Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Oh the Humanities!

There is a lot of talk about the Quebec university students who are protesting the proposed tuition hikes. A lot of the talk has centered around the violence committed by protesters, who have mostly been revealed as anarchists taking advantage of an opportunity for chaos, rather than students protesting for a cause. Other discussions have centered around the basic economics of the issue which have broken down the proposed changes to somewhere around a few hundred dollars or roughly $6 a day. The attention has grown to international levels and has sparked debates on everything from education rights, social justice, Quebec, Quebec vs Canada, violence, police, and politics.

In Canada, it's safe to say that the majority of people believe the following: violence is wrong, Quebec is unique, some students are passive social justice advocates, the changes to the tuition rates are a question of economics but some people want to fight on principle. Fair enough.

What isn't safe to say is that either side is justified in judging each other. On the one hand, the Quebec students may be out of touch with the fiscal reality and the larger social context of what's happening in the world outside of Quebec. They may be kicking up a lot of proverbial dust for very little benefit when that time could be better used to find employment to make up the difference in their already low education rates. On the other hand, they have a right to feel that education is a social justice issue and to fight for the principle of keeping education affordable and accessible to all. A few dollars today may mean a few thousand dollars tomorrow. Point well taken.

But there is something unsettling about the way the students are being criticized over what appears to be an issue of dollars and cents. Out of touch? Maybe. Too passionate to see that their cause is tiny? Probably also true. Movement to protest out of proportion to the possible outcome? Yes.

This statement, however, does not fall into the category of appropriate criticism(Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail, Quebec University students are in for a shock):

"The truth is, the education they’re getting is overpriced at any cost. The protesters do not include accounting, science and engineering students, who have better things to do than hurl projectiles at police. They’re the sociology, anthropology, philosophy, arts, and victim-studies students, whose degrees are increasingly worthless in a world that increasingly demands hard skills. The world will not be kind to them. They’re the baristas of tomorrow and they don’t even know it, because the adults in their lives have sheltered them and encouraged their mass flight from reality."

First, not all protestor are hurling projectiles at police. Some of them are marching peacefully in the streets and shouting slogans. Not illegal by any means and not something to be reproached. Second, the blatant attack on the social sciences and humanities is just offensive. Worthless? Who uses a word like worthless to describe education which is supposed to be a pillar of civilization, one of those things that separates us from gorillas? As a 'journalist', most people are taught to be sensitive to language, as the use of words has an enormous effect on people. 'Worthless' should not be used lightly.

It's also hard to surmise from this article with my small minded humanities based brain what a hard skill is. It is likely that hard skill and tangible outcome go together, much like engineers make machines and science people make cures and stuff like that. What a slap in the face to the thousands of people who dedicate their lives to exploring fundamental questions of existence, society and humans in general. The pursuit of meaning may be outdated to some, but if that question gets perenially lost in the pursuit of more practical things like gadgets, not only will we understand less about what we do, but we will understand a lot less about why we do it.

I get that the students are out of touch, probably expect too much and are probably fighting for very little. I get that it may seem ridiculous to some people. Wente doesn't mince her words and am I against that? Hell no! But the mean-spirited notion that there are people out there with worthless degrees just because they prefer thought and reflection to numbers and machines is wrong. The day that we lose those people is the day we become the numbers and machines. The notion has already made some of us insensitive.

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