Borderline Views: Investing in the humanities

One only has to look at the lack of focus on the humanities and social sciences at the many board of governors’ meetings of Israeli universities, which start this week, to see how critical this problem is.

Ben-Gurion University campus in Beersheba 370 (photo credit: BGU)
Ben-Gurion University campus in Beersheba 370
(photo credit: BGU)
The Council for Higher Education announced the awards for the ICORE Research Excellence projects last week.
Out of 67 initial applications, spanning the entire range of sciences, 27 passed the first round and were invited to submit full applications – itself no mean feat – and finally twelve projects were chosen for funding.
The 12 new ICORE Centers of Excellence complement the initial four which were established in the first wave, bringing the total number to 16.
Of the 12 new centers, five will engage in research in the Social Sciences and Humanities and seven in Exact Sciences, Engineering, Life Sciences and Medicine.
The ICORE program is aimed at fundamentally strengthening the long-term positioning of Israel’s academic research and its stature among leading researchers in Israel and abroad. ICORE was endorsed by the government of Israel and adopted by Israel’s Council of Higher Education in March 2010. The first four ICOREs began operating in October 2011 (first wave) in the fields of Cognitive Science, Algorithms, Solar Energy, and the Genetic Basis of Human Disease.
The 16 Centers of Excellence promote innovative and groundbreaking research in a range of fields, promote national and international research collaborations, assist in the recruitment of excellent new researchers and pave the way for nurturing the future generation of outstanding researchers in the country by establishing inter-institutional Joint Graduate Schools.
The 12 research fields include such diverse topics as: Study of Modern Jewish Culture; Education and the New Information Society; Empirical Legal Studies; Mass Trauma Research; Abrahamic Religions; The Quantum Universe: Particles and Astroparticle; Light and Matter; Astrophysics: from the Big Bang to the Stars; Chromatin and RNA Gene Regulation; Structural Biology of the Cell – Biophysics and medical technology; Plant Adaptation to Changing Environment; Physical Approaches to Dynamic Processes in Living Systems.
The first wave of the ICORE projects did not include the humanities or the social sciences. They were only included following an outcry by many scholars in these fields who saw this as reflecting the continued neglect of the humanities and social sciences as part of the development of higher education and research during the past decade.
An article by Corydon Ireland in last week’s Harvard Gazette addressed this problem. It noted that while in 1979, federal grants for science were worth five times those for the humanities, the equivalent figure was 33 in 1998, and no less than 200 in 2011.
At a symposium held on the topic at Harvard, one of the world’s leading exponents of the humanities, Professor Homi Bhabha, noted the irony of the fact that while “the crisis of the humanities is real, they have a greater-than-ever relevance – for habits of critical thinking, interpretation, and analysis that are in turn gateways to ethical choice,” and that they are necessary for training citizens who need to understand our complex world before plunging into action.”
One only has to look at the lack of focus on the humanities and social sciences at the many board of governors’ meetings of Israeli universities, which start this week, to see how critical this problem is. Plenty about nanotechnology, neuroscience and water research (all of which is important) but hardly anything about philosophy, ethics, literature and history. At my own university three of the four successful ICORE proposals were all in the field of the humanities, despite the fact that they have to continually struggle to justify their existence.
This is reflected in the lack of resources for the most basic of infrastructures such as a decent library, student stipends for doctoral and research students, or the need to allocate time and space for the discussion of ideas which, to many, may seem esoteric or “ivory tower.”
For every new Einstein that we wish to produce, we also need a Magnes and a Buber. For every new Nobel Prize that Israeli scientists receive, to the great credit of Israeli universities, we need to have philosophers and political scientists who will be remembered for their contribution to the world of ideas and innovative thought, who continually challenge and re-examine accepted norms and behavior.
In the Harvard discussion, Lawrence S. Bacow, president emeritus of Tufts University, argued that the world’s burning questions require a humanistic perspective. Both the deficit debate and climate change raise ethical questions about what we owe future generations, while current wars are largely conflicts over the direction modernity should take.
“We lose as institutions,” said Bacow, “when we fail to engage our colleagues in the humanities.”
Or as another distinguished professor, Stefan Collini, a literature professor at Cambridge University and author of What are Universities For? (2012), noted: the traditional role of universities in general, and the humanities in particular – creating knowledge for the sake of knowledge – is increasingly under fire in a utilitarian world.
While the CHE has partially attempted to address this problem, often in cooperation with the funding generosity of Yad Hanadiv, many new scientific projects are ignoring the humanities altogether.
Take for example the BIRAX project, initiated through the collaboration of Israeli and UK universities and their respective governments and ably managed by the British Council. Initiated as a partial response to the pro-boycott debate among some UK academics, BIRAX has been taken in the exclusive direction of the life sciences, while the second generation of projects, which were meant to focus on collaboration within the humanities, is now being pushed towards water sciences.
No one doubts the immense importance of such projects, the results of which have far-reaching global significance and which bring Israeli scientific research to the attention of the international community. But without a serious and significant re-investment in the humanities, what for many are (mistakenly) derided as being no more than the “soft sciences,” the country’s universities will lose their heart and their essence, the whole raison d’etre around which universities were created in the first place.
It would be nice to think that many of our friends and supporters from around the world who will be attending the board of governors meetings at Israel’s universities during the coming weeks will rise to the challenge. Philosophy, Ethics, History, Theology, Literature, Political Science and Sociology should be on their agenda as much as the hard sciences, even if it is not instantly recognizable in terms of a new laboratory or building.
In a world in which universities are increasingly bereft of public resources, where the cost of education and the cost of research is rising, where the results of scientific endeavor are measured in terms of managerial efficiency, economic profitability and utilitarianism, it is incumbent upon universities in general, and Israeli universities in particular, to re-invest in the humanities and the social sciences. Without such investment, the centers of higher education and research will lose their very heart, and their contribution to mankind will be limited.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.