On education, empathy and employability

It appears that right across Japan universities are to close or downsize their Humanities departments in order to focus instead on offering students an education that, by dint of seemingly being more practical and vocational, is deemed to respond better to the needs of society.

The implication is that society does not need graduates with finely honed communication skills, analytical flexibility or rich imaginations. What possible use to big businesses are graduates who have learned to imagine sympathetically the position and predicament of others on a global scale, who have learned – and learned to evaluate – the art of empathy? If the success of a business is in direct proportion to its understanding of its market, what possible need can businesses have for graduates who have learned to be more self-aware – and more aware of others?

The implication is that students should pursue a degree in a subject not simply because they love it and cannot imagine doing anything else, but only if it offers some kind of professional value, the assumption being that the professional value of a practical, vocational education is such that it offers a sure ticket to a job – whereas the honest answer might be that hardly any form of education is a sure ticket to a job these days.

That said, the professional value of the Humanities is widely recognised by employers – and precisely because of the flexibility and deliberately non-vocational nature of what we offer. The usefulness of the Humanities, in other words, derives from the very fact that they are not necessarily linked to any immediate, limited or limiting utility.

The wonderful paradox of the Humanities, then, is that their apparent irrelevance is what makes them most valuable. While Humanities graduates tend to become key players in the cultural and creative industries, for instance, we are not in the business of training people for a specific profession. Rather, we are in the business of enabling people to become who they are. It’s not so much about how to make a living as about how to live – and how to live well. It’s not so much about making sure our graduates earn the most money as about ensuring that they can think about how best to spend that money, how best to be happy and fulfilled.

That seems to me to be responding very effectively to the needs of a healthy society.

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