There has been an ongoing debate in academia about the relevance and utility of studies in humanities, in particular literature, for the last two decades. Given the assumed professional viability of science, and other subjects, such as business, commerce, finance, information technology, and computer science, students are losing interest in humanities at graduate and postgraduate levels.
These trends are alarming for many well-established departments at different educational institutes across the country.
It is important to discuss the potential impact of literature by highlighting its entrepreneurial side, which mostly remains hidden from students’ eyes. Literature and more specifically a literary writer’s role in shaping civilisations, changing political systems and exposing injustices is an ongoing debate in academia.
Postmodern ideology rests on the functionality of knowledge and its acquisition process. That is why when it comes to the question of available options for a major in humanities, most of us are short of words and ideas. After all, how can we measure and assess the impact of our knowledge that lays emphasis on man’s inner desires, conscious and unconscious thought processes, and identity.
The questions that a student of literature or other arts subjects asks today are: is it important to digitise literary theories and concepts, use language as a quantitative data bank, and rationalise abstract tropes? How important it is to store, distribute and arrange knowledge as one does a physical object or commodity? If knowledge is a commodity then it is highly likely that its relative utility also limits its range and scope.
But fields in humanities and, more specifically, literature by all means do none of these.
If the market needs active, confident and vibrant personnel with the kind of knowledge that sells and pays and an ability to show how knowledge impacts and affects socio-economic institutional structures in place, then humanities do not lag behind. We have courses in classics, art history, sociology, philosophy, psychology, and literature that teach one how to feel, think, and understand the very nature of existence. Students interested in these fields enter into their professional lives as informed citizens with critical minds and a full view of their heritage and history, a knowledge that enables them to assess the failings of the past and envision a successful future.
The perception that the training in humanities makes it difficult for a student to get a good professional position is also based on a misperceived disregard for arts subjects, and is directly related to stereotypical judgements about ill-researched market standards. Instead, factual data corroborate that those who keep a degree in humanities or are non-experts in the field of science do not only keep good positions in the professional market but also improve their environment through their inter-and intra-personal skills.
However, it is also true that in order to progress in their highly demanding jobs they need to continue buffing up their skill reserves. But this logic also holds true in the case of people who have degrees in science and other valued subjects, such as engineering and medicine.
The charge that a major in arts subject fails to look impressive on salary charts is mainly because there is a widespread tendency among people to limit its scope to basically one profession — teaching.
In today’s fast emerging economies, there are several other areas in which a student with a degree in humanities can show his or her worth. Today, arts graduates are making their mark with their acquired skills in highly sought out professional areas such as advertising, counselling, technical writing, genealogy, journalism, human resource management, linguistics, and event management.
It is no secret that many distinguished scholars, jurists, politicians, and business tycoons achieved success in life with degrees in humanities. If students can think and write well and have an understanding of the socio-cultural and political spirit of their age, they have various exciting avenues to explore.
Another important job-fetching quality that comes with the study of humanities involves engagement with other people. The subjects in humanities are mostly people-focused, emphasising qualities such as empathy and sociability, which are deemed highly invaluable in jobs related to public relations, communication industry, customer services, and business, among many others. Relating to people and using language to convince them of your viewpoint is something that a brilliant technical mind may not always be able to achieve.
A great responsibility lies on teachers for highlighting and articulating the public and market value of literature and other subjects in humanities. Instead of giving an impression that it is a waste of time for students to study arts, music, literature, poetry, history, social science, and languages, they should give informed reasons why these subject areas matter.
A research in American universities shows that there is a dire need to raise the status and value of ‘endangered liberal arts to enabling and productive knowledge fields through which the huge resource of the nation’s intellectual strength can be capitalised. A considerable emphasis needs to be put on the moral and ethical guidelines that only subjects in humanities provide against the ailments of society.
Literature, for example, highlights and directs our attention to those social conditions which otherwise keep consuming the potential of the youth in our country. It helps us raise questions about stagnant narratives and gives us deeper understanding of socio-political issues and situations we are confronted with in today’s world. Critical and analytical thinking, reasoning, and problem solving skills persist and do not change with the change in job.
Another aspect of this discussion concerns the contesting ground most of us create between science and humanities. If we have started considering humanities as special or important, because of the recent mergers formed between science and humanities, such as through the introduction of fields of medical and digital humanities, then we are further complicating the problem. This is not the acceptance of humanities but a kind of ideological transformation imposed to make it acceptable according to scientific standards.
On the other hand, to pitch humanities against science is also unwise in many respects because it suggests that science is inherently inhuman, and that humanities are somehow more fundamental to human nature than science.
In fact, a sound understanding of the importance of various fields of knowledge bridges the imaginary gap that the so-called entrepreneurial educational systems have created in the minds of people by emphasising the differences between humanities and other fields.
It is not about a fight between impracticability versus profitability, abstractions versus tangibility, and irrelevancy versus relevancy, it is about recognising the need and utility of all fields of knowledge in the construction of a balanced society that relies on its own capacity in the way to progress.
The purpose of life is to grow and become better human beings. Living in an age of technology, students have to remain in touch with those fundamental building blocks of their psyche that shape and refine their humane and emotional sensibilities. For this, the study of humanities has a distinctive role to play and due to its inclusive approach acquires a special purpose and value for us as individuals in a society.