Monday 10 December 2018

A Case for Problem-Based Humanities Research

What does it mean for a town to die?

What does it mean for an industry to die?

What responsibility does a government have to prevent these things from happening?

As someone who hails from Atlantic Canada, I wonder about these questions constantly. I’d go further and say that these questions are the most pressing concerns of nearly every jurisdiction in Canada that isn’t a metropolitan region. Yet these fundamental questions seem to rarely make it into the political conversations taking place in my home region or elsewhere. Instead, all of the political conversations I hear tend to focus exclusively on value for money.

We know, of course, that this isn’t how things play out in the real world. The truth is that per capita funding is anathema to people living in sparsely populated areas, because a turn to pure per capita funding would result in the immediate closure of countless schools, hospitals, and other vital pieces of social infrastructure that would see many of our rural communities disappear. Yet many of these communities continue to receive the support they need to continue existing, even if it constitutes a bare amount of “life support” that keeps them limping along.

To those concerned with efficiency and a utilitarian best-outcome-for-the-most-people set of values, this reality can be very frustrating. These people believe that it is only political expediency, and the disproportionate voting power apportioned to specific regions, that keeps politicians making “political” promises of social infrastructure funding to areas that, for some, should simply be permitted to die of natural causes—read: the decline of their traditional industries.

On the other side, people living in rural communities will argue for the importance of their dignity, which is directly attached to their sense of home and community. They might also point to the logistical impossibility of their moving to a more densely populated area, or the foolhardiness of concentrating all of a province’s population in one or two urban centres as a long-term strategy. Most of the time, though, these conversations tend to come back to the eternal notion of value for money, as though the meaning of "value" were self-evident. 

It’s the failure of these conversations to get to the real issues, the “Why?” that should entice governments to fund more problem-based humanities research that speaks directly to the challenges faced by local communities. What are people truly asking for when they ask to be supported in their rural communities? What is at stake in a government’s decision to subsidize a dying industry that has little chance of ever becoming sustainable again? Are better jobs really the sole way of helping citizens live more fulfilling lives? These are questions for rigorous humanities-based research.  The reason we often don’t invest in this type of research is because we’ve come to accept the notion that philosophy is a private concern, with each person’s values being just as important as anyone else’s. While this is true in a democracy, this does not mean that the ways in which people apply those values to specific decisions (and their rationale for doing so) are equal. 

It’s in this realm, the realm where people’s core values intersect with decision-making, that all of society can benefit from the help of experts in the humanities. I am a PhD in English literature, and I still would never argue that I have all the philosophical knowledge I need to assess how governments should approach the big questions I’ve outlined earlier in this piece. To achieve that kind of understanding, I’d need to read a report from a humanities scholar (or better yet, a team of diverse scholars) who has invested the right amount of expertise, time, and experience into framing and addressing these questions. That doesn’t mean that the final report will produce answers that will make everyone happy or will compel everyone to agree about what to do. It doesn’t even mean the report will produce more answers than questions. What it will do, though, is finally get us talking about the real issues, like human dignity, that underlie our policy debates.   

Without this kind of humanities-based intervention, we are left with a cacophonous town hall in which the plurality of self-interested voices becomes noise, and policymakers are much less likely to meaningfully integrate community feedback into their decisions. When you have these voices collected by experts, however, then distilled into a government report on the human value of work and community, you have something that policymakers can use (if they wish) to reflect meaningfully on the “Why?” of what they’re doing.

Let’s take the example of jobs. To be sure, there are few people in Canada who die of starvation or exposure each year. This is not to downplay the crisis of adequate food and housing that many Canadians suffer from Rather, my point is that for many people across Canada (especially for those whose entire politics are built around the notion of more, better jobs), it is wrong to believe that more, better jobs are necessary to "make people not die." It's also wrong to assume that more, better jobs will immediately cure our society of problems like violence or addiction, as a quick look at Fort McMurray will attest to.    

So if jobs aren’t the true solution, what is?

To start, we have to realize that a lack of good jobs is never the real problem. The real problem is the corrosion of security, freedom, and dignity that precarious or alienated employment has on an individual. Once we collectively accept that this assault on dignity is the real problem, we can open our minds to a wide variety of ways to help our citizens feel more empowered in their daily lives.

The point of all of this is to say that politicians across our country, especially those who govern over areas with sparse populations or dying industries, would do well to ask themselves the question, “What do our citizens actually need and want?” We should then invest not only in the stakeholder research that allows people’s voices to be heard, but the kind of problem-based humanities research that will help all of us get to the true crux of these issues. Then, we might begin having a genuine public conversation about the truly valuable things that secondary concerns like jobs are supposed to make possible.  

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