The Annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences was held in Montréal this past week. The National Post has had a series of articles to shed light on some of the research being discussed at the Congress this year, on topics as diverse as salads and sexting. It made me think about the significance of research in the arts and why it needs to be backed up funding.
There seems to be this misperception that only research that produces tangible results is worth backing. Science and engineering schools find it easy to justify their existence but for some reason, university departments in the humanities and social sciences flounder when letting the general public know what they do.
Yeah, sure, I could be finding the cure to cancer (as I’m sure my half-finished biomedical sciences major will be enough to make life-changing discoveries) but instead I am interested in understanding why nations go to war and how peace is made. I think finding the ways in which nuclear power shifts the international and regional power balance is important, just as I think creating the next supercomputer is important. When we reduce the importance of the arts to mere monetary value (a particularly large problem in Canada due to the limited funding for PhD students in Social Sciences and the Humanities), we are not promoting true progress. We need to consider the social implications of our technological advancements; otherwise, we put ourselves at the risk of unintended circumstances.
Take for example the issue of slavery. The cotton gin tremendously increased the production of cotton, making the South even more dependent on slaves to work the plantations. The technology that raised profits degraded the value of a human life based on race. Even though the slave trade and the Civil War had many more reasons than technological advancement, without healthy debate and inquiry, society falters.
I just wanted to end this post by a quote from The West Wing (which is my favourite TV show, in case you haven’t guessed!). In the episode “Gone Quiet” (Season 3, Episode 6), Toby Ziegler comes to the defense of the National Endowment for the Arts:
There is a connection between the progress of a society and progress in the arts! The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo da Vinci. The age of Elizabeth was the age of Shakespeare.
Both the arts and sciences are meant to move in tandem. Is it too much to ask to have a 40-60 split in terms of funding?