Columnists

Why Africa still needs humanities

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University of Nairobi main entrance. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • In recent times, Africa’s underdevelopment has been blamed on our failure to put more emphasis on STEM courses.
  • Some policy makers have taken this further to mean that the continent should abandon education in humanities.
  • But in my view, humanities are the prerequisite to STEM.

There is no doubt that education in Africa has not only been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, but also by a declining capitation.

But while most institutions of higher learning are facing surging numbers of students and changing technologies, there is also pressure to teach courses that match current labour demands. And also, to position learning in Africa with the needs for the future of work.

Despite the unions demanding better remuneration, these challenges are forcing some institutions to suggest new reforms. Some of these reforms could negatively impact humanities education.

Taking a closer look at humanities in education actually reveals to us that it is an important aspect of learning. This is because it entails the study of human thought and creativity, which focuses on the following areas: philosophy, human geography, languages, literature, law, politics, history, music, performing art as well as visual art.

While Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is already dominating the learning field, many might be forced to ask; Is there value in humanities education? This question has been debated globally.

In recent times, Africa’s underdevelopment has been blamed on our failure to put more emphasis on STEM courses. Some policy makers have taken this further to mean that the continent should abandon education in humanities.

But in my view, humanities are the prerequisite to STEM. In humanities, students are given a chance for lifelong education they need to discover in the human experience.

Humanities is the basis of how we relate to each other, our creativity and our heritage, just to highlight a few areas that makes them an important tool for building the future of Africa

We can therefore capture everything in humanities in one Kiswahili idiom: Mkosa mila ni mutumwa (He who has no culture is a slave). In other words, STEM can take us to the moon but if we have no culture, then the knowledge from the mission to the moon will have no relevance to the people.

As it is at the moment, many problems that Africa is facing can be traced to the vestiges of colonialism. And science cannot in any way contribute to decolonisation of the Africa people.

The value of humanities therefore is a globally recognised. In 2018, Global University Network for Innovation organised an international conference on humanities and higher education in Barcelona, and the topic was: Generating Synergies between Science, Technology and Humanities.

The conference concluded that there is a compelling need for science and technology to go hand in hand with the humanities to face present and future global challenges. This is because the modern-day innovation is a multidisciplinary exercise encompassing science and humanities.

There is indeed an intrinsic value in understanding humanities without making any reference to STEM. Our failure to understand this broad area of education will make us to always continue to undermine the basic ideas about knowledge and deny students the ability to make any intellectual sense of the world they live in.

As the institutions seek to downsize programmes while the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is disrupting every field of education, many have missed the strategy to ensure financial stability. And that is: What is the purpose of education in society?

For example, Artificial Intelligence that is part of the technologies driving the 4IR is transforming communication through Natural Language Processing (NLP).

Experts have shown that this will make the computers to have the ability to talk to humans in the language they understand best and revive some of the dying languages.

NLP will be an essential tool especially in Africa with more than 2,000 languages. This is in itself is an opportunity for the academia to provide leadership in the translations and preserve the intellectual property (IP). It is in IP where most wealth will come from.