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IN MY OPINION

We need to nurture a Canadian humanities

By AARON W. HUGHES | December 2, 2016

We’ve all heard about the “death of the humanities” – the decreasing enrolments and loss of full-time positions in these disciplines. What we tend to overlook is that, while there are certainly tenure-track jobs available in Canada, many tend to go to foreign-trained academics. However, until someone embarks on a much-needed and full-scale study on this, our evidence will only be anecdotal.

One such anecdote: at the University of Calgary, where I worked from 2001 to 2009, of the five new hires in religious studies, all were from non-Canadian institutions and three were non-Canadians. As someone on the search committee for most of those hires, I know that the old caveat, “All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply; however Canadians and permanent residents will be given priority,” is a charade. And I dare say that members of most search committees across the country know this. In my experience, there were better-qualified Canadian candidates and, moreover, ones trained in Canadian programs.

While this is my anecdote, conversations with colleagues at other Canadian institutions, in my own discipline and in cognate ones, reveal a similar situation. We have quite simply failed our graduate students, ourselves and, ultimately, the humanities in this country.

Adding to the problem is that the major discussion in graduate faculties within Canadian institutions now revolves around “professionalization.” Note the paradox: we are content to hire foreign-trained scholars, ones who often have little or no investment in the Canadian academy, yet insist on preparing Canadian-educated scholars for jobs outside of that very academy. We’ll train you in our programs, in other words, but when it comes to filling a vacancy, we’ll look to the Ivies.

Professionalization is watering down standards

If, in fact, professionalization is the new buzzword, then implicit in it is a watering down of standards. If PhD programs in classics are interested in training students, say, for museum studies, maybe, so the thinking goes, they don’t need all that philological training in Greek and Latin. Why unduly burden these students and the faculty charged to mentor them? While we’ll certainly expect the new hire from Yale to have that training, it might not be so important for our own students.

We then send these Canadian-trained students out into the job market where they will compete for positions at third- and fourth-tier American institutions, places where they’ll be in competition with better-trained Americans who often are coached in matters of professionalization. But note that “professionalization” in the U.S. (i.e., how to prepare for job interviews, etc.) does not mean the same thing it does in Canada (i.e., how to get a non-academic job).

This is a national tragedy. No developed country – especially one with Canada’s international stature – looks to other countries to train its intelligentsia. Within a generation, we risk having little more than a professional professoriate, one with little or no investment in issues relevant to Canada and Canadians.

Is there a uniquely Canadian contribution to the humanities?

We are currently having the wrong conversation. This conversation should not be, “How do we train graduate students in Canada for the professional, non-academic market?” Rather, it should be, “Is there a uniquely Canadian contribution to the humanities?”

By “uniquely Canadian” contribution, I do not mean we should start examining topics such as, “Is hockey a religion?” or “What is Canadian about the lyrics of The Tragically Hip?” What I mean is that Canada again finds itself at the forefront of many international conversations that revolve around multiculturalism, tolerance and citizenship. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms – not the American Constitution – is the model for emerging nation states. Canada has the good fortune of being international in its outlook. It does not navel-gaze or elevate its own particularistic concerns into universals.

This is not to say that we should simply transform the humanities into a set of parochial questions and answers. Nor does it mean that we should be like the Americans, where probably three out of every five jobs in the humanities is devoted to some aspect of Americana.

What it does mean is that there is a certain universal and international focus that defines Canada’s place in the world. There must, then, be a distinct Canadian way of addressing those pressing human concerns raised by the humanities.

The humanities in Canada need a distinct vision beyond terms like “professionalization” or “alternative career paths.” This shift in focus will hopefully give Canadian-trained scholars the ability to compete for jobs not only in their own country, but far beyond it.

Aaron W. Hughes is the Philip S. Bernstein Professor in the department of religion and classics at the University of Rochester. He is currently working on a monograph on the history of the academic study of religion in Canada.

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  1. PAUL ALLEN / December 5, 2016 at 9:02 am

    This comment: “No developed country – especially one with Canada’s international stature – looks to other countries to train its intelligentsia” simply begs a response.

    Most Latin American countries (for starters) have leading scholars and scientists whose training has been in the US or Europe. I’m sure other regions have similar rates of foreign-trained intelligentsia.

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