Quo vaditis, humaniora? A call to gird computational loins before it’s too late.
27 May 2021 - 10 min
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Most people in and around academia are aware that the humanities are not doing well. And if they aren’t, they should be. The situation is bad enough in the social sciences, but it’s worse in the humanities. But could computational skills in the humanities be part of the answer? Read on.
The statistics are terrifying. As seems to have been the case over the past decades practically everywhere in Europe, North America and Australia, in the Netherlands too the humanities have witnessed a steady rise in the number of students and a very substantial decrease in funding.
One doesn’t need a degree in business administration to understand what this means. Yet the tide doesn’t seem to be turning, and that raises a fundamental question. Do humanists comprehend the signs of the times?
Tilting at windmills
Once in a while professors and deans publish letters of substantial alarm in national newspapers, underlining the indispensability of the humanities. From time to time, representatives of the humanities demonstrate against alleged governmental neglect. Recently WOinActie has made itself heard in the Netherlands; they’re a group of dissatisfied Dutch academics, largely led by humanists, who recently attempted to catch the eye of parliament by jumping into the court pond in The Hague.
Now, no minister worth his or her salt will deny that disciplines like philosophy, Dutch literature, media studies or history are important. At the same time, no minister is likely to reach deeply into their pocket to permanently resolve the problems felt by destitute and overburdened humanities’ departments and faculties.
Like it or not, solutions to societal challenges are normally not sought, to any large degree, in German literature, art history, musicology or theoretical philosophy. Politicians expect such challenges to be resolved through the more technologically oriented disciplines, or disciplines where quantification is the standard modus operandi. Whether or not technology or quantification are necessarily the best options is not really the point here, although it is a point humanists like to make. The inescapable fact is that we live in an advanced technological society in which quantification matters. That society puts its money where its mouth is and not entirely without reason.
For all the evils that have resulted from science and technology, it is difficult to deny that over the past two or three centuries they have, on average, led to higher standards of living, better health, more safety and perhaps even more equality for more people than ever before. A grassroots movement of disgruntled academics won’t change our modern reliance on technology, even if the decline of the humanities as we know them is felt to be unjust, unwise and unwarranted. It’s an illusion to suppose that these circumstances will change anytime soon.
Well then, if politics isn’t going to lend a hand, perhaps it’s time for some introspection. Remember C.P. Snow’s 1959 Cambridge lectures? Snow talked about the growing contrast between “two cultures”, the humanities and the natural sciences. In terms of reputation and influence, the latter did not come within miles of the former. Ask someone at a cocktail party whether they have read Shakespeare and the chances are that you’ll have a stimulating conversation. Ask someone at a cocktail party whether they find the Second Law of Thermodynamics exciting, and the conversation will end before it has even begun.
The gap Snow identified hasn’t disappeared. On the contrary, it’s larger than ever. Some people even suggest that academia suffers from a three culture problem, now with the social sciences standing out from everything else (“Ask someone in your next Zoom breakout room whether they have performed their daily two-sample t-test…”). But in contrast to the 1950s, it isn’t the natural sciences but the humanities that are being painted into a corner. The reason is not that people at cocktail parties necessarily give more heed to central tenets in the natural sciences; the reason is that nobody reads Shakespeare anymore.
More than ever, the humanities need to justify their raison d’être. The most important argument they put forward is that the humanities facilitate society’s self-reflection. Humanists are trained to interpret, contextualise social issues, offer “cultural criticism”. Self-reflection results in a richer outlook on the world and a confident, knowledgeable, critical and open-minded citizenry. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this argument. On the contrary, it expresses the humanities’ unique selling point.
Overtaken by technology
The problem, however, is that we are reaching a stage where the functions traditionally conferred on, or appropriated by, the humanities, are rapidly being assumed by clever machines. Before long computers will be able to analyse novels, ascertain bias in communication, lay bare the argumentative structure of parliamentary debates, identify gender inequality, and evaluate mass and multimedia journalism in different languages and contexts.
Soon enough computers will start producing fake humanities analyses, in comparison to which the 1996 ‘Sokal hoax’ will seem an amateur kindergarten affair. Imagine computers using tricky algorithms to write fake histories of social groups with strong feelings about identity. Such histories will be so many powder kegs waiting to explode.
During information events for studies in the humanities prospective students are often told that, having completed their bachelor’s, they will possess certain distinctive, competitive qualities. Most importantly, they will be able to analyse and summarise large quantities of information, and produce accessible and readable reports. In the near future computers will be in a position to do all this both faster and better. Where does that leave the humanities?
Certainly, some humanists are aware of these developments. Some think ‘critically’ about this, albeit from a distance. That sits well with the humanist self-consciousness. And there is no doubt that this social critique is helpful and meaningful. But humanists stand empty-handed as soon as digitalisation encroaches on their own field of study. They can then do little else than look on helplessly as technologically savvy people or, even scarier, computers themselves, devise new algorithms to do humanities’ work.
Signs of the times
So, what will humanists do once clever machines are able to replicate traditional scholarly products? Enthusiasm about ethics simply won’t suffice, let alone the rather gratuitous criticism of the digital world one often encounters on the academic shop floor of humanities faculties. But this isn’t about the effects of artificial intelligence on democracy or equality; it’s about the impact of digitalisation on the humanities themselves.
If humanists want to keep control over what they do, they’ll need to come to grips with the computational methods that are capable of generating humanist-like knowledge. Most humanists, however, haven’t a clue. This makes it a little difficult to take entirely seriously the claim that humanists endure unjust discrimination. If the academic humanities want to continue to play a meaningful role in society, they will rather urgently need to get their act together.
Humanist self-analysis is overdue; it’s time to leave the comfort zone from which humanists broadcast their complaints about disinvestment and neglect. After all, there is no logic in doing nothing. We can presumably agree on two statements. First, digitalisation represents the most far-reaching transformation the world has witnessed over the past fifty years. Second, universities are breeding grounds for the leaders of the future. How difficult can it then be to put two and two together?
Will humanists take responsibility?
The humanities are actively in the process of missing the digital boat. Humanists are losing out on developments that are rapidly moulding the future. The gulf between the humanities and the sciences is growing, and the humanities are on the wrong side of the chasm. Most painfully, perhaps, since much more is at stake here than unhappy humanists: whole generations of students now leave institutions of higher education with no computational skills whatsoever. In a few years, these alumni will co-determine the course society will take, as politicians, as journalists and as ordinary citizens.
Although computers already permeate society, new crops of students haven’t the slightest clue as to what an algorithm is, how it works, what is does and, above all, how to write one. The world has changed drastically but humanities curricula are still exactly the same as half a century ago. There is no doubt that the humanities are important to society. If they are to remain relevant, they’ll need to reinvent themselves, and they need to do it now. Central to their reinvention should be a willingness to learn statistics, invest in digital methods, hone computational skills, understand algorithmic thinking. The world will be the better for it.
This blog is a revised version of an article originally published [in Dutch] on Utrecht University’s news site, Dub.
 If you don’t recall C.P. Snow and the two (and later three) cultures debate, just google. A nuanced account is offered by Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities (OUP: Oxford, 2013), chapter 1