Accord Study Of Humanities The Priority It Deserves
It is evident that there is a conscious or unconscious neglect of the study of humanities—an umbrella term for the study of religion, philosophical sciences, history, literature & art among others—in the allocation of funds for scholarships, research grants, and publications from the public and private sector in Malaysia and emerging Asian countries.
What many people do not seem to realize is that the neglect of proper support for the study of humanities in higher education will be disastrous for the future advancement and well-being of our societies: the rise of suicide, depression, anxiety and mental illness in general today is clearly an indication that the lives of millions of people lack substantive meaning that could inspire or strengthen their souls in the face of existential challenges.
Thus, if we do not do more to alleviate the issue, even our best talents will flounder and the general population will be demoralized or more disconcertingly, dehumanized.
So much so that one of the world’s leading Confucian expert, Tu Weiming, says, “At present, how to be a real human being has become an urgent problem for humanity.”
In addition, millions of professionals globally are becoming disillusioned with the senseless rat race in their working lives—which led the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare that ‘stress’ will be the health epidemic of the 21st century.
Interestingly however, William Damon, professor of education at Stanford University argues that, “The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress… it’s meaninglessness.”
Yet in this existing scenario, the humanities is neglected – where is the logic in this?
This state of affairs is perhaps due to the pestilential winds of secularization as a philosophical program that compels us to think that there is a dichotomy chiefly between knowledge and implementation, and subsequently between the humanities and the more ‘pragmatic’ or ‘practical’ sciences.
We should take heed of a remark by Glenn Seaborg, an American Nobel Prize Winner, who famously argued in 1965: “We cannot afford to drift physically, morally, or aesthetically in a world in which the current moves so rapidly — perhaps toward an abyss. Science and technology are providing us with the means to travel swiftly. But what course do we take? This is the question that no computer can answer.”
It must be remembered however, when we use this term ‘humanities’, it is only because we are making the distinction in the Western sense and since we have inherited the Western way of looking at the sciences and the humanities. But in reality, in the worldview of Islam for instance, if we speak about the science as being the definition of truth; language is part of science, history is part of science, and philosophy is also part of science.
But if nowadays we are reducing and limiting science only to physical nature, and then consider philosophy, language, music part of humanities, and not part of science, what is going to happen—in countries where there is preponderance of a favour towards the natural and physical sciences—is that we are going to ignore proper study of languages, history, philosophy, and subsequently producing a population which is devoid of imaginaton, refinement, justice, and adab.
As a result, we will have the loss of adab—something that Professor Dr Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas has drawn the Muslim world’s attention to in the last 50 years.
Historically, it was the humanities that inspired human beings in the scientific and practical domains; that enabled proper use of the intelligence to subdue the bestial self; that produces moral conscience; that enabled us to look at problems of the world in an inter-connected fashion; that enabled farsighted solutions to be developed; that enabled the imaginative faculty to be unleashed.
Even our eminent economist Royal Professor Ungku Aziz has called on our decision-makers to pay attention on this matter in 1991:
“The study of literature and mankind’s heritage should not be forgotten even though Malaysia is gearing towards becoming a scientific and progresive society in the next century… man could not live by science alone as he needed cultural nourishment for his mind. We have examples of advanced nations where scientific advancement is balanced by an education system that encourages learners to appreciate the great works of the past and present and to be familiar with at least a portion of the creative works and discourses of mankind through time and across the globe.”
In other words, it was the humanities that enabled us to be truly human and advanced—far from being a luxurious or elitist pursuit at the cost of pragmatic concerns as commonly perceived.
There are some logical implications of this line of thought, with which I would briefly like to conclude.
- The Government of Malaysia should consider establishing the National Endowment for the Humanities to support scholars, students and organizations who are studying, researching, translating and publishing works that contributes to the intellectual and cultural life of the country.
- This National Endowment Fund for the Humanities should be advised by a council of learned men and women who have proven their worth in the domain of humanities—perhaps every major universities should establish a humanities council like Princeton University’s Humanities Council.
- It is the moral duty of the private sector to apportion their wealth towards this Endowment Fund for the Humanities or directly fund professorial chairs, scholars, or publications related to the humanities—in order of priority and significance.
- The universities should restore the dignity and centrality of centres related to the humanities – it is these centres that will enable universities to be truly ‘universal’ in outlook.