I recently moderated a virtual event about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hosted by the Department of Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies at the University of British Columbia. The event had experts give brief presentations about the war’s background and the session was attended by almost 1,000 people.
The audience questions touched on subjects like Ukrainian language, culture, history and international law. And in their responses, the experts helped provide background and context for the events unfolding in eastern Europe.
Lately, Google searches like “reason for Russia Ukraine war” and “Why is Russia attacking Ukraine?” have been frequent. Since the middle of February 2022, Google searches about the invasion increased dramatically, corresponding to a widespread desire to learn about current events (what is happening) and their background (why it is happening).
In the wake of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, media organizations sought experts who could comment on the crisis. University and college news offices created lists of faculty with expertise in history, cultural studies, political science and international relations — some part of the humanities. And humanities education, scholars and scholarship are essential in helping us illuminate the causes of the war and what’s currently happening in Eastern Europe.
Institutions are rightly eager to promote their faculty’s expertise, but these requests reveal what many of us know: that a lot of these experts aren’t available because of a decline in student enrolment and a shift in specializations that impacts hiring practices. According to Statistics Canada, enrolments in the humanities declined by over 6 per cent between 2015 and 2020.
Humanities informing the situation in Ukraine
The humanities, social sciences and fine arts have long been considered part of a liberal arts education and although the humanities can be difficult to define, one definition says that they “investigate[s] ideas and culture.” Example fields from the humanities include philosophy, history, literary studies, languages, classics and many more.
While there is no doubt that the Ukraine crisis benefits from expertise in fields like political science and economics, many journalists and public commentators have been using skills or discussing subjects associated with the humanities.
Articles have even explained why we should be saying “Ukraine” and not “‘the’ Ukraine.” Others have detailed the current war’s history, the development of the crisis and Putin’s warped presentation of history. Stories have looked at Ukrainian and Russian languages, the relationship between literature and national culture, interpretations of the symbol “Z” and the role of disinformation.
Familiarity with historical events, their interpretations, distortions and cultural representations can help everyone become and remain engaged citizens of the world.
Historians like Heidi Tworek are commenting on the crisis from a humanities perspective, helping people understand and be able to meaningfully engage with this complex situation. Through her work, she has commented on how common phrases used to describe the present moment in Ukraine misjudge history. Arguments like these provide context. Tworek argues that calling Russia’s aggression against Ukraine the first outbreak of similar hostilities in Europe since the Second World War overlooks the genocidal conflict that took place in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
The curiosity, empathy and critical thinking that the humanities aim to encourage help us comprehend what is happening in the present and how it relates to what has previously occurred. By recognizing past atrocities and their significance beyond quantifiable data we appreciate how many aspects of human life, like language, nationality and cultural expression, are involved in events that may seem purely political.
Value of a humanities-based education
Currently, priority is being placed on education that directly relates to “employability” or income. The province of Alberta recently implemented a system of tying post-secondary education funding to graduates’ income and employment rates while boosting specific fields’ funding.
Identifying outcomes for a degree or program can be useful, but it doesn’t come without problems. Not all lines of knowledge have foreseeable outcomes or objectives that can be immediately linked to a practical purpose.
Moves away from the humanities contradict both public opinion and research data about the fields involved. And higher education is one of the first opportunities for students to explore humanities. Experience within the humanities and social sciences helps to develop abilities that extend beyond what might be required for one’s job, like critical thinking, understanding text and media and “active listening.”
The British Council found in a 2015 study that a majority of professional leaders were graduates of fields in the humanities and social sciences. Expanded cultural knowledge, with broader exposure to different kinds of knowledge, contributes to a more flexible and diverse society.
As we observe with the war in Ukraine, humanities skills are crucial for understanding 21st-century problems. We need their study to be widely available and supported as we confront complex issues.