Humanities for the World

Recently I ran across an interesting article on education and the respect of the society at large for humanities subjects. In her article Lotta Aarikka, Master of Arts in Finnish and creative writing, makes points that are especially valid considering the tense atmosphere in Finland right now over educational cuts and the status of universities in the country. In the article she sets out to crush the popular myth about humanities subject students who cannot find a job after graduating despite their university education. One of her most convincing points is that statistically there is no subject where Arts students are categorically educated to become unemployed, thus effectively breaking the myth from the onset. Aarikka also points out that education in universities is not only about the subject matter learned, but encompasses the learning of many skills needed in working life from project management to research skills. Very often even graduates of a university may not realize how these skills are from the education they have received and are not in fact innate.

University education should not be built on the premises that we need employees with a specified skill set based on learning only these skills. The mind cannot be compared to a mathematical equation where putting in X at one end will always produce Y at the other. While learning diverse skill sets, we may set out to learn one skill, which, when combined with new challenges, leads us to learn others at the same time. University level thinking skills and the broad humanist perspective learned while studying is especially important for Arts students, who will less likely use only the subject matter that they have studied, but in addition use the skill sets they have acquired during their studies.

Besides being proud of our competence as university students, I believe we should promote the expertise that we gain from our studies, like languages. To take a simple analogy, we could compare the underappreciation of language professionals, translators and communicators to a massage therapist. Anyone can massage at some level, just like everyone (or many people at the least) can communicate with some degree of proficiency, often in more than one language. But only the massage therapist understands the anatomy of the body, knows the proper techniques and can actually bring about the needed change in muscular tension, instead of poking and prodding randomly. Similarly, the language professional knows and understands the workings of the target language and culture, understands the techniques needed to effectively convey the needed message and knows how to circumvent the most common pitfalls to avoid getting “lost in translation.”

This “everyone knows how to”-mentality is what to a great extent dims the respect for our trades. Similarly, in language professional careers, native speakers are often viewed as having perfect language skills, even though we all know many in our own country speaking our own language with less than perfect skills. We would hardly consider a car mechanic speaking Finnish as his mother tongue a “language professional” of Finnish, so why consider others with a different native language “professional” either?

Aarikka also points out that in the current mainstream discussion, we tend to focus on whether or not our education prepares us for working life, instead of discussing in what ways the level of education in Finland helps mold and shape the labor market and the jobs that we are creating. The labor markets of the future are built through the educational standards of the present, which are shaping the level of skills that the workforce has and can use in their own careers.

Instead of talking of over-educating the workforce, we should maybe discuss the opportunities that we are not encouraged to take in making the most out of that education. Armed with the skills and expertise of a university education we should be able to transform the labor market and create for ourselves the settings where we are able to use this expertise to the benefit of ourselves and our society. We have the knowledge and ways of thinking that could enable us to challenge prevailing methods of working and producing, and apply new ideas directly from research, but are not directed towards making the most out of the skills that we have learned.

This is also one key competitive advantage of university graduate employees. If we don’t have scientific research and graduates with university level knowledge and skills, how are we to stand out on an international level in any way? If we wanted to compete for cheap production, we lost that edge long ago to China, but the one thing that we have been known for (innovation and high educational standards providing a skilled workforce) should maybe not be the area to cut from in the forefront.

Aarikka’s main critique is that universities are not simply schools for employment. In fact, to take her point a bit further, teaching is only a part of what universities do and treating them as institutions for educating new employees likens their status in society to those of every other schooling institution. However, the main function of a university should be the creation of new knowledge in all areas of research (whether in humanities or natural science) whilst teaching students to continue this research tradition and to understand and be able to process the information created by universities in different expert positions. In the process, we also educate skilled laborers. This leads me to question what in our society is seen as the purpose of scientific knowledge and research?

Science in general advances the human race, not only in matters of invention and innovation, but also in challenging prevailing ways of thinking and the cultural norms at large. This second role is especially relevant for different humanistic subjects. This is evident for example in “Gender Studies”, which is often featured in jokes as one of the subjects that humanities students study not for employment, but for fun or out of interest. But how can we strive to create equality domestically or globally without research and expertise in the field to tell us where we have made progress and where we still need to focus our attention? Similarly the study of “Politics” is not to train new politicians, but to create research for advising and challenging the prevailing domestic and international systems.

In the eternal battle between natural sciences and humanities subjects we lose respect for the whole scientific community by not respecting the work that is done in all institutions. As an Arts student I fail to see how study on “the Politeness Strategies of Finnish-Swedes” or the way “International Human Rights Treaties have affected Domestic Constitutional Change” are in any way less important than “The Presence of Moss in the Antarctic” (all recent publications from the University of Helsinki).

The more the discussion revolves only around efficiency and euros, the more we forget to consider the importance of what our culture offers us. There are many things in society that we consider important even if they do not make money for us like equality, stability and information. We do not seem to be willing to pay millions for a news industry, but without one we would not even be a democratic country. On the other hand culture is also one of the biggest industries globally, though this is often forgotten when business is discussed. Popular culture in its many forms from film to print is a multi-billion business everywhere. High culture meanwhile lends itself to the task of challenging us and our societal values.

To agree with the message in Aarikka’s article, we need to say “no more” to putting ourselves down as only “humanists”, and to replace that with the attitude that we are here to prove to the rest what culture and human values give to our society and how vital we are to the proper functioning of not only our society, but the economy as well. We have a place not only in traditional cultural production, but also within the private sector and businesses, where it may not even be realized how much an Arts student may have to offer in the right places, whether communication, equality, cultural knowledge or something else is your branch of expertise.

You can read the original article by Lotta Aarikka (unfortunately only in Finnish) here:

A Humanist’s Search for a Job

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