The forgotten faculty

British and Israeli academics ponder how to elevate the humanities in their respective societies.

David Newman, dean of Humanities at BGY speaks 52 (photo credit: Courtesy British Council)
David Newman, dean of Humanities at BGY speaks 52
(photo credit: Courtesy British Council)
Never let a good crisis go to waste, they say. Which sounds a bit Machiavellian in outlook, but perhaps apt if applied to strategic thinking concerning the place of the humanities in society. And there’s certainly a need for strategic thinking at the moment: there are few who would dispute the fact that the study and teaching of the humanities are currently facing unprecedented challenges.
Figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics show that undergraduate admissions to courses in the humanities in Israel have fallen by almost half in the past decade, while admissions in other areas have generally been on the increase. Evidence of the malaise in the sector can be seen elsewhere: teaching posts have been reduced dramatically, and employment prospects both in and out of academia are distinctly unpromising.
The evidence, as a whole, suggests a decline in perceptions about the importance of the humanities within the university community – and as a consequence, in civic society as a whole. Does this matter? And if so, what can be done? “Humanities have the capacity to engage with global challenges, because they deal with the complexity of human life,” commented Shearer West, dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Oxford, during a recent public event, “Cafe Humanities,” convened by the British Council in central Tel Aviv.
The culminating event of a two-day visit to Israel by the heads of humanities departments at six leading British universities – including Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Southampton as well as Oxford – the purpose of the visit was straightforward: to consider strategies for making the case for the humanities and the social sciences in both countries, and to explore ideas for establishing and nurturing links between academics in the two countries.
“We have a deep interest in bilateral cooperation,” explains Caron Sethill, deputy director of the British Council in Israel. With a long history of facilitating academic links between the United Kingdom and Israel – in areas ranging from the Chevening Scholarship scheme to BIRAX, the British Israeli Research and Academic Exchange Partnership – extending this collaboration into a new area is a natural extension of its activities.
“We want to broaden our horizons in new subject areas,” says Sethill.
The catalyst for the new initiative was a visit to Israel in December by Sir Adam Roberts, president of the British Academy, the United Kingdom’s academy for the humanities and social sciences. Sir Adam – whose efforts to raise the profile of the humanities in the UK have included a 1,600-km. bicycle journey across Britain – noted from meetings with counterparts in Israel that the two countries shared similar challenges with regard to the public profile of the study of the humanities.
Primary among these, Sethill says, is the issue of relevance.
“The humanities are not just about sitting in an ivory tower, but about providing important insights,” she observes.
It is a knotty problem. Firstly, there is the issue of the observable benefit that derives from the study of disciplines such as history, philosophy, art and linguistics. That society as a whole benefits from them would not – one hopes – be in dispute. However, the tangible, quantifiable benefits may seem elusive, particularly if one is accustomed to looking at the bottom line. The sciences, technology, even the social sciences, are adaptable to regimes that utilize cost-benefit analysis. Less so the humanities.
But the issue does not lie there. As Sethill intimates, there is the issue of academics in the humanities making sure that their worth forms a part of the public consciousness: why are we relevant? It is a view echoed by leading Israeli academics.
“I think that we need to adjust ourselves, make necessary changes,” Eyal Zisser says. “Teaching the same programs over 20 to 30 years is not good. This has a lot to do with us.”
Prof. Zisser, the dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University, is a specialist in Middle Eastern history and has written extensively about Bashar al- Assad and Syria. One hardly needs to state the contemporaneous importance of knowledge in this area, of course.
Zisser outlines a double-headed challenge: engaging with the government, and engaging with the public. With regard to the former, he suggests that the often unquantifiable benefits that derive from the humanities stand very much to its disadvantage.
“The government looks at academia as a business, and just hopes that it won’t lose too much money,” he says. “But [the government] also need to recognize that a lot of what we do is of national importance – talmudic studies, Jewish studies, Arabic....”
Concerning the latter point, there is the argument to be made that it is for the academic community to remind the wider world of the importance of the humanities, rather than waiting for the world to acknowledge the place it should occupy in the national consciousness.
It would be easy to interpret this as a direct challenge to the status that technology has in the “Start-Up Nation.” But, as Sethill is at pains to point out, it is not about competition but rather broadening the public imagination. Promoting the sciences at the moment is not terribly difficult.
“Working with the sciences could be seen like pushing an open door,” she comments.
It is a bit much, probably, to propose that academics replace sober study for the gaudy evangelism of making the humanities seem sexy. But it is nonetheless important to widen the net. As Ann Curry, dean of Humanities at the University of Southampton, remarked dryly at the Cafe Humanities event, “it may be that we are preaching to the converted at this gathering.”
REUVEN AMITAI, dean of humanities at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a specialist in medieval history. And as a medieval historian, he says that he has always been particularly interested in exploring what happens after historical crises – “containment then revitalization, or decline and fall.”
Amitai, like Zisser, despairs at the socalled “impact” regime of measuring the importance of various academic courses. The true test, he argues, lies in recognizing the broader benefit that the humanities bestow on society. And, incidentally, on the functioning of government itself.
“Humanities are about broadening horizons. People majoring in social sciences like economics and accounting will make very important decisions in the future; we, and they, deserve the humanities to aid better decisions for the future.”
In one sense, pushing for the advancement of research and scholarship in the humanities shouldn’t be that difficult. After all, as Amitai observes, the needs in the humanities are relatively simple and straightforward: “Infrastructure, libraries and computers are relatively cheap. Beyond that... time to work, to teach and research. Unlike the sciences, there is no need for expensive laboratories.”
No expensive laboratories, true, but one cannot overlook the need to embrace technological developments – not quite giving up on dusty tomes and stuffed armchairs, but finding a way to update the stereotype.
“The world is changing, sociologically and technologically,” Amitai says. “There are academic traditions that one would want to preserve, of course, but at the same time one must look to the future.”
The growth of the so-called “digital humanities” is an important area for the discipline’s development. The systematic integration of computer technology into the research activities of humanities scholars, the digital humanities present the opportunity to rejuvenate and enhance academic research in the humanities: from analysis of large data sets to the use of tools like data visualization, information retrieval and statistical evaluation.
It will be good for research practice, undoubtedly; but it will also, presumably, help to improve access by the general public to the wealth of knowledge across the humanities. One can think of it as demystifying the arcane world of the humanities.
But this is just one path. Caron Sethill says that a working paper will be shaped from the discussions between the British academics and their Israeli partners, with an emphasis on sharing best practices as well as considering how best to carry the conversation into the public arena. A particular aspiration is to create a framework for joint research, similar in format to BIRAX.
Talk about closer collaborative ties between universities in the UK and Israel prompt the unavoidable question: how would these fit alongside the sporadic yet strident calls for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions by sectors of the university trade unions?
Sethill is adamant that these calls – while well publicized – are not representative of broader opinion in the British academic community. She points out that there were absolutely no negative sentiments expressed in relation to the Israel visit in March.
“There are sporadic calls [for a boycott],” she acknowledges, “but rather than engaging in the argument, instead we are looking to create strong and meaningful links.”
These are sentiments shared by both Zisser and Amitai.
“I have never seen this as a major problem,” Zisser says. “It is there, you can’t deny it, but it does not reflect the entire British academy. Most academic institutions are interested in building links, and this initiative shows that this indeed is the case.”
Amitai concurs, saying, “The initiative is very encouraging.”
And the ultimate benefit? Strengthening civic society, both in Israel and the UK. As Prof. David Newman, dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Ben- Gurion University of the Negev, put it at the Cafe Humanities event: “People working in the humanities have a role to be involved in public discourse and raise public awareness in a genuinely democratic society. Universities are a place of debate, and must be part of the ongoing discourse. They must contribute to the education of the leaders of tomorrow.”
Even Machiavelli would be hard put to counter that.