The university and the humanities

Jovito V. Cariño
The university and the humanities
Thanks to the university, the humanities can enjoy the space they need to thrive. Thanks to the humanities, the university can help students find their soul to realize what makes them whole.

That the university and the humanities have a long shared story does not require an elaborate explanation. One merely needs to look up the precipice of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Main Building to visualize this natural connection. 

Flanking the Tria Haec (the figures of Faith, Hope, and Love) on the left are the Dominican monk and writer Vincent de Beauvais, bishop-theologian Saint Augustine, and canon lawyer Saint Raymond of Peñafort.

On the right of Tria Haec are the Dominican philosopher-theologian Saint Albertus Magnus and the philosophers Aristotle and Plato. 

On A. Lacson side are the writers Lope de Vega, Aristophanes, and Moliere, while on the P. Noval perimeter are the playwrights Calderon de la Barca, Sophocles, and William Shakespeare. 

The architecture therefore of UST’s oldest, most storied, and most imposing edifice is itself a testament to the humanistic roots that UST shares with most universities all over the world. 

Since its inception, the university has been deemed as the premier custodian of human civilization, of which the humanities give the noblest expressions. The songs and dances we perform, the poems and works of fiction we read, the historical narratives we weave, the monuments and works of art we create, the philosophic discourses we exchange, are all testaments to the richness and complexity of our nature as human persons.

The humanities celebrate the human by rendering such nature in a form that can be touched, seen, admired, felt, thought so that ultimately, it can be owned, shared and loved.  Thanks to the university, the humanities can enjoy the space they need to thrive.  Thanks to the humanities, the university can help students find their soul to realize what makes them whole.

In recent years however, we have seen how global developments have led to the diminishing recognition of this vital connection due in no small measure to a dramatic confluence between economy, science and technology, and education. 

In this new configuration, economy becomes the goal; science and technology become the norm and education is reduced to an instrumental role. As a result, conscious efforts have since been enacted to make the educative process more compliant with either the economy or science and technology. 

Students are now seen as stakeholders, lessons as outcomes, books as resources, knowledge as capital, and research engagement as productivity. Teaching strategies are recalibrated to be efficient, convenient, and mobile – a process relatively similar to how we pay our bills, book a flight, or do our shopping online.  

No wonder why in the same span of time, academes all over the world have been rather lukewarm to the humanities if not outright dismissive. 

The average perception is that humanities do not produce employable skills or competencies hence the decision to reduce their course offerings. The other perception says humanities do not generate new knowledge hence the condescending attitude towards the merits of their research outputs. In other countries, this misrecognition takes the form of budget cuts of humanities departments or total suspension of grants for initiatives or programs related with humanities.  

At first glance it would appear as if this crisis affects humanities alone.  A closer look however would reveal that what is stake here, besides humanities, is the very idea which makes the university what it is. 

In the 19th century, Europe also found itself in the same crossroads. In the midst of such crisis, Cardinal Henry Newman, a clergy and academic, confronted the question of the idea of university. To paraphrase the elaborate and elegant prose with which he framed his thoughts, Cardinal Newman defined the university as none other than the place where we look for truth. 

Truth is more than just data, more than analytics, more than impact factor.  There is truth in physics as there is truth in music; there is truth is architecture as there is truth in psychology; there is truth in medicine as there is truth in literature; there is truth in theology as there is truth in philosophy; there is truth is history as there is truth in fine arts. 

The list of disciplines can go on. Truth is contained in each of them but never by only one of them. Truth is sought and has better chances of getting found when disciplines converse and converge, like musical instruments in a symphony, without infringing the respective disciplinal autonomy. 

Etymologically, the word university means whole or entire. Operatively, such wholeness or entirety is derived from the shared desire to find and speak of truth, or in the words of Aquinas, to contemplate and share its fruits with others, through the avenues specific to the individual disciplines. It is therefore futile as it is counterintuitive for any knowledge domain to impose itself on another since a hubris of such kind belies the very idea of a shared search for truth in the name of which the university strives. 

Humanities affirm and secure the legacy of the human spirit. Hence, the university as the alma mater, that is, the curator of soul, needs the humanities as its conduit to promote human flourishing and advance the cause of a just and humane community, locally and globally. 

To become doctors, chemists, artists, lawyers, accountants, teachers, architects, engineers, musicians, or entrepreneurs, students need to acquire professional competencies. But to become the kind of doctors, chemists, artists, lawyers, accountants, teachers, architects, engineers, musicians, or entrepreneurs who are able to cooperate with each other and reach out to those in need, students need humanities, and that is where the value of university education lies. 

If education had an instrumental character, it is mainly in relation to this humanistic imperative, not to any economic agenda nor any ideological ends, scientific or otherwise. Relishing the insights of Cardinal Newman on the idea of university, Timothy Radcliffe, former Master General of the Order of Preachers, had this to say to the graduates of Yale University: “…the primary function of a university is to teach us to be social beings, able to talk, to listen and learn from those who are different.”

At the end of the day, the quest for knowledge cannot be divorced from the love of wisdom. There should not be any contest, hence, between our search for facts and our pursuit for a shared sense of meaning. Either of these tasks is indispensable in our common search for truth which underlies the very idea of university. 

The struggle for the recognition of humanities’ role in the academe redounds to the affirmation of this idea. Besides, an apologia for the humanities is ultimately an appeal as well for the recognition of autonomy of the respective disciplines. It is an appeal against a mindset which, since warped and myopic, cannot conceive of cooperation beyond its parochial concerns. –

Jovito V. Cariño is a member of the Department of Philosophy, University of Santo Tomas.

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