Borderline Views: Strengthening the humanities

The status of the Humanities is not a foregone conclusion.

Classroom 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Classroom 311
(photo credit: 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.
The 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 Social Sciences.
The status of the Humanities is not a foregone conclusion.
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 excellence.
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 live.
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 live.
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.
It 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.