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Humanities of Hamlet Essay

The humanities, like most academic disciplines, face questions of popular and public perception. The sciences, for instance, increasingly attract challenges, sometimes of dubious validity, from passionate advocates of so-called ‘deep ecology’ outside the academy, and from postmodern science studies within it. Educationists worldwide face growing discontent with the quality and character of public education. Anthropologists fend off endemic charges of political incorrectness while struggling with the possible demise of their discipline.

The fine arts have become inured to occasional ugly public confrontations and persistent bland dismissal by majority opinion. The humanities, it seems, are not alone in feeling the need to clarify their relations with the public. Some of the needed elucidation is trivial, but deserving of wide public dissemination, debate and consideration: for instance, the vocational contribution of the humanities is often misunderstood. Other matters are more fundamental. They have to do with understanding the value of the humanities in relation to the cultural formation of human beings.

In South Africa the humanities stand in particular need of winning broader public acceptance and support because they are repositioning themselves in what is in significant respects a new country. Internal scrutiny and revision need to be accompanied by renewal of public understanding, both with regard to potential recruits to the disciplines (students and their parents, for instance) and in terms of the value placed on the humanities by employers and decision-makers in society. Vocationalism Let us begin with the trivial. It is often said that the university is the natural home of those who seek answers to the big questions.

Well, here are some big questions: The science graduate asks, ‘Why does it work? ’ The graduate in accounting asks, ‘How much will it cost? ’ The management graduate asks, ‘When can you have it ready? ’ The humanities graduate asks, ‘And will it be French fries or a jacket potato? ’ The apocryphal charge here is that the humanities are all very well, but they don’t put supper on the table. They don’t lead to satisfying and lucrative careers.

This is a very common public perception, especially in South Africa where the newly enfranchised middle classes are keen to consolidate their financial position, while those who anticipate the pressure of redress and affirmative action policies want blue-chip international career qualifications to protect them from policy-weighted competition. How valid is the perception? Confronting the issue in their own particular context, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada set out to demonstrate to society at large, and those who carry weight in the central economy in particular, that the humanities are in fact a good social investment.

The Council commissioned a well-respected economist from the University of British Columbia, Robert Allen, to study the impact of investment in the Social Sciences and Humanities on the country’s economic viability in the global arena. He produced two reports (Allen 1998, 1999), and some of his key findings were as follows: Graduates in humanities and social sciences readily find jobs and generally earn high incomes (according to data obtained from Statistics Canada)

The unemployment rate among university graduates in humanities and social sciences aged 25-29 is significantly lower (5.8%) than the unemployment rate among graduates of technical, vocational or career programs (findings based on 1991 census data) Most graduates in humanities and social sciences are employed in a professional or managerial capacity (50-80%).

That is compared to 60% of counterparts with university degrees in commerce and 23-35% of individuals with technical or vocational diplomas Cost-benefit analysis shows the rate of return to society as follows: Education (10%) Social sciences (9%) Engineering (7. 9%) Humanities (7. 8%) Maths and the physical sciences (7.4%)

All university programs analysed in the report in terms of their costs and benefits yield a social rate of return that exceeds the real interest rate in Canada today. These economic analyses were accompanied by other measures. For instance, in support of the findings, a meeting of 15 chancellors of universities in the province of Ontario issued a statement on the value of the Liberal Arts: The liberal arts and sciences must continue to be a seminal part of Ontario’s higher education. This is a practical idea as well as a philosophical one.

A number of recent studies have clearly underlined that a well-rounded, general education – learning to think, to write and to express one’s ideas clearly – is as valuable to future employability as technical or technological training. (http://www. trainyourbrain. ca/english/supporters/chancellors. html) Perhaps carrying more weight in relevant quarters than the views of the chancellors (which might, of course, be interpreted by sceptics as merely selfserving conservatism), was an associated statement put out by 30 CEO’s of leading Canadian Hi-tech companies in which they affirmed, ‘We stand with the chancellors of Ontario’s universities.

Their document urges: Yes, this country needs more technology graduates, as they fuel the digital economy. But it is impossible to operate an effective corporation in our new economy by employing technology graduates alone. We have an equally strong need for those with a broader background who can work in tandem with technical specialists, helping create and manage the corporate environment. A liberal arts and science education nurtures skills and talents increasingly valued by modern corporations.

Our companies function in a state of constant flux. To prosper we need creative thinkers at all levels of the enterprise who are comfortable dealing with decisions in the bigger context. They must be able to communicate – to reason, create, write and peak – for shared purposes: For hiring, training, managing, marketing, and policy-making. In short, they provide leadership. (http://www. trainyourbrain. ca/english/tools/ceo. html) Clearly, these CEOs are no apologists for irrelevancy, ‘fuddyduddy-ism’ or aristocratic, leisure-class values.

They are arguing in the best interests of their companies, as part of a concerted campaign to counter popular misperceptions concerning the value of the humanities to the Canadian economy. What about South Africa? This is no doubt heartening for advocates of the humanities; but that was Canada, this is South Africa. In the years immediately following our transition to democracy, Canada was ranked first in the United Nations’ Global Human Development Ratings: South Africa stood at ninety-third (Africa Institute 1996: 24). 1 Might there be grounds for comparison?

Would similar findings emerge here? The late Jacob Bronowski, well-known for his contributions to the public understanding of science, put forward with admirable lucidity his view that the kind of society humanity seeks to create is identical with one which enables the work of science (and the arts) to proceed. He writes: As a set of discoveries and devices, science has mastered nature; but it has been able to do so only because its values, which derive from its method, have formed those who practise it into a living, stable and incorruptible society.

Here is a community where everyone has been free to enter, to speak his mind, to be heard and contradicted – – The society of scientists is simple because it has a directing purpose: to explore the truth. Nevertheless, it has to solve the problem of every society, which is to find a compromise between man and men. It must encourage the single scientist to be independent, and the body of scientists to be tolerant. From these basic conditions, which form the prime values, there follows step by step a range of values: dissent, freedom of thought and speech, justice, honour, human dignity and self-respect.

Our values since the Renaissance have evolved by just such steps. (74-75) Let us accept, for the sake of argument, Bronowski’s idealistic description of science and the community of scientists, and fully acknowledge the tremendous achievements of science, associated with the pursuit of these values. For all its omissions and exclusions, the kind of society portrayed by Bronowski is attractive both to those who adhere to creative exploration as a primary human motivation (mainly the well-to-do), as well as those for whom the increasingly widespread satisfaction of basic human needs is of primary importance.

Yet can it plausibly be argued that the stable, ordered society science needs to make its optimal impact will result primarily from a concentration on science or, more mundanely, on maths, science and technology in general public education? Science (as opposed to scientists) has very little to say about how human life should be lived, even by implication. Secondly, the serious pursuit of scientific knowledge has always been a minority undertaking, and the delicious puritanism celebrated by Bronowski is undermined at every point by human nature.

Truth-seeking is compromised by self-aggrandisement, lack of initiative, cultural dissonances, wayward appetites, untoward psychological complexities, sloth, factionalism, poverty, dogmatism and stupidity – all the regrettable variations that complicate (and embellish) human experience. Material progress alleviates some of these features and aggravates others, but in all societies, the true scientific proclivity is a minority interest, even among those equipped merely to make use of scientific findings, and who rely on them in their daily work and other interests.

Bronowski has, in important respects, got it wrong. Science depends for its very survival upon the creation of a society which respects the values of science and permits them to thrive, and that can only be a society in which the values of the humanities have taken root, are constantly reviewed and renewed, and are shared by the overwhelming majority of the citizenry. It could plausibly be argued that this country needs the humanities even more than a society like Canada.

Consider, as one example, the AIDS crisis in South Africa: the belated response to the situation, the culpable delays, the fatuous controversy over antiretrovirals and their provision to sufferers. Is this crisis the result of scientific failure? No, the science is there. The crisis has been the result of poor leadership, political obfuscation, power-plays, cultural regression, lack of social integration and poor, under-trained governmental bureaucracy.

Similarly in the local government environment: it is not paucity of maths and science education that challenges programme delivery; it is the poverty of middle-order leadership, the inability to delegate effectively, the lack of initiative and capacity in ordinary civil and bureaucratic functions. The planning is often in place, but the general level of education and its social orientation is inadequate to make effective use of it.

In addressing such shortcomings a key misapprehension is the assumption that because the country is desperately short of scientists and technologists, maths and science must be an absolute priority in our schooling system. This is to mistake the part for the whole. The fact is that many children – not only South African children – because of innate disposition, home background or poor education, are light-years from the possibility of attaining a marketable competence in maths or science2, yet they may be highly intelligent and suited to a great many useful, even exalted, functions in government and the economy.

Given good teaching, they can learn to think well and searchingly about deep issues that plague contemporary society. It does not take profound mathematical understanding to read a balance sheet, or even to lead a large corporation. Statistical projections, financial control and scenario-planning are service functions, not necessarily leadership tasks. Yet the myth is steadily propagated that mathematical intelligence, more so even than scientific literacy, is what South Africa needs. This is a harmful distortion.

Of course we need mathematicians and scientists, as many as we can produce, but unaided they will not be able to deliver the kind of society in which we all want to live. There are no scientific solutions to the problems of underdevelopment and civic education, only important ancillary contributions. Science functions optimally in a democratic, relatively stable and wealthy society. On its own, science is powerless to create such conditions. These conditions are attained and sustained, not through science, but in societies that are absorbing at depth the lessons of the humanities.

People want to believe that because science and technology are integral to modern developing economies, such economies will develop if only sufficient emphasis is placed on maths and science in the education system. In fact, the sequence has to be reversed. The conditions of stable governance, effective bureaucracy, adequate infrastructural maintenance, basic skills development, and responsible social services are pre-conditions for the adequate functioning of a scientific and technological culture.

Well-educated scientists obviously acquire and exercise their civic imaginations in support of such conditions, but it is more than likely that the products of an education system that marginalizes or travesties the humanities will fail both science and society. The upshot of this realization, if decision-makers could be persuaded to look it in the face, implies, not a down-grading of the emphasis on science and technology, but a much closer and more concerned look at what teachers in schools and universities are doing with the humanities.

Successful socio-economic and cultural development requires a conscious balance between the sciences and humanities, and it is far from certain that humanities education in South Africa is sufficiently strong and healthy to carry its share of the burden. Here we come to the second challenge. Do humanities practitioners in South Africa have adequate answers to the questions society is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) putting to us? Can scholars in the humanities explain their contribution to the public good? Vocationalism in the university Let us start by considering the humanities in the universities.

This after all is where much of the understanding that gradually works its way through the schools and into society originates. One of the first things advocates of the humanities would need to make clear to interrogators is the character of a university education as distinct from a purely vocational one. It is not the existence or otherwise of a more or less direct linkage to specific career opportunities that determines whether or not such an education can be described as vocational, but the character of the education undergone.

The distinction may be characterized as follows. A vocational education transmits a particular range of knowledge, ideally in its current, up-to-date state, in a mode designed to relate it most nearly to a context of application in society. So, accounting studies emphasize principles and best practice in relation to the legal and policy framework pertaining today, and the present state of the South African business and corporate environment.

It is of course possible to teach accounting at different levels of complexity, finesse and specialization, but there is little incentive to move the subject away from its severely practical orientation. PhDs in accounting are rare. With management, the situation shifts slightly, in that a range of management theory will normally be explored, emanating from diverse situations, and whose applicability becomes very much a matter of contextual judgment. It is certainly possible to earn a PhD in management studies, but the subject matter is likely to edge towards issues that belong in the social sciences and humanities proper.

The paradigmatic qualification in business studies is the MBA, a programme designed to develop cutting-edge managers and business leaders for different contexts, and among the entry requirements is typically a substantial period of practice. This stipulation is there to ensure adequate integration of theory and practice in the educational process. Law has the potential to move fully into the university paradigm, in that practical legal training can be (and, depending on the level of qualification, should be) supported by rigorous emersion in the history and philosophy of law.

In fact, it would be difficult to conceive of adequate legal practice emerging from an academic culture divorced from the humanities. It should be apparent, then, that while many popular career options can be placed along a continuum running between the poles of the narrowly vocational and the so-called purely academic, it is always the degree of emphasis placed on the ‘other-than-vocational’ component that qualifies the programme for inclusion in the domain of true tertiary study.

When we turn to the core disciplines comprising the humanities, the connection with a specific profession or career is weak or absent (unless transmission and extension of the discipline itself comes to be counted as such). True, there is often a loose affiliation between the humanities and vocations such as librarianship, teaching, advertising, writing and publishing, but the connection is not intrinsic or necessary. This fact in itself can be problematic, because students whose thinking is constrained by the vocational paradigm, whether through the influence of parents or other social pressures, will tend to define the value of a humanities degree solely in terms of particular vocational outcomes.

‘Text’ versus ‘language’ If then, humanities undergraduates are not preparing directly for a vocational career, what are they doing? And why aren’t they preparing directly for a career? I want to answer, first, in terms similar to those proposed by Michael Oakeshott (1967: 308-312). The paradigmatic distinction is that between knowing a text and learning a language.

A university discipline expresses a particular mode of enquiry, one ‘language’ in the array of languages that makes up the intellectual capital of humanity. Each particular language of enquiry is embodied in a vast array of performances in these languages – good, bad and indifferent – performances that we might call ‘texts’. Vocational education exhausts itself in knowing particular texts, and these texts are chosen because they are current and relevant in the world of practice and application. Learn the text, become expert in it, and you’ve attained the end of vocational education.

Once you leave the educational institution – let’s hope it doesn’t call itself a university – you may lack experience (though, as has been indicated, many vocational programmes strive to incorporate work experience so as to minimise this gap), but you are, or should be, ready to perform the text or texts you have learned, this time in the workplace arena. Because of the rapidity of social change, your text, or range of texts, will soon become redundant, out-of-date, and then you must learn additional texts. You trained in servicing VWs, now you must learn Renaults.

You learned to programme Fortran and Basic, now you must master C++ and XML. You studied Management by Objectives, now you must re-shape your style to fit transnational corporate policy. You will gain broader experience, you will always be learning, but what you will be learning is text after text after text – and thoroughly necessary and rewarding the experience may well prove to be. The point of higher education from the outset is to learn the language. In higher education, texts are studied not simply for their own sake, but for what we can learn from this study about the mode of enquiry of which they are a good example.

In other words, texts are treated as emblematic of some aspects of the language, and we choose the particular texts we study as part of a higher education because they are in a proper state to yield insight into the language they exemplify (Oakeshott: 314). Our object of study is not only the text but the language, and, usually at graduate level, we go on to reach towards a language of languages, which we might call philosophy. The ‘swerve’ from higher education The distinction between ‘text’ and ‘language’ on which I am harping, is rather mysterious and fascinating. Consider this.

In order to appreciate, say, Hamlet, I must know the language. In order to know the language, I must read Hamlet. The apparent circularity is embarrassing, and the sort of thing that tends to compromise the humanities in the eyes of the uninitiated. M. A. K. Halliday explores the distinction between text and language – and it is fundamental to the mission of the humanities in general no less than Halliday’s particular discipline of linguistics – by means of an illuminating analogy: – – – the analogy whereby language is to text as climate is to weather is useful to think with.

It reminds us that these are not two different things, or rather what we call ‘climate’ and what we call ‘weather’ are the same phenomenon seen from different angles, or different moments of time, and so it is with language and text – – – much misunderstanding has been caused by counterposing these two terms, with language and text being treated as if they were different orders of reality. He goes on to point out a significant limitation to the analogy: Like all analogies, it’s very partial.

It’s an abstract tool for thinking with, not a strict proportion, because semiotic systems are not like physical systems. In particular, an instance of a semiotic system carries value; instances of physical systems do not. Of course you may prefer one kind of weather to another, but that’s got no relevance whatever to the status of an instance of that weather in relation to climate: it’s just something to be observed and measured like any element.

But a text has its own value, not necessarily, in fact, probably not usually, fixed and determinate – – – And the relation of the discourse value to the underlying system is in fact highly complex. I refer to this as the ‘Hamlet factor’. (Halliday 2001, transcr. Kilpert) A good teacher of the humanities must know the language the text under discussion instantiates, and must be able to move the student from reading ‘text’ to exploring ‘language’, to reveal the distinctiveness of text in relation to the homologies and contrasts available in the language.

Some texts disturb, redefine, modify the language in which they are formed. They have a perennially evolving afterlife. In the broad historical perspective of cultural ‘climate’ they remain instances of ‘weather’ that are of intrinsic and perennial interest. This is what Halliday means by the ‘Hamlet factor’. Indeed, not altogether coincidentally, to the best of my knowledge, Hamlet is the only literary work to have a fully-fledged academic journal devoted to its study.

3 Ignorance of the distinction between text and language, and all that it implies, is symptomatic of the kind of confusion that influences well-intentioned but ignorant tertiary institutions to swerve from true higher education towards reductive vocationalism disguised as higher education. What can philosophy do that society values? Aha! – ‘critical thinking’. Right, let’s forget about philosophy and teach critical thinking. What useful outcome can we expect from the literature student? Aha! – ‘communication skills’. Right, let’s forget literature and teach communication skills.

And so the reduction goes on, relentlessly impoverishing the tertiary environment, the individual student and society, in the name of relevance, vocationalism, contextualised learning, public accountability (in the shallowest of senses) and all the other misnomers that disguise a lack of educational understanding. Why we still need the humanities today Each of us is born into a relatively narrow life-world. This is as true for those fortunate few who enter upon the human scene embraced by sheltered luxury as it is for the many who expend their years in poverty, far from the seats of wealth, power or influence.

Moreover, the character of the world as it impinges on the individual is changing rapidly, everywhere. (This statement is probably valid even for those who strive most to avoid the world, such as those who spend their time in religious retreat. ) What this suggests is that ordinary means of social transmission, where values, attitudes and judgments are passed from generation to generation within the family, or from mentor to ‘apprentice’ in society, are no longer adequate or may prove so only in the most exceptional of cases.

These processes may still be necessary, indeed fundamental, to individual human development, but they cannot be sufficient. Rapid technological change and the shifts in values that result, increasing mobility, population growth, the communications and information revolutions, the differential impact of social change on pre-established world views – in fact all the cliches of the globalizing world – add up to an uncertain field of potential experience for the individual.

The resources of the family, even in optimal or exceptional circumstances, are insufficient to interpret, let alone adequately to evaluate, this complexity, especially since it is increasingly likely that the individual’s activities and proclivities will shift to arenas and predicaments beyond the experience of the senior generations.

This is where the educational potential of the humanities becomes such a powerful resource. By exposing students to detailed study of particular artifacts – works of literature, examples of fine art, philosophical systems, political prescriptions, musical compositions, social theories – we avail them of the opportunity to form and test their own judgments, to challenge received opinion, to argue positions within a community of informed discussion and debate, to think and re-think their views in the company of major artists and diagnosticians, each of whom has put their work forward for exactly this purpose, namely, to help shape and re-shape human beings.

The power of critical thought, trained and developed in this manner, is central to the formation of a creative democratic citizenry anticipated, for example, in South Africa’s White Paper of 1997.

4 As a society, we need the formal space of the humanities in which to engage with a full range of estimates concerning human potential, past and future. In the course of such studies students will also, no doubt, learn to think clearly and write well, but this is incidental. The mission of the humanities is to mould human identity and purpose in relation to changing times and circumstances. No other field of enquiry, not science, not sociology, not established religion, can meet this imperative need quite as well.

Some will claim never to have felt such a need, or to have abandoned it for ‘the real world’ after fleeting initiation at school or university. For these, the humanities are so much frippery, a merely decorative intellectual surplus, or shallow entertainment which ignores the imperatives of the way the economic world works. Such people intend to stick to the ‘text’ they inherit, and perform it unthinkingly to their own best advantage. The abject misery of thousands, though it seems melodramatic to say so, comes to rest on the shoulders of those who have reached this conclusion.

The founding impulse of the humanities To counter such views from a fons et origo, we might go back to a period before the Romans, before Plato even, to the founding moment of the humanities. It is commonplace to acknowledge, as do scientists and everyone other than proponents of ethno-science, that science arose once only on planet earth, among the ancient Greeks (Wolpert 25). 5 It is less commonly acknowledged that the western humanities, too, rose at a particular moment among the Greeks, though in all probability similar moments passed unrecorded in other cultures.

The originary impulse is expressed (or invented) during Socrates’ famous discourse in the Apology, as recorded and fictionalized by Plato: If I tell you that this is the greatest good for a human being, to engage every day in arguments about virtue and the other things you have heard me talk about, examining both myself and others, and if I tell you that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being, you will be even less likely to believe what I am saying.

But that’s the way it is, gentlemen, as I claim, though it’s not easy to convince you of it. (Apology 38a, trans.Nussbaum 1) ‘The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being’ (emphasis mine): ‘that’s the way it is. ’ This is the bald standpoint of the humanities expressed in a nutshell, and it is not the easiest position to justify to defenders of the status quo, either inside or outside the academy. Let’s look at some of the issues.

Why was Socrates on trial for his life? He was teaching that the young ought to devote time and intelligence to finding satisfactory arguments to justify their beliefs, rather than simply following those of their parents and the civic authorities.

Not even the gods were to be exempt from rational enquiry. Aristophanes, in his comedy The Clouds, viewed Socrates as dangerously subversive of orthodox education, which he took to be a process whereby the young are indoctrinated in the traditions and values of their culture, as is the case in traditional societies everywhere. In other words, for Aristophanes education meant learning the text of your society. Not so with Socrates. He wanted people to study the language of humanity, though he recognized that this was no easy matter.

We are back to the relation between ‘text’ and ‘language’? Socrates held that by systematically questioning text, probing it from all possible perspectives, exploring alternatives, we may by degrees arrive at the language, or at least important elements of it. It is important to stress, ‘from all possible perspectives,’ because Socrates was also an early advocate of truly democratic learning. He was willing to engage in philosophical discussion with anyone and everyone, in the hope that they might know more than he did, or contribute something uniquely valuable.

Plato, by contrast, wanted to restrict radical questioning to an elite who, through philosophical investigation, would gain access to timeless truths, enabling its members to rule justly over the masses. Here we have the origin of the tension between the humanities as a source of elite leadership – the Platonism of government and corporate management – and the humanities as a democratic investigation of human meaning and value. 6 Socrates was utterly serious in his claim for intensive rational enquiry as essential to discovering a true mode of living, the good life. The unexamined life is fit only for something less than a human being.

Those who unthinkingly follow tradition, who defend and reproduce text uncritically, are trapped in what Wittgenstein might call a ‘form of life’ (241). Plato likened it to living imprisoned in a cave, pursuing a troglodyte existence ruled by convention and fear of the unknown (Republic Book 7). It is interesting to speculate that the tame Platonic ‘puppet show’ may have primitive origins in the image of early humans huddled in solidarity round a fire, the cave walls patterned by flickering shadows, their shapes shifting and unaccountable, while outside lie unknowable dangers, not to

be faced in the dark, and largely indecipherable within the cave despite the artificial fire-light. It is a potent representation of fear. Those venturing forth on the intellectual scramble to seek the source of the shadows (to find truth) must be prepared to risk themselves on two counts: first in view of what they might find outside, and second on account of what their fellow humans might do to hold them to the text that currently governs behavior in the cave.

Those leaving the enchanted circle may not return. Those remaining have to learn to tolerate the courageous quest of those who ‘go beyond,’ and to deal with the emotional disturbance and communal risk involved. We know what happened to Socrates. We worry that today’s South African society, focused wholly on instrumental programmes directed to immediate ends, will not have the courage, vision or knowledge to support the quest.


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