Volume 12, Number 11 February 4, 2005

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Central role of humanities & fine arts not appreciated, says departing prof.

By Anthony J. Harding

Recent discussion of the decline of liberal arts at the University of Saskatchewan seems to show that there has been – at the very least – some weakening of lines of communication between faculty and administration. Certainly Provost Atkinson’s statement that “the Integrated Plan does not ignore the social sciences and humanities” (OCN, 21 January 2005, pg. 2) clashes with the perceptions of many humanities, fine arts and social sciences faculty. In the interests of explaining more fully why so many in this college are disillusioned about the planning process it might be helpful to hear from a faculty member who has decided to leave the University, largely as a result of frustration with the marginalised position of the humanities and fine arts.

During the academic year 2002-03, the Department of English, along with all other units, was asked to consider what its priorities would be, within a pre-determined university-wide framework, if it were allocated some of the increased funding made available as a result of a change in the way higher education is financed in Saskatchewan. This mechanism effectively placed us in the position of having apparently to struggle for a share of additional funding by trying to align our priorities with institutional ones. In many departments, including ours, discussions proved divisive, but most faculty endured them in the hope that they might lead to benefits.

The document that resulted from this time-consuming process, A Framework for Action (14 May 2004) outlines “a series of strategic initiatives ... in ... health; science, technology, and society; environment; business and entrepreneurship; extending community; and public policy”. I have heard some colleagues complain, with reason, that teaching and learning should have been mentioned somewhere in the first few paragraphs, since these are surely the core functions of a university. The following paragraph does refer to “investments” aimed at “retaining students and preparing them for success in the knowledge age.” Perhaps teaching was in the minds of the people who drafted that sentence, though it is very hard to tell. “Preparing [students] for success in the knowledge age” appears to refer mainly to ensuring that students are computer-literate.

Still, a humanities or fine arts professor, reading this sentence, might decide that our areas of learning would fall under “extending community.” So, we turn to this section – which comes after those on “health,” “science, technology, and society,” “environment,” and “business and entrepreneurship” – to find that it makes a passing reference to “achieving other things essential to quality of life” (that is, other than “competitiveness, productivity, and business innovation”): these other “key elements” include “community-based business such as co-operatives and nonprofit voluntary organizations ... These also include the performing arts, literature, culture, and civilization, physical activity and sport, particularly where these succeed in bringing a higher quality of life to the citizens of the province”. So much for teaching courses on Marx or Wollstonecraft, on Sophocles, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Marquez, or Soyinka.

This is the sort of language that is used by a tobacco company when it donates a few thousand dollars to an opera production. My point here is not that the IP document is poorly written (though it is), nor even that it emphasizes science, technology, and entrepreneurship to the virtual exclusion of everything else. Rather, I would ask whether it wasn’t ill-advised of the Administration to so trivialize the primary professional commitment of Fine Arts and Humanities faculty, putting them in an “also” clause following a reference to “nonprofit voluntary organizations,” and reducing the content of their disciplines to these banal catch-all phrases. Whatever the intention may have been, in the context of the “pausing” of faculty positions in these areas and the closing or merging of departments, it looks like a calculated snub to everyone who teaches in our disciplines.

What the IP process ignores is that faculty in English, as in other humanities departments, are devoted to the learning and teaching of their discipline. Of course, they disagree, sometimes radically, about its boundaries and direction: critical thinking demands no less. Nevertheless, humanists agree in considering education and critical method more central to university life than “competitiveness, productivity, and business innovation.” Every time a planning exercise is begun, we cherish the hope that this time, there may finally be some recognition of the centrality of the humanities in the University. The humanities and fine arts exist in order to critique the way our society sets its priorities and the way of life it forces on its citizens – not to improve “quality of life” in some pathetically decorative way. Further, teaching students humanities courses contributes in a critical way to their formation as independent-minded, creative, responsible citizens. This role for the humanities is not, apparently, understood at this university. After too many disappointments of this kind, exhaustion sets in, and one ultimately decides that the battle is unwinnable. I know that many of my colleagues feel that this point has been reached.

Anthony J. Harding is a professor in the U of S Department of English.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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