Borderline Views: Strengthening the humanities
The status of the Humanities is not a foregone conclusion.
Lecture hall Photo: Courtesy
Today in Tel Aviv, leading British and Israeli academics in the fields of the
Humanities and Social Sciences will hold a one-day workshop. They will focus on
the status of the Humanities in today’s world, discuss the leading areas of
research and seek common projects and interests which, hopefully, will lead to
new collaborative ventures. The event, sponsored and organized by the British
Council, is a follow-up to the BIRAX project in Life Sciences between the two
countries, which has already resulted in a number of joint research ventures
between Israeli and UK scientists.
The British ambassador to Israel,
Matthew Gould, and the director of the British Council (who also doubles as the
British cultural attaché) are to be congratulated for their strong emphasis on
promoting joint scientific and research links between the two countries,
especially at a time when Israel no longer has cultural or scientific attaches
in their foreign legations, and when the Foreign Ministry is so over engaged in
the immediate political and strategic issues facing Israel that it spares
limited time or resources to promoting joint scientific programs.
initial BIRAX project emerged at the time of the heated debate around academic
boycotts in the UK in 2006-2008. The most appropriate response to the
pro-boycotters is the growth and increase of collaborative science projects
between the two countries. It has resulted in an intense dialogue about the
nature of research, the challenges facing science in today’s world and has moved
way beyond the political sphere to a real meeting of minds between academics, in
a variety of disciplines, in both countries.
Today’s visitors from the UK
include leading academics from six of the country’s top universities – Oxford,
University College London, Southampton, Nottingham, Queens University Belfast
and Kings College London. Chairing the British team is Professor Shearer West,
now the head of Humanities at Oxford and formerly director of research at the
Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) – the equivalent to the Israel
Academy of Sciences.
The day-long workshop will bring together the
Humanities and Social Science deans of Israel’s five universities, and will
culminate in a public event this evening in Tel Aviv where the public will be
invited to participate in a discussion about the role of the Humanities and
The status of the Humanities is not a foregone
During the past 10 years, the Humanities and the Social
Sciences have taken a serious beating in a university world which has become
increasingly businesslike in its management and planning. Universities faced by
cuts in public sector funding along with a world economic recession have focused
on profit margins and future revenues, rather than academic
The term “excellence” is freely used, but it is all too often
translated into money. Researchers are often recruited or promoted because of
their ability to raise funds through research grants and to attract private
donors to their laboratories, rather than for their potential lasting impact on
the world of science and progress.
Obviously, the two go together – an
excellent researcher attracting greater funding is the winning combination. But
while this is relevant to the hard sciences with their laboratories and
expensive equipment, excellence in the Humanities does not necessary translate
into the same financial gains. The gains from the Humanities are different, but
immeasurably important to any society which perceives itself as cultured and
civilized. They consist of ideas, morals and ethics, and the way in which we
understand and negotiate the complex human society within which we
The laboratory of a good Humanities scholar is a well stocked
library, of which there are few in Israel, along with the space, time and
colleagues which enable one to think, write, discourse and perpetually challenge
colleagues and students.
This is far more important than expensive
laboratories, technicians and field equipment. Time and space do not provide the
universities with significant overhead costs (ranging anywhere from 15-40
percent) which can be taken from the incoming funds to help cover the daily
administration costs of the institution.
The great philosophers,
historians and linguists of past generations, many of them household names of
the 20th century, would long have lost their positions at the universities were
they to be judged on the narrow economic criteria which are used today
throughout the world by university administrators and their respective research
authorities. Their lack of success in raising large grants would have meant they
would not have been recruited in the first place.
The profit to society
of a strong Humanities faculty is immeasurable, not in economic terms but in
terms of values and culture. Where would either Israel or Britain be without the
great philosophers and thinkers of past generations? How would we understand
critical ideas such as democracy, human rights, ethics, Jewish philosophy and
their respective role within society if we did not provide the resources and
infrastructure for people to teach and discuss ideas? The very fact that the
state provides some of these resources is itself a measure of its commitment to
the value of ideas and ethics, and says much about the society within which we
The Humanities face a challenge. Not only do they have to convince
the university funders and managers of their importance, they also have to
demonstrate their significance to future generations of students. It’s not easy
in today’s world to convince a young student that he/she will be an enriched and
a better person all round by studying the Humanities, even if it does not lead
to an automatic profession and wage package at the end of the studies.
is however interesting that many of the country’s hi-tech companies actually
seek Humanities graduates rather than students who have studied computer
engineering or business administration, precisely because they see the former as
being more capable of expressing their ideas, writing a document and generally
analyzing complex situations.
Today’s workshop is an important expression
of the need to redefine and re-market the importance of the Humanities and the
Social Sciences to a wider public. It is to be hoped that new ideas and new
collaborative ventures will emerge between the scholars from both countries
which will, in turn, enrich their respective societies in a world which has
become increasingly technocratic and material.
The writer is dean of the
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views
expressed are his alone.