In Defence of the Humanities

06/07/2013 12:15 EDT | Updated 08/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Currently, the University of Victoria is hosting the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the largest annual gathering of academic associations in Canada.

Now, as a disclaimer, I am not formally participating in Congress, although I am a graduate student in a humanities department at the University of Victoria. As well, many of my colleagues are involved, presenting papers at conferences or participating in discussion panels, for instance. And all of us are revelling in the slew of fun and hectic activity that has graced our campus with the temporary influx of over 7,000 academics visiting for a week.

All in all, as the week draws to a close, it has been a blast. I heard Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders give a brilliant talk on his new book The Myth of the Muslim Tide; I exposed myself to dozens of on-campus and Twitter conversations about the relationship between the technologies in video gaming and literature as a technology within the emerging field of digital humanities; and I learned about the interesting world of educational studies in civil engineering (yes, Congress is that interdisciplinary).

But the outside reaction has not been all that positive. My exposure to such criticism culminated innocuously enough: the online comment board to a National Postarticle about one particular Congress participant's research. The research proposed that the use of animals in "young children's media reproduces and confirms racist, colonial, consumerist, heteronormative, and patriarchal norms." The responses were abundantly vitriolic, ranging from accusations that Congress is a waste of time, that the humanities and social sciences are bleeding precious research funding from other disciplines, to personal insults against the paper's author.

I will concede that I am tempted to disagree with this particular paper (I have too strong of a romanticized relationship with popular culture to let "discourse analysis," if we are to arbitrarily give it a name, ruin my love for Winnie the Pooh), but that is neither here nor there -- I have not read it and I did not attend the presentation on it. My background is in cultural studies, so I do sympathize with the author's apparent rationale. And from what I can glean, the paper does articulate a researched and accessible argument, whether you agree with it or not, an argument which has also sparked debate, so we might even want to consider it a success on those grounds.

However, this issue extends far beyond what one merely thinks about The Berenstein Bears. That article is part of the National Post's weeklong series on Congress entitled Oh, the Humanities! It is a clever title, I will give them that. But I cannot help but wonder that the play-on-words is also inadvertently mocking the humanities, what with the original idiom's usually sarcastic undertones and all. I also find it deeply troubling that, despite many of the positive and fruitful discussions on the Oh, the Humanities! comment boards, there seem to be almost as many hateful and disparaging comments on not just the aforementioned article about youth media, but many others as well. By the way, to the author who rhetorically commented, "If these 7,000 academics were isolated and stranded on an island, how many would survive a month without freezing or starving to death?" from this article; hopefully I do not need to remind you that here in Victoria, we actually are on an island, and rest assured, we are keeping ourselves quite warm and well fed, thank you.

Then there are the disgruntled looks I have seen on people's faces in buses and coffee shops now that the city has been overrun by other people having conversations about Marxism. There are also dismissive attitudes from students in disciplines outside of the humanities and social sciences doing their fair share of complaining on campus and even in downtown Victoria. Over the years, it has gotten so bad, whole books have been written asking, "Whither humanities?" Scholars themselves have to go out of their way to defend Congress, as one of my colleagues, along with another University of Victoria professor, did in a well-written op-ed in the local paper.

Normally in these situations I would cite the "forest beyond the trees" argument to defend the humanities, that is, the transferable skills in writing, researching, and communication that humanities and social science students learn, and not the specific content of their studies, is where you can measure the true economic utility of a degree in those fields.

Heck, sometimes even knowledge of such content is often useful as economic utility. I once read an anecdote about an office manager who, when he expected employees to take advantage of a situation and deliver on their job performance, would simply paraphrase Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and say, "A tide is coming among men," and then walk away to do his own work, instead of having to provide lengthy and overly restrictive directions to his workers and saving time in the process (talk about effectiveness!).

But this issue runs deeper; there seems to be a genuine antagonism towards the humanities, and not just a mere -- and unfounded -- denunciation of its utility.

Could it be that such antagonism is rooted in an anti-postmodern, anti-identity studies, and anti-political correctness brigade, as the evidence seems to suggest? Whatever you choose to call it, such a discussion would extend beyond my scope here. But recognize that the humanities and the social sciences guarantee the very frameworks for ethics and morality in our society, not to mention the very possibility for debate and discussion. I sincerely applaud all dissenters and message-board commentators for their use of the Socratic method; perhaps all of you have really exemplified the true spirit of Congress, which is to challenge, explore, share, and test ideas in a free and democratic society.