Thursday August 21 2014

We are not a society of robots to declare Arts courses useless

By Nick T. Twinamatsiko

The Daily Monitor of August 18 reported that President Museveni, while launching a laboratory at Ndejje University, labelled humanities courses as useless, arguing that graduates of the courses can hardly solve anything to steer national development.

It’s easy to see where the President is coming from. We have a situation of a huge skills deficit in industry amidst high levels of graduate unemployment, a situation that mirrors the vast gulf between the world of learning and the world of work. Many researchers have traced the low productivity levels in the local construction industry to the dearth of skilled craftsmen and technicians.

We continue to rely on foreign firms to develop our infrastructure. Oil exploration is expected to cause a surge in demand for technical skills, and some have expressed fears that we will soon have to import craftsmen.

There are some technical institutions that offer craft courses to S4 leavers, but only the worst performers, who cannot be admitted to any A-Level school, opt to join these institutions.

The President’s remarks can, therefore, be understood in the context of the laudable efforts to bridge the gulf between education and industry.

But when you realise that the glorification of academic certificates for their own sake is part of the broader culture of putting form above substance, you also realise that we still desperately need the humanities. There are very many norms in our society that have no foundation in logic, and the humanities are essential in cultural reform.

Contemporary African cultures cannot claim to have no need for humanities while they retain an abundance of complacence, dependence mentalities, sycophancy, vagueness, paralysis, poor leadership; exorbitantly paid but perpetually indebted Members of Parliament; slothful youths that converge on village grounds eagerly waiting for the President to come with sacks of free money; public officials with no sense of ethics; teachers that defile their charges; university graduates without the language skills to write readable reports.

Africa’s root problems are cultural, and the physical sciences have no solutions for them.
Perhaps the President’s attack was directed at scholarship that’s detached from reality – at ideas that have no connection with societal problems.

But if the humanities courses are so detached from reality, then the solution is not to cast them away as useless, but to review their content and teaching methods, so that the graduates can generate relevant ideas.

Some have responded to the President’s speech by observing that even our engineers haven’t achieved anything exceptional.

There is much truth in that. Engineering faculties impart relevant knowledge and skills, but when learners, upon graduation, enter a world of work saturated with corruption and ruled by mediocrity, their knowledge and skills gradually rust.

The overriding cultural environment has to be reformed if engineers are to innovate, invent and excel.

There is need to reduce the number of students pursuing humanities course and to increase the numbers pursuing the science, technical and vocational courses. But we must not forget that we still need humanities.

To realise the needful cultural reform, government should invest in humanities research. Paradoxically, one of the researches that should be done in humanities is why most officials in our country don’t read, let alone act, on research findings.

Saying that humanities graduates can’t solve any of our problems simply reveals that we don’t know our problems well enough. The more we move away from humanities, the closer we draw to becoming a society of robots. And there will have to be someone to direct the robots – perhaps someone in the Western world.

Mr Twinamatsiko is a civil engineer and novelist.