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EDUCATION

Social sciences, humanities not worthless

Students pursuing a major in history has crashed from its peak in 2017 in the US

In Summary

• An article by Amanda Ruggeri, a senior journalist and editor at the BBC, suggests that the social sciences and humanities are not worthless or on their deathbed.

• We have to be very suspicious of the tendency to insist that the purpose of education is simply so youth can have a job.

An artistic impression of a college graduation cap
An artistic impression of a college graduation cap
Image: THE STAR

A few years ago, a very senior Kenyan politician who was then Minister for Education Science and Technology announced he would not fund social sciences and humanities in public universities.

What was the Minister’s point? Kenya needs scientists, technologists and engineers and mathematicians to catalyse and drive Kenya’s development.

In this one statement, it seemed like the government was suggesting that humanities ­– linguistics, literature, history, and philosophy – were somehow inferior subjects.

So the word out there for young people entering or thinking of joining college is to do everything else but not courses in the social sciences or humanities.

Moreover, pundits have pronounced certainty of the death of the humanities for several decades now.

Crisis in the humanities, a book published in 1964 warned that a science-oriented world had no room for specialisations in the humanities.

And young people are listening. In countries where data is available, it appears that college-bound students are listening.

In the US, the number of students pursuing a major in history has crashed from its peak in 2017.

Similarly, the number of English majors has fallen by half since the late 1990s, while STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) have increased by six per cent.

An article by Amanda Ruggeri, a senior journalist and editor at the BBC, suggests that the social sciences and humanities are not worthless or on their deathbed.

In her article, Ruggeri quotes two top executives at Microsoft who believe that as computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important because they teach the critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills necessary for the development and management of AI solutions.

In his book In Defense of a Liberal Education Fareed Zakaria argues that social sciences and humanities broaden us. Zakaria believes that when we learn to listen to great music, we are moved beyond ways that reason can comprehend.

When we absorb great literature, we come face to face with ideas, experiences and emotions that we might never otherwise encounter.

When we study physics and geology, biology and astronomy we understand the mysteries of the universe and human life; the inanimate and the living.

The great Biologist E.O. Wilson writes about consilience, the dancing together of knowledge.

I have always been fascinated by the catholicity of early thinkers such as Aristotle. Aristotle made enduring contributions to medicine and dance, theatre and physics, politics and mathematics, ethics and agriculture, logic and metaphysics.

We have to be very suspicious of the tendency to insist that the purpose of education is simply so youth can have a job.

Yes, don’t get me wrong training as an accountant will get you a job. A law degree, just like an engineering degree or medical degree, is a phenomenal credential.

But I am sure we all would love broadly knowledgeable professionals: Doctors, lawyers and engineers who can write and speak well.

And more importantly who can listen as well as think critically and creatively. We must invest in social sciences and humanities.