By Gatsinzi Basaninyenzi
Recently on a Friday afternoon, I was having lunch with two African colleagues in the USA, one a professor of Education and the other a professor of Biology. (I teach English language and literature.) Casually, I mentioned that I was glad I did not have any quizzes or papers to grade that weekend.
Then, perhaps unintentionally, the colleague who teaches Biology made a remark that I and my other colleague found quite offensive. She said that unlike her, we had it easy, for we taught what she called “the soft sciences” (as opposed to what she called “the hard sciences” – the natural and physical sciences and their application – biology, chemistry and physics, engineering, medicine, etc.).
The remark made by the Biology professor that the humanities and the social sciences are “soft sciences” took me back to 1972 when I was an undergraduate at the National University of Zaire. That year, the Ministry of Higher Education carried out some reforms which were designed to place more importance on the natural and physical sciences and their application. The government gave students who majored in these disciplines a generous scholarship, double than what students in humanities and the social sciences were getting.
Predictably, the consequences of those education reforms were unfavourable. There were many students who decided to major in the so-called “hard sciences”– students who were under-prepared for these disciplines – and those of us in the so-called “soft sciences” were left feeling worthless. Fortunately, it did not take long for the Ministry of Higher Education to realize the mistake it had made and to reverse the ill-fated scholarship policy. Unfortunately, even to this day, official discourse in many African countries still marginalizes the humanities and the social sciences in university curriculums.
It is undeniable that natural and physical sciences are essential for economic development. In our increasingly modernizing and globalizing society, and particularly in Rwanda where the population density is among the highest in the world, the natural and physical sciences provide us with the essentials of life. They provide us with food, clean water, and lasting shelter – without which we would live in miserable conditions. However, if I can indulge in quoting from the Bible, man shall not live by bread alone. Put differently, humanity needs both the natural sciences and the humanities to survive and to thrive.
Let me illustrate my point by borrowing from philosopher Andrew Chrucky, who has aptly used Robinson Crusoe, an eighteenth-century English novel by Daniel Defoe, to distinguish between the natural and physical sciences and the humanities. In the novel, the main character, Robinson Crusoe, is shipwrecked on a tropical island where he stays for 28 years before being rescued.
Chrucky imagines Crusoe trying to survive alone on the tropical island. How does he secure food, water, clothing and shelter? Luckily, his ship had a library that is still intact. Needless to say, the first books he looks for are those on tropical plants to know which ones are edible and which ones are poisonous. He also looks for books which show how clothing and shelter can be made from materials found on the island.
According to Chrucky, the information on these resources and how to use them is what constitutes scientific and engineering knowledge. To access that information in the books, however, Crusoe needs to understand the language or languages in which they are written, and of course he needs to have reading skills. All these skills, Chrucky observes, help Crusoe to exploit the natural resources on the island and to ensure his survival.
Chrucky then imagines another person, Friday (also a character in the novel), appearing in the space which Crusoe has occupied. To interact with Friday, Crusoe needs to learn his language, or Friday needs to learn Crusoe’s language. Suddenly, language has a dual function: before Friday’s appearance, language helped Crusoe access scientific and technical knowledge. Now, it allows both Crusoe and Friday to communicate.
Why would Crusoe want to communicate with Friday and vice versa? First, they don’t know what to expect from each other. Can Crusoe trust Friday not to take his food, clothing, shelter, or even his life? Finding himself in this sort of insecurity, Crusoe is faced with some choices. One, he may choose to kill Friday because he is unsure of his intentions or because he wants to have the island to himself. Two, if Crusoe has the means and he thinks he can outsmart Friday, he can choose to enslave him so that he may have free labour. But as we know from history, one of the disciplines in the humanities, these two choices have been the root cause of most conflicts, of wars, and indeed of genocides. Fortunately, there is a third choice. Having learned Friday’s language, he may choose to communicate with him in order to make a deal or a kind of contract with him. They may agree, and here I am quoting Chrucky:
1.Not to kill each other.
2.Not to injure each other.
3.Not to steal from each other.
4.Not to lie to each other.
5.To come to each other’s aid when there is distress.
6.To take from nature what is needed for their survival, and to take as much as they can store, as long as there is enough for both of them.
There are other agreements they may make in addition to the above. They may, for example, agree on a division of labour, depending on their skills and abilities. To reach all these agreements, Chrucky concludes that both Crusoe and Friday must control their emotions and regulate their behaviour in order to accommodate each other, knowing that their survival and welfare depends on each other. I would like to use Chrucky’s scenario emphasize that without the lessons learned from the human experience over the years – lessons that we find in, say, literature, history, and philosophy, all disciplines in the humanities – we risk living in a jungle where the survival of the fittest becomes the rule. If history is replete with stories that have tragic endings, it is indeed because certain individuals or groups of people chose not to communicate with others and to have social contracts that are mutually beneficial. Lest we forget, it was philosophers, British rationalists like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who wrote that all humans are created equal and therefore are entitled to natural rights (life, liberty, property and health). Their writings laid bare the myths that for centuries had justified and legitimated the caste system in Europe where monarchs took away people’s lives at their whim, where no one dared speak his or her mind, and where hundreds of aristocrats owned everything and millions of serfs owned nothing. It is also these rationalist ideas that gave birth to American democracy, for when Thomas Jefferson wrote in The Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” he was echoing British and other European rationalists.
If the humanities were just about the equality of all human beings and their natural rights, that alone would justify their importance in any university curriculum. We are all too familiar with the dehumanizing language calling all Tutsis “cockroaches” that was part of the discourse of their Genocide. Indeed, all Genocides and all caste systems through history have been justified and legitimated by a discourse characterizing one group of human beings, the victims, as being less that human.
Besides reminding us that all humans are created equal and are entitled to natural rights, the humanities also intellectually equip us with tools to think critically and to make moral choices that have humane consequences for all that the choices affect. Since the earliest times to which we trace the humanities in written texts, philosophers like Plato and Aristotle held that all human beings are torn between two urges: the urge for self-love, which makes them behave and act like animals; and the urge of reason, which makes them make moral choices. For Aristotle, a moral being ought to have a combination of two virtues: the wisdom of reason and a willingness to always be moderate.
Necessity for humanities
Without this wisdom of reason, man descends into the realm of the animal kingdom. To exercise wise reason, C.J. Ducasse tells us in “Liberal Education and the College Curriculum” that man must first be free from tyrannical rule and from extreme poverty. For example, he says, a slave has no use for wise reason, for he or she must do the bidding of his or her master, no matter how much reason may compel him or her to do otherwise. Likewise, a person in extreme poverty may easily engage in acts that are not sanctioned by wise reason, for example killing another person in order to expropriate his or her property.
For Ducasse, the counsel of wise reason is not a matter of insight but of training – “of a man’s having acquired the habit of letting reason determine on each crucial occasion which impulses or considerations should be allowed to prevail, and which should be restrained or subordinated.” It is this kind of training that the humanities provide. To use Dewey words, the kind of education that the humanities provide is that which leads to “hospitality of mind, generous imagination, trained capacity of discrimination, freedom from class, sectarian or partisan prejudice and passion, faith without fanaticism.”
In “To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education,” William J. Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education, reminds us that the humanities “tell us how men and women of our own and other civilizations have grappled with life’s enduring, fundamental questions: What is justice? What should be loved? What deserves to be defended? What is courage? What is noble? What is base? Why do civilizations flourish? Why do they decline?”
Clearly, if our young men and women in our universities are to be equipped with the tools to think critically and to make moral choices, and if a culture of ethics is to pervade all structures of our society, the humanities must be at the core of the university curriculum and official discourse must reflect their importance.
The author is a visiting professor of English at the National University of Rwanda