The Humanities, Vocationalism and the Public Good: Exploring ‘the Hamlet Factor’ Laurence Wright
The humanities, like most academic disciplines, face questions of popular and public perception. The sciences, for instance, increasingly attract challenges, sometimes of dubious validity, from passionate advocates of so-called ‘deep ecology’ outside the academy, and from postmodern science studies within it. Educationists worldwide face growing discontent with the quality and character of public education. Anthropologists fend off endemic charges of political incorrectness while struggling with the possible demise of their discipline. The fine arts have become inured to occasional ugly public confrontations and persistent bland dismissal by majority opinion. The humanities, it seems, are not alone in feeling the need to clarify their relations with the public. Some of the needed elucidation is trivial, but deserving of wide public dissemination, debate and consideration: for instance, the vocational contribution of the humanities is often misunderstood. Other matters are more fundamental. They have to do with understanding the value of the humanities in relation to the cultural formation of human beings. In South Africa the humanities stand in particular need of winning broader public acceptance and support because they are repositioning themselves in what is in significant respects a new country. Internal scrutiny and revision need to be accompanied by renewal of public understanding, both with regard to potential recruits to the disciplines (students and their parents, for instance) and in terms of the value placed on the humanities by employers and decision-makers in society. Vocationalism Let us begin with the trivial. It is often said that the university is the natural home of those who seek answers to the big questions. Well, here are some big questions: The science graduate asks, ‘Why does it work?’ The graduate in accounting asks, ‘How much will it cost?’ The management graduate asks, ‘When can you have it ready?’ The humanities graduate asks, ‘And will it be French fries or a jacket potato?’
The apocryphal charge here is that the humanities are all very well, but they don’t put supper on the table. They don’t lead to satisfying and lucrative careers. This is a very common public perception, especially in South Africa where the newly enfranchised middle classes are keen to consolidate their financial position, while those who anticipate the pressure of redress and affirmative action policies want blue-chip international career qualifications to protect them from policy-weighted competition. How valid is the perception? Confronting the issue in their own particular context, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada set out to demonstrate to society at large, and those who carry weight in the central economy in particular, that the humanities are in fact a good social investment. The Council commissioned a well-respected economist from the University of British Columbia, Robert Allen, to study the impact of investment in the Social Sciences and Humanities on the country’s economic viability in the global arena. He produced two reports (Allen 1998, 1999), and some of his key findings were as follows: Graduates in humanities and social sciences readily find jobs and generally earn high incomes (according to data obtained from Statistics Canada) The unemployment rate among university graduates in humanities and social sciences aged 25-29 is significantly lower (5.8%) than the unemployment rate among graduates of technical, vocational or career programs (findings based on 1991 census data) Most graduates in humanities and social sciences are employed in a professional or managerial capacity (50-80%). That is compared to 60% of counterparts with university degrees in commerce and 23-35% of individuals with technical or vocational diplomas Cost-benefit analysis shows the rate of return to society as...
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