Posted by: Principal/Editor | March 10, 2015

Is there a place for humanities in the 21st century digital age?

In the intriguing volume written by Beetham and Sharpe,[1] both have argued that in the 21st century digital age where “employability and economic recovery become key goals” of the educational endeavour, “some subject areas, for example STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)” will receive greater prominence and “a higher level of public subsidy” which effectively relegates “humanities and social sciences the preserve of those who can afford an education for education’s sake.”[2] It appears that in an increasingly technologically-driven society, the importance of humanities to what is understood as a holistic type of education is dissipating.

The points made by Beetham and Sharpe are echoed by the most recent and ominous developments in the “scaling back” of grants and investments to humanities and social sciences occurring in the federal funding regimes and philanthropic initiatives in the United States of America. [3] Research, particularly in the field of humanities and social sciences, has historically been the source of bold, fresh and new perspectives of viewing society and mankind. James Coleman’s path-breaking social science research in the 1960s led to the recognition of issues related to equality of educational opportunities. Gary Becker and James Mincer’s 1970s work on social science issues related to industry and manpower development led to what is now known as human capital theory. There is no doubt that current educational theories and practices trace their provenance to the works of Coleman, Becker and Mincer to name a few.

But why is it that research in social sciences and humanities itself seem to be increasingly under siege?

Politicians from America who seem to be hell-bent on displacing humanities by “abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be,”[4] and even those from Australia who have vowed to cut back on what it refers to as “increasingly ridiculous”[5] funding grants manifest the sustained attack on the social sciences. One can argue that the pervasive influence of neoliberalism on education that effectively reduces the value of learning to an economic factor of production[6] is to blame.

But is it possible to conceive of situations where 21st century digital learning approaches are used to complement teaching and learning humanities education?

In the land-scarce and tiny city-state of Singapore, perennially plagued with limited opportunities to teach humanities in outdoor environments – their knack for innovation may have led them to look for a possible way in which humanities can be integrated into technological learning. Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) has spearheaded the use of technology in the humanities through the use of smartphone applications. This innovative approach can be seen in this link:

This interesting approach to the integration of technology with humanities education could very well be one of the types of scenarios that may increasingly typify 21st century pedagogy. Could such a scenario be one of the ways that can resolve current problems that humanities and social sciences subjects face in an increasingly technology-rich 21st century digital age?

[1] Beetham, Helen., & Sharpe, Rhona. (Eds.). (2007). Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age: Designing for 21st century learning. New York: Routledge.

[2] Ibid., p. 265.

[3] Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. (2013). The Heart of the Matter (pp. 1-92). Cambridge, Mass: American Academy of Arts & Sciences., p. 39

[4] Ibid., p. 10

[5] Hall, Ashley. (2013, 05 Sept). Coalition plans to cut research ‘waste’. The World Today. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2013/s3841797.htm

[6] Tan, Charlene., & Reyes, Vicente. (2014). Neo-liberal Education Policy in China: Issues and Challenges in Curriculum Reform. In Shibao. Guo & Yan. Guo (Eds.), Spotlight on China: Changes in Education Under China’s Market Economy (pp. 3-18). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

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