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Are the humanities fake?

Last week, news outlets reported that a group of three authors had produced 20 hoax papers that were submitted to several academic journals over the course of a year. The authors stated it was their goal to expose the tendency of certain academic journals to publish “grievance studies,” which they argue function as a form of pseudo-scholarship for individuals who have experienced social ills to wage a sort of ideological war. Commentators have both derided and congratulated the efforts of these authors, with some congratulating the authors for supposedly exposing the ideological biases prevalent within certain fields in the social sciences, while others have criticized the group for their glorified attempt at trolling. 

Regardless of the intentions and results of the group’s undertaking, this incident is in part a tangible manifestation of the biases against the humanities and social sciences, specifically the academic disciplines’ perceived lack of academic rigor. Complaints levied against humanities often cite the inability to “quantify” the findings produced by humanities research. In North Carolina, former Governor Pat McCrory provoked controversy earlier in the decade when he publicly stated that he would rather subsidize education that would get someone a job in response to a joke a host made about gender studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Here at Duke, humanities are seen as less rigorous compared to the “hard” sciences in the STEM field. Sociology, the once esteemed Weberian study of human society, has become stereotyped at Duke as an “easy” major prevalent among student athletes. History, once viewed as subset of the humanities, is considered a social science by Trinity. The study of politics, once colloquially known as “political philosophy,” has morphed into the more quantifiable “political science.” These changes are not simply nominal. They convey that these academic fields possess a certain heft that stretches far beyond theory and that there is a practical purpose each discipline fulfills. 

It is important to also consider the origin of the social sciences and its value to society. In the West, the origin of the social sciences can be tied to the values of the Enlightenment, which transplanted the developing scientific empiricism prevalent in the “natural philosophies” (the precursor to the modern natural sciences) to broader facets of the human experience and culture. Out of this application of the so-called scientific method onto various human experience—the mind, society, culture, the market—gave birth to the “social sciences”: psychology, sociology, anthropology and economics. In contrast, the humanities—subjects such as history, English, literature—became associated with “subjectivity” and thus “unprovable” in an academic world focused on empirical objectivity. 

Certain aspects of the humanities invoke claims of political bias. Since the 2016 election, there has been an increasing rallying cry amongst conservatives that “the left” is pervading academic institutions at the expense of conservative ideology. The stereotype of the “elitist liberal” and “ivory tower” are often invoked by public figures on the right to disparage not only higher education institutions but disciplines that fall under the humanities. This criticism is hollow in that the critics seem to want a university or college that teaches the benefits of supply-side economics or the ethical considerations of abortion while shying away from exploring topics such as gender studies and queer theory and linguistic frameworks that may challenge the status quo. If a marketplace of ideas is desired, then the humanities ought to be engaged with in a rigorous and honest matter. 

This controversy, although seemingly isolated to the academic ivory tower, echoes a similar sentiment prevalent among students at Duke. "Pratt stars" and STEM majors, crowned with their future six-figure salaries on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, seemingly sit atop the academic totem poll, boasting of their countless hard-science labs in which they are so busy curing cancer and solving world hunger. Meanwhile, down below, useless “Trinitards” flip through their microfilm readers, dissecting the second comma out of the 766th page of War and Peace, hoping that their senior theses on the social perceptions of disease in colonial Korea will “inspire” and “challenge” society. 

Needless to say, such a sentiment is misguided and corrosive to the values of a Duke education. Here at Duke, there should be no reason to bash one another just because one is a “hard science” major verses a humanities major. Society requires different modes of inquiry and thinking to solve all of the pressing problems the world faces in the 21st century. 

And besides, whether you major in sociology, English or physics, there is a good chance that most Duke students will just end up going into consulting anyways. 


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