Saturday, November 02, 2013

Truth For Truth's Sake

Since starting to work on my PhD I have been convinced that there is little value in "truth for truth's sake" in academia. I thought that research should lead to meaningful practical application and not arcane "how many angels can stand on the head of a pin" type discussions.

I think that I have been wrong. Two articles that I have read recently have made me stop and think. The first is from Scientific American and you can read the whole article here. It tells of a study of the results of reading 'good' literature on the reader's ability to empathise.

When study participants read non-fiction or nothing, their results were unimpressive. When they read excerpts of genre fiction, such as Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother, their test results were dually insignificant. However, when they read literary fiction, such as The Round House by Louise Erdrich, their test results improved markedly—and, by implication, so did their capacity for empathy. 
This makes sense to me. I know that reading diverse, thoughtful books leads me to understand different people, personalities and cultures better, but I was not conscious of the extent of this until I watched myself over a few days. I would not have seen good literature as being practically useful, but rather of artistic value. And yet, if every Mitchell's Plain was to have a good dose of literature expanding their horisons (rather than music videos and 7de Laan!), how different could their worlds be?

The other article was the recent foreword to a book by Prof John Higgins written by JM Coetzee. He argues that universities should be producing critical thinkers who are able to question the status quo and see the shortcomings of things to which we have become used. Yet we water down that component into a short course or two and focus on skills that will build the (now never questioned or challenged) economy. It seems to me that this thinking is developed by engagement in questions that go beyond the immediately practical. Read the article here. Here is a quote from what he writes.

You argue - cogently - that allowing the transient needs of the economy to define the goals of higher education is a misguided and short­sighted policy: indispensable to a democratic society - indeed, to a vigorous national economy - is a critically literate citizenry competent to explore and interrogate the assumptions behind the paradigms of national and economic life reigning at any given moment. Without the ability to reflect on ourselves, you argue, we run a perennial risk of relaxing into complacent stasis. And only the neglected humanities can provide a training in such critical literacy.

There is value in truth for truth's sake - it teaches us to think and argue (constructively) and ultimately also to understand.


Steve Hayes said...

Partly inspired by the same Coeotzee article, I blogged about something similar here The dissing of the humanities | Khanya.

If you abolish the humanities, you raise a generation that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Jenny Hillebrand said...

It is interesting to see how much resonance there is with the Coetzee article. At least not everyone is finished with humanities.