What you need to know:
- Book Review: As Makerere University celebrates 100 years, different academics in collaboration with Andrew W Mellon Foundation of New York are making a case for the humanities in Uganda and why we cannot do away with them, writes Sylvia Mwesigye.
The onslaught against arts and humanities subjects in Uganda has been persistent and vicious. It seems as if every year, a new policy comes up that puts the future of these subjects at stake. For the longest I have wondered why there is such a strong anti-humanities sentiment from certain circles. But, a group of scholars have come up with a body of work that does not only answer this question but also enlightens the reader with the history, the battles fought, those won and those lost and the future.
Aptly titled Historicising the Humanities at Makerere: The trends, Patterns and Prospects, the book explains why the current rhetoric against these subjects should not be taken lightly by detailing its far- reaching effects. The collaborative efforts from Josephine Ahikire, Levis Mugumya, Edgar F. Nabutanyi and Peter Atekyereze are articulate, forceful, isnghtful, urgent and steeped in research. In the various submissions posit that if people do not fight against anti-humanities policies, it will undermine the positive attributes that these subjects contribute to society.
Supported by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation of New York, the project’s main goal is to help “rethink and reshape the role of humanities in Uganda and re-examine the basis and significance of humanities and humanistic social sciences at Makerere University from a historical perspective.”
It is also an attempt to renew conversation and debate as well as ideational leadership of the academy.
It qualifies the importance of the humanities by pointing out that dabbling in them actually enhances the understanding of sciences by listing all the greats throughout history that did so. “Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who doubled as an engineer and a painter, was also a great thinker and is credited for laying the foundation for many modern inventions.
Likewise, scientists Nicolaus Copernicus, William Gilbert who discovered the earth’s magnetic field (1600) and Johannes Kepler whose work on planetary motion remains legendary (1609), were all philosophers as well as scientists.
William Harvey, the first physician to describe blood circulation in detail (1628), was also highly educated in philosophy and brought his philosophical knowledge to bear on his scientific work (Willis, 1847).
Even Galileo Galilei’s successful use of the telescope (1609 and 1610) to view Jupiter, the Moon, and Venus was a joint enterprise between science, astronomy and philosophy.
Indeed, a scientist of that time who did not have any philosophical credentials was an oddity,” the book argues.
Why we need humanities
The case against humanities has always been hinged on the argument that all that book learning does not have tangible contribution to societal development.
Yet, according to the authors, studying humanities gives one the ability to solve complex problems through organised reasoning and critical analysis, as well as an understanding of ethics and morality.
Disciplines, such as philosophy, literature, history, religious studies, music, and drama thrive because of their reliance on organised reasoning and value rationality.
Basing on this misconception, the humanities have been subjected to all kinds of negative campaigns and policies aimed at making them irrelevant and less attractive to students.
For instance, there has been tremendous decrease of government sponsorship for students offering humanities courses, sponsored admissions from (2011-2019) indicates a clear decline in the number of students sponsored to offer humanities courses from almost 30 per cent to less than 10 per cent. The policy, department heads say was not based on facts that could only have been obtained through rigorous engagement with the concerned individuals.
But, the department heads are not just resting on their laurels watching their departments become annihilated. They have taken various actions and implemented various interventions including reform and introduction of new courses that resonate with current employment needs, lobbying government and raising funds to sustain their various schools.
Yet a deeper dive in the book makes one question whether this is not an intentionally formulated policy based on actual information. Dominica Dipio states that “Every state is aware that no civilisation, past and present, can progress without its storytellers and artists as memory keepers and dreamers of new vision.” This covers all the humanities that are currently under attack. If the banning of arts is to free our minds from the shackles of the past, then why destroy the very tool that can effectively achieve this?
As Dipio aptly states, waging the war against foreign and cultural imperialism requires deliberate thinking. Nicholas Ssempijja also notes that contextualising as well as employing historical inquiry also allow for the understanding of events, practices, issues and to objectively comprehend them in their rightful post-colonial context.
This nature of knowledge can be situated within the public domain since universities are centres of knowledge production. Could our current leaders have borrowed a leaf of our colonial masters who as Pamela Khanakwa states that they were not interested in teaching law and liberal arts because they feared that these could cause Africans to question the status-quo?
The answers are all contained in this body of work that could not have come at a better time.
It is a candid contribution to an essential conversation that needs to be held right now. The authors’ boldness and expert handling of the topic helps readers, whether in the academia, government or ordinary people seeking knowledge, gain clarity of how to navigate this delicate intellectual territory.
Disciplines, such as philosophy, literature, history, religious studies, music, and drama thrive because of their reliance on organised reasoning and value rationality. Basing on this misconception, the humanities have been subjected to all kinds of negative campaigns and policies aimed at making them irrelevant and less attractive to students. For instance, there has been tremendous decrease of government sponsorship for students offering humanities courses, sponsored admissions from (2011-2019) indicates a clear decline in the number of students sponsored to offer humanities courses from almost 30 per cent to less than 10 per cent.