Want to learn science at Stanford? Study philosophy first

AAH News Academy, Policy & Research

This first appeared in The Australian on June 21, 2021 and is republished courtesy of The Australian.

By Helen Trinca

Seven years after he began his science degree at Sydney University, 26-year-old Alexander Pereira is heading to Stanford University for postgraduate studies in philosophy.

It’s a journey across the disciplines he didn’t anticipate back in 2014 but one that demonstrates the potential for the renewal rather than the “death” of the humanities around the globe.

Pereira, who has a master’s in the philosophy of science, and whose PhD at the prestigious American campus will focus on how mental illness is defined and classified, says: “As our intellectual life becomes more specialised – and everything from university degrees, which put you on tight train tracks in terms of what you learn, all the way to the workforce, become focused on finer and smaller domains of expertise – the need for generalists becomes more urgent.

“We need people who can draw on diverse skillsets, perspectives, and knowledge to weigh into the picture. And the humanities are in the business of training generalists.”

Whether to train generalists has become a fraught political issue in recent months, as the federal government has moved to discourage students from enrolling in humanities and social science courses and used fee cuts to encourage them into science, engineering, architecture and building, health, education, and agriculture and environmental studies.

That loss of faith in the humanities comes after decades of declining political and policy interest in the area, as funding pressures have forced many universities to reduce subject offerings and increase class sizes.

Laura Martinez at the Australian Museum in Sydney. Picture Ryan Osland
Laura Martinez at the Australian Museum in Sydney. Picture Ryan Osland

But for Laura Martinez (pictured above right) there’s no argument about the value of the humanities. Her degree in archaeology has more than paid off. The 29-year-old came to Australia five years ago from Barcelona, via London and a masters in museum and gallery education. As a visitor experience host at the Australian Museum in Sydney, she sees first-hand the enthusiasm of adults and children for science and history alike.

“The humanities are so important for our lives,” she says. “Unless you recognise the past you can’t really go forward.”

As part of its efforts to direct student choices, the federal government has raised fees in the social sciences, humanities and law by more than 100 per cent.

It’s too early to tell if it has worked. Official enrolment figures from the institutions lag about six months, but in March, federal Education Minister Alan Tudge released preliminary numbers which he said backed the policy shift. The data, based on 25 of the nation’s 39 universities, showed a 7 per cent increase in new students, with the biggest increases in cheaper courses: 14 per cent in the natural and physical sciences; 13.2 per cent in IT; 9.5 per cent in engineering and related technologies; 6.7 per cent in architecture and building ; and 8.3 per cent in health.

Education, where fees were cut in half, rose by 11 per cent.

In agriculture, environmental and related studies, enrolments rose 13.6 per cent.

But enrolments rose by 5.8 per cent in the social sciences, humanities and law, despite students being asked to pay an extra $8000.

The universities and analysts caution it is difficult to separate the impact of the fee changes from extra “Covid-19” places the government funded to enable more young people to go to university this year.

Andrew Norton, professor in the practice of higher education policy at the Australian National University, said in a response to the Tudge press release that “applications tend to move with the labour market whether there are fee changes or not, making it hard to attribute much of the demand-side change to price cuts”.

But Norton said there may have been a publicity impact from the government telling potential students “which courses it thinks will lead to jobs (wrongly in the case of science)”.

But for the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the fee hikes are the last straw for a sector it says has been remarkably resilient but is now showing signs of stress.

Executive director Dr Christina Parolin says the academy is seriously concerned about the government’s actions of “actively dissuading students from enrolling in many humanities and social science courses” by using fee increases and inferring job “irrelevance” even though jobs data showed humanities graduates equalled or outperformed their science counterparts.

“It feels like we’re at a tipping point with the shift in government policy coming precisely at the same time as the devastating impacts of university job losses across teaching and research,” Parolin says.

Alexander Pereira has little doubt about the value of the humanities to his work in mental illness.

“I think that the current Western approach to mental illness and psychiatry, while very important, is incomplete, and biomedical research alone won’t fill in the picture,” he says.

“For example, people with Western backgrounds can get a lot better with pharmaceutical and behavioural therapies, but these treatments often struggle to work cross-culturally, and that’s a ­puzzle.

“A lot of our research is drawn from Western populations. But if we really want to understand mental illness we have to move outside of that bubble, and it can’t just be psychiatrists who perform that kind of research.

“Maybe our picture of mental illness is far from finished. We need new breeds of interdisciplinary research that blend science with the humanities.”

Pereira, who has a full scholarship to Stanford, quotes the 20th century academic Wilfred Sellars to back his views on the humanities: “Philosophy specialises in being generalist, in not having a particular specialty.”

That capacity to work across the disciplines drives the work of Seth Lazar, who is a professor of philosophy at the Australian National University. He heads a major research project called Humanising Machine Intelligence which links social scientists, philosophers and computer scientists with the aim of designing AI systems that “align with the values of a democratic society”.

“These systems are shaping and changing everything that we do and exercise extraordinary amounts of power,” Lazar says.

“We can’t really leave the shaping of the society that will result just down to engineers essentially, and anyway the engineers don’t want that responsibility. AI raises a host of moral and political questions that can’t be met by technological answers alone. That’s the case for everything from the algorithms behind social media to self-driving cars, autonomous weapons and the predictive models behind scoring clients’ credit ratings. If we didn’t draw on the research in the humanities we would be having to reinvent any number of wheels.

“Philosophers have spent millennia addressing the question of how we should act, and how we should live together. Sociologists and political scientists have been at the forefront of understanding how new technologies are reshaping our societies. Lawyers are rethinking how to regulate tech, and of course the computer scientists are key for implementing all these ideas into actual AI systems.”

Professor Genevieve Bell at the Australian National University. Picture: Kym Smith
Professor Genevieve Bell at the Australian National University. Picture: Kym Smith

Also at the ANU is Professor Genevieve Bell, a global advertisement for the value of humanities at a time when the study of subjects such as English literature, languages, sociology or political science appears to be increasingly undervalued by the political class.

Bell’s degree in anthropology took her to Silicon Valley and a big job at Intel where two decades ago she pioneered cultural field work aimed at understanding how technology shapes our lives.

Since 2017 she has been at the ANU, running a project to join data science, design thinking and ethnography to drive new approaches to engineering.

Bell, director of the 3A Institute at the university, likes to quote Norbert Wiener, one of the early developers of robotics and AI and a long-time professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who in 1950 wrote that in the future: “Either the engineers must become poets, or the poets must become engineers.”

Says Bell: “Of course being able to write well, comprehend complex arguments and rehearse your own, as well as understand context, were considered critical skills for any competent engineer starting with the birth of the field in the late 1700s and continuing well into the 20th century. Literature, philosophy and history were considered to be an integral part of any qualification for centuries.”

She points out that the roots of computer science are in linguistics and philosophy, as much as maths, and that institutions like the Media Lab at MIT “have sat firmly at the intersections of those divisions since the 1980s”.

“Lots of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley owe as much to the humanities and social sciences as the sciences,” she says.

Bell says it’s interesting to think about when the divisions between the disciplines began to harden, because that is not inevitable.

“As an anthropologist, I was lucky Silicon Valley saw across those divisions, and that they were willing to imagine that my training would be useful to technology innovation,” she says.

The Coalition’s efforts to direct students to particular areas of study also run up against other reasons behind choices, according to Andrew Norton.

“From the student’s point of view, there are a whole lot of cultural and social reasons for going to university that are more or less independent of the labour market,” he says.

“University has turned into a rite of passage for the middle and lower classes. The social pressure which turns into political pressure means that temporary measures to control the numbers of students don’t last.

“The perspective I take on this is that students should clearly understand that they are taking a risk, that the alternatives of vocational and technical education should be clear to them … but ultimately I would take the view that there is no point in trying to set a precise cap on numbers, that we have to let this evolve and if higher education is to be pressed down it has to be done through people making better choices in their own interests rather than governments saying we know how many there should be and setting the number.”

For the universities, there remains the ongoing problem of politicians and the wider public taking them seriously.

One of Australia’s leading academics, Martin Krygier, professor of law and social theory at the University of NSW, works across the disciplines of law, politics, philosophy and social theory.

He says that Australian universities increasingly find it hard to make an argument for the independent, intrinsic value of the humanities.

“We lose the argument to both sides of politics,” Krygier says.

“The Right insists on education as having instrumental, economic value, while the Left is more ideological about the humanities so we end up being asked to justify Shakespeare.

“Increasingly everything in our society is judged in economic/instrumental terms and we are more and more specialised and competitive so there is not much opportunity to chance our arm and go in directions driven by internal demands of scholarly traditions, questions and controversies, and the judgment of peers.”

He says politicians “only have one way of thinking of a university, which has nothing to do with the original conception of a university: the disinterested pursuit of important truths.

“It’s difficult for Australian universities to push back against the economic efficiency arguments that dominate the debate, given they are so dependent on government funding and government policy.”

In the US, universities such as Harvard, which are not dependent on government, can push back, he says. But in Australia “it always sounds like special pleading” when universities try to make the case for support as well as the freedom to pursue areas of knowledge that do not have an immediate economic pay-off.

“The drama of the modern university is that economic efficiency and productivity criteria just sweep the field,” says Krygier.

“The problem is not that they are bad criteria for anything, it is to imagine that they are good criteria for everything. Different spheres have different ways of being excellent, but increasingly universities are being squeezed by people who have no idea that anything matters, other than what they care about.

“And so what should matter in universities is always on the defensive, using arguments that are no longer understood, let alone appreciated.

“In any event, it’s not even true that society does not get a pay-off from the study of the humanities. I very much doubt that the economic dividend is poor, since it is complex, indirect and long-term, but the cultural and intellectual dividend is irreplaceable.”

Seth Lazar says it’s important to focus on what happens to students when they finish their courses.

“From everything that we are seeing from studies done here and in the US, students who take humanities and social sciences come out very job-ready.

“Australia has huge strength in the humanities and social sciences. We punch above our weight. And it’s so cheap. You can get such a huge impact from so few resources in our areas. With a relatively small investment we can be competitive with the world’s richest universities.”