NewslettersOctober 27th, 2020

PG #69: We need humanities experts now more than ever

Reuben Stanton
Reuben Stanton, Managing Director
A game of Jenga is bein played. the blocks have the words "humanities and STEM" on them

The Australian government claimed its recent cuts to university funding were about shifting students from humanities subjects into “job-ready” STEM degrees. This was a lie – it was an across-the-board cut that reduced funding for STEM subjects as well.

This is clearly ideological – it’s an attempt to shift the overall cost of university education from governments to individuals.

Let’s treat their argument as though it was in good faith: Are the humanities really ‘not job-ready’?

Consider the ‘jobs’ that need doing in the world right now: multiple social justice crises need solving, we have a recession that we need to recover from, a pandemic that needs to be managed, an entire world economy needs to be transitioned away from fossil fuels… and more!

Let’s just take managing the novel coronavirus pandemic. Important and necessary understanding of this virus comes from STEM fields. We need to understand the epidemiology of the virus, we need to build statistical models for its spread, we need to measure the economic impacts of different lockdown rules and decisions.

But the virus operates within a broader public health response, and our understanding of that comes from the humanities.

Questions like ‘should we have a strict lockdown despite its other impacts?’ or ‘should we let the virus rip through the community?’ are only partially economic or scientific questions – they are also ethical and social questions that need to take into account social relations, human behaviour, and what we actually want for our society in the short and long term.

Raw economic or epidemiological calculations only get us so far, and tend to either ignore real human suffering or discount questions of human dignity. Anthropologists, social scientists, philosophers and ethicists are the ones who can interrogate what ‘public health’ really means in a nuanced way.

In any crisis, we get to make decisions. Critical, structural, systemic and historical analysis, the kind provided by humanities education, is absolutely necessary to think properly about – make good decisions about – complex societal issues. These are the jobs that need doing, if we want a liveable, thriving, sustainable society – the jobs we need to be ready for.

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