It’s the whole idea …

By Jeffrey Sehume

According to the conventional opinion of those who see education as a route to economic prosperity, the choices are clear. A student entering South African post-school institutions in 2012 faces few career choices.

The student can select a subject stream either demanded by the market or one invariably leading to the unemployment lines. Those following the market option choose the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.1 A possible outcome for them is a financially rewarding job and potential to generate employment for others, whereas for those who register for the humanities and social sciences (HSS), prospects of a secure livelihood are slim.

A serious skills mismatch Statistics

released by Adcorp2 research in January indicate a serious skills-market mismatch in our country. In stark terms, it means graduates produced by our post-school institutions have no commercial value. It means the fate of 600 000 unemployed university graduates is bleak in a global context reeling from the recent financial meltdown.

Also discouraging about this Adcorp report is the fact that the private sector has more than 800 000 unfilled posts. But since most of these unemployed graduates possess HSS qualifications, these posts will remain unfilled, because they require skills in finance, accounting, management and engineering. To compound matters further, there are careers where employment can be guaranteed, but enrolment figures for artisan training at further education and training (FET) colleges are not encouraging. The popular reason given for this is that FETs are deemed as places that yield second-rate professions.

Given these limited career choices, what factors are responsible for this state of affairs? What can be done to re-orientate the standing of the HSS in the eyes of students, institutions themselves, funders and policymakers? A historical examination of HSS and STEM is necessary.

Capitalism the cause of the separation of human and natural sciences

The separation of natural sciences from human and social sciences is artificial. This separation is the product of the enlightenment period3 in its goal to master nature and produce factual knowledge for humanity’s progress.

In this spirit, the social sciences, following the natural sciences, would function to support knowledge paradigms geared towards this pursuit of progress and civilisation. In their support of natural sciences, the social sciences would play a role in explaining, categorising and demarcating social relations between the ‘civilised’ and tribes (classical anthropology); those with the means of production and those with labour power (Marxism); social actors in society (sociology); and variations in the modern world (history). The well-known figures of this modern age are Max Weber, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.

An overriding economic model for which this separation was meant is capitalism and its creation of hierarchies in work, family, education and society in general. What eventually emerged were academic disciplines staffed by educated experts. The natural sciences would claim for themselves a superior position, owing to the objective and factual knowledge they produced.

Such knowledge, arrived at through scientific rigour, would serve a utilitarian purpose in the 20th century dominated by technological breakthroughs, medical advancements and engineering feats (positive and negative) seldom seen in the history of humanity. With the progression of the world of work from mechanical production to services and the post-industrial age, STEM careers triumphed further over HSS.

On the other hand, the accumulating crises of the late 20th century exposed the fault lines of this separation. These mainly manmade crises include environmental degradation, diminishing energy resources, rising poverty, the digital divide and social breakdown.

Re-evaluation of education and training models necessary

But what is slowly becoming starkly clear is that these crises call for a reunification of disciplines. This unification is vital, since the crises we face as a species are far too complex to face using individual approaches.

To engender equitable and sustainable solutions, there has to be a re-evaluation of education and training models inherited from the 19th century. As Albert Einstein counselled, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

However, the practice on the ground still holds otherwise. There is still widespread reluctance to accept the need to first support HSS curricula and consider merging HSS and STEM. This matter is made all the more crucial by the three million unemployed youth between the ages of 18 and 24 who pose a risk to the socio-economic and political stability of the country. Can the likelihood of a South African Spring4 be dismissed as a far-off possibility?

More immediate, is the social security system sustainable for the country’s fiscus? On a positive note, it is encouraging to see concerted interventions being made to arrest this double-edged problem that calls for a paradigm shift and proper re-education models. The interventions by both public and private stakeholders should be welcomed, especially since there is a reappraisal of capitalism (concerned with the bottom line), neoliberalism itself and the educationwork system they have handed down across generations.

Key recommendations made by new reports

The Report on the Charter on Humanities and Social Sciences commissioned by the Department of Higher Education5 is a bold effort to stem the rising tide against HSS education and training. The key recommendations it submits are worthwhile. In particular, they include ‘catalytic’ programmes aimed at resuscitating features unique to SA history and relying on indigenous languages to communicate education and training programmes. This is an abiding lesson we should have learnt from all successful countries that appropriate what is useful from elsewhere, while centred on endogenous development.

To achieve this, public and private partnerships are imperative to fund curricula that inculcate ethics in business; public values in scientific progress; and pursuit of a common good by elected public representatives. If we fail to promote such holistic education, we may continue producing what the philosopher Rabindranath Tagore6 termed “the suicide of the soul”.

Striking a similar tone, the Consensus Study on the Future of the Humanities in South Africa, commissioned by the Academy of Science of South Africa7, recognises that the HSS cannot be perceived as easy subject options that have no value in society or for shared economic growth.

This report makes a notable observation about the “secondary role and status” of HSS in the “technology-driven understandings of innovation, accompanied by shrinking funding and support, an ambivalent integration into the policies and structures of the prevailing ‘national system of innovation’ and its associated research and development frameworks”.

Interestingly, both reports note the overlooked fact that most HSS graduates are employed, albeit in the public sector. While it may be accurate to state that HSS are trapped in “intellectual stagnation”, this is a result of an ageing academic personnel unwilling to transform. What has not helped the cause of HSS is their lack of practical application to deal with “real-life” issues instead of focusing on language games, such as is the case with postmodernism and cultural studies.

In this light, the release of the Green Paper for post-school education and training by the Higher Education Department8 should be applauded. One hopes in its statement that “the green paper provides a vision for a single, coherent, differentiated and highly articulated post-school education and training system”, is also meant an appreciation for education that goes beyond rote learning and supports the teaching of HSS and STEM concurrently.

World citizenship education a priority

One also hopes it calls for world citizenship education that appreciates the interrelatedness of problems in the world. For example, the 2008 global financial crisis was caused by greedy bankers who ultimately failed in their societal obligations. The humanities and social sciences remind us what it means to be existentially human and our responsibilities to each other and the natural environment. As Tagore said, “We may become powerful by knowledge, but we attain fullness by sympathy.”

References: 1. STEM subjects are internationally regarded as strategically integral to economic development. See, for example,

2. Adcorp is South Africa’s largest diversified employmentservices company, offering staffing, human capital management and business process outsourcing services, as well as analyses of employment data.

3. The eighteenth century was called the Age of Enlightenment. The popular belief at this time was the view that modern science and our understanding of the social world derived from modern science can help us to improve the living conditions on this planet. See, for example, 1999/DBQTimeLine%207-99.htm.

4. The Arab Spring was a revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests occurring in the Arab world that began on Saturday 18 December 2010. To date, rulers have been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen (Source:

5. See for example,

6. Rabindranath Tagore (7 May 1861–7 August 1941), sobriquet Gurudev, was an Indian-Bengali polymath. He made the comment on 2 July 1916, in a lecture delivered to the students of the Private Colleges of Tokyo and the Members of the Indo- Japanese Association, at the Keio Gijuku University. The lecture has come to be known as ‘The Spirit of Japan’. Available at:

7. Available at: on-humanities-crisis-in-south-africa/.

8. See BMDHkLM%2FeGc%3D&tabid=36.

Category: Winter 2012

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