skills”—abilities to communicate, collaborate, problem-solve, and so on. A recent US survey found that employers rated communication and problem-solving skills ahead of a range of kinds of technical training.

In general, the disciplines of the humanities differ from the scientific disciplines because they share a focus on what people do and have done with the world and with each other and how they make and have made the world meaningful. The “why” has a priority over the “how.” One deals with the meaning of life of with the Socratic injunction that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” the other deals with the solution of practical problems independent of the meaning of it all. The former puts emphasis on creativity and imagination, the latter puts the emphasis on knowing how things function and more often than not on mere bottom line profits, unconcerned with ethical issues of value and the environment.

The humanities differ from the Social Sciences in large measure because they do not focus on human actions and creations as if they could be analyzed or calculated with complete objectivity—seen from the outside as if we could stand quite apart from the actions and creations we study. Humanities knowledge is fundamentally dialogical. The human being can be understood but not explained like a mechanical machine.

Humanities scholarship is well described as reading. Humanities researchers pay attention to objects of study in fine-grained detail. They think of objects of study as able to be drawn together, at least in principle, into an overall pattern or a coherent story. They develop accounts of cultural and political life that are mindful of history and are themselves oriented toward futurity—aware, that is, that knowledge is not definitive but is something always being made and therefore always open to critique. They treat what they study as able to speak back to them and therefore as a conversation partner rather than as mere object or raw data. Also, because humanities research is dialogical through and through, earlier studies are not, in principle, to be discarded; rather, earlier work remains active within what develops into widening dialogical work toward a deepened understanding of culture, society, and the political world. Further, we contend that the humanities sustain people across their lifetimes, regenerating their willingness to ask questions, critique answers, pursue the pleasures and insights of a text, an image, or the sounds of a sonata; the humanities nurture the senses and the intellectual flexibility to imagine alternative futures. This is not to claim the superiority of the humanities over the sciences or the Social Sciences. What is being argued here is rather that all are necessary for the advancement and flourishing of people in the 21st century. To summarize the value of the often unappreciated value of the humanities is five- fold:

1. The humanities cultivate the capacity to think and imagine across national, religious, linguistic, ethic, racial, gender, sexual, and cultural differences;

2. The humanities enable a complex understanding of the present based on a knowledge of the past and a future-oriented awareness that knowledge is never something already made but rather something always in the making, earned by hard work, our own and the efforts of others;

3. The humanities foster dialogical capacities to analyze and understand the products and actions of the human world (as opposed to the natural world)—ideas, the social and political life of discursive practices, works of art and literature, political movements, and historical events;

4. The humanities develop a critical, historical, and case-based understanding of value that helps us determine why we should undertake certain courses of action in preference to others and why we should keep assaying the consequences of past events, formations, policies, and imaginings;

5. The humanities create new worlds of ideas, art, and practice that are beautiful, pleasurable, and rewarding in themselves—able to nourish individuals and communities over time and also productive of alternative frames through which to understand the present and imagine different futures.

In addition to these core attributes, the humanities are valuable for modern society because they emphasize high-level research, interpretive, and communication skills. They teach reading of all kinds—deep reading of single texts and digitally enabled reading of hundreds of thousands of texts, reading on stone, paper, and screen, and reading of fragment, image, and map. They demand careful reasoning and the analytical ability to account for the whole and the part. They foster the powers of imagination. They nurture the capacity to write and speak persuasively and informatively to different readerships and audiences. These are high-order skills that foster intellectual agility and effectiveness. At their best, they are skills that enable people to interpret the lessons of the past for the benefit of present and future generations, to understand other languages and cultures, to create new knowledge not only in fields of specialization but also across disciplines, to deal insightfully with questions in different fields of work, and to teach others high-order research, analytical, creative, and argumentative skills.

I submit that If all those intellectual gifts of the humanities are seriously considered, then there will be no need to debunk their intrinsic value vis a vis the sciences. Nobody denies that there are abuses to be corrected in academia, not excluding Ph.D. programs, but as Thomas Aquinas well taught us “the abuse does not take away the use.” Indeed the humanities are like the canary in the mine: when they die, so will our humanity.

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