Humanities are key to understanding Russia’s war on Ukraine — University Affairs

While there is no doubt that the Ukraine crisis benefits from expertise in areas such as political science and economics, many journalists and public commentators have used skills or discussed topics associated with the humanities.

I recently moderated a virtual event on the Russian invasion of Ukraine organized by the Department of Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies at the University of British Columbia. The event brought together experts to give brief presentations on the context of the war and the session was attended by nearly 1,000 people.

Questions from the audience covered topics such as the Ukrainian language, culture, history and international law. And in their responses, the experts helped provide background and context for events unfolding in Eastern Europe.

Lately Google searches like “reason for Russia-Ukraine war” and “Why is Russia attacking Ukraine?” were frequent. Since mid-February 2022, Google searches for the invasion have increased dramatically, matching a widespread desire to learn more about the news (What is happening) and their antecedents (Why that happens).

Following Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, the media sought out experts who could comment on the crisis. University and college press offices have created rosters of professors specializing in history, cultural studies, political science, and international relations — part of the humanities. And humanities education, academics and scholarship are essential to help us shed light on the causes of the war and what is currently happening in Eastern Europe.

Institutions are understandably keen to promote the expertise of their faculty, but these requests reveal what many of us know: that many of these experts are unavailable due to a drop in student enrollment. and a change in specialization which has an impact on hiring practices. According to Statistics Canada, humanities enrollment declined by more than 6% between 2015 and 2020.

Humanities informing the situation in Ukraine

The humanities, social sciences and fine arts have long been considered part of a liberal arts education and although the humanities can be difficult to define, one definition says that they “study[s] ideas and culture. Examples of humanities fields include philosophy, history, literary studies, languages, classics, and many more.

While there is no doubt that the Ukraine crisis benefits from expertise in areas such as political science and economics, many journalists and public commentators have used skills or discussed topics associated with the humanities.

Articles even explained why we should say “Ukraine” and not “Ukraine”. Others detailed the history of the current war, the development of the crisis and Putin’s distorted presentation of history. The stories focused on the Ukrainian and Russian languages, the relationship between literature and national culture, interpretations of the ‘Z’ symbol and the role of misinformation.

Knowledge of historical events, their interpretations, distortions and cultural representations can help everyone to become and remain an engaged global citizen.

Historians like Heidi Tworek comment on the crisis from a humanities perspective, helping people understand and be able to meaningfully engage with this complex situation. Through her work, she has commented on how common expressions used to describe the present moment in Ukraine misunderstand history. Arguments like these provide context. Tworek argues that calling Russia’s aggression against Ukraine the first outbreak of similar hostilities in Europe since World War II ignores the genocidal conflict that took place in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The curiosity, empathy, and critical thinking that the humanities aim to encourage help us understand what is happening in the present and how it relates to what has happened before. By acknowledging past atrocities and their significance beyond quantifiable data, we appreciate how many aspects of human life, such as language, nationality, and cultural expression, are implicated in events that may seem purely political.

Value of a humanities-based education

Despite the applicability of knowledge acquired or developed in the humanities, the study of these topics has become more controversial – it has long been feared that the humanities are in “crisis”.

Currently, priority is given to education directly related to “employability” or income. The province of Alberta recently implemented a system that ties post-secondary education funding to graduate income and employment rates while increasing funding for specific areas.

Identifying the outcomes of a degree or program can be helpful, but it is not without problems. Not all lines of knowledge have predictable outcomes or goals that can be immediately tied to a practical goal.

The remoteness of the humanities contradicts both public opinion and research data on the fields concerned. And higher education is one of the first opportunities for students to explore the humanities. Experience in the humanities and social sciences helps develop abilities that go beyond what might be required for one’s job, such as critical thinking, understanding text and media, and “active listening.”

The British Council found in a 2015 study that a majority of professional leaders have degrees in humanities and social sciences fields. Broadened cultural knowledge, with wider exposure to different types of knowledge, contributes to a more flexible and diverse society.

As we observed with the war in Ukraine, humanities skills are crucial to understanding the problems of the 21st century. We need their study to be widely available and supported as we face complex issues.

Kyle Frackman is Associate Professor of German and Northern Studies at the University of British Columbia.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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