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Soft minds on humanities | Timothy Gambin

Before I start, I must state that I am a full-time employee at the University of Malta’s Department of Classics and Archeology where I teach maritime archaeology. This article is not necessarily reflective of the opinions of colleagues at the Faculty of Arts and I am publishing it in my personal capacity.

According to its memorandum sent to both political parties, I teach a subject that the Malta Employer’s Association (MEA) deems a ‘soft option’. What spurred my sense of alarm and urgency is not the MEA’s labeling of the humanities as a soft option, but the realization that there are people in 21st century Malta who still think that way.

If the MEA had conducted some research before it penned its memorandum, it would have been quick to realize that their proposal is not just outdated but also profoundly dangerous.

A quick and simple search on the internet for ‘importance of humanities’ would have brought a plethora of articles, including: “Why we still need to study the humanities in a STEM world”. This well-balanced article was written by Valerie Strauss and published in the Washington Post in 2017. If the MEA’s members wish to know its contents they can access it and read it – something that should have been done before they issued their memorandum.

Whether deserving or not, the MEA has a degree of social responsibility and therefore, the lack of a true understanding as to what training in the humanities aims to achieve is shocking.

I also mentioned this approach is dangerous. We all know (or at least should know) what happened when the University of Malta was forced to run only courses deemed to be necessary for Malta’s economic and functional needs. It was not only ugly, but it had a long-lasting negative impact on intellectual development on our island.

So, to have something similar suggested over three decades later is shocking. This because it shows a complete lack of knowledge of the various fibers necessary to weave the fabric of a diverse and modern society.

Malta needs more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more educated nation. Any civilized society must aim for civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication and individual fulfillment. These are all ideals that are critical to a functioning democratic society. We must strive to list all available tools of inquiry, approach societal questions from every possible perspective, achieve a sense of complexity and nuance, to solve the perennial challenges. This is what, if nothing else, the humanities at University of Malta provides – a deeper pool of intellectually and academically prepared individuals, many of whom have interdisciplinary skillsets that the MEA may wish to ignore at their own peril.

If the MEA and its members have not yet grasped my point, I will proceed to hammer it home based on the subjects taught at our department. I do not mean to disrespect my colleagues from the other departments that make up the Faculty of Arts. There are numerous friends and colleagues who I am sure are chomping at the bit to voice their own discontent at having their subjects labeled as soft options. Anyway, back to archaeology, classics, and the ancient world. When asked what would be grabbed if their house was on fire, people list the expected – wife’s arm, money and pets. However, photographs also top the list. why? Because our past has value and gives meaning to the present.

Therefore, one may consider the archaeological and historical remains of our island as meaningful because they help inform the present as well as contribute to what it means to be. Our past is valuable on several levels, but I shall address one of particular significance because it should certainly resonate with the MEA and its members.

There can be little doubt, even for a soft option graduate like me, that tourism plays a hugely important role in Malta’s economy. Neither can there be little doubt that the tourism sector is an important sector when it comes to employment figures.

Once again, I urge the ‘hard option’ personnel at the MEA to run internet searches for ‘Malta holiday’ and ‘places to visit in Malta’. Lo and behold, most results show Valletta, harbor fortifications, and our unique traditional boats and megalithic structures. Are our museums, archaeological sites and heritage attractions managed and curated by STEM graduates?

Of course, there would be no harm in that at all – but the truth of the matter is that the humanities provide a steady flow of graduates into the heritage sector, which in turn is an undisputed pillar of our economy.

So, the next time the MEA, or anyone else for that matter, would like to pigeonhole the humanities and propose outdated ‘solutions’ they would be more than welcome to visit and debate the subject and possibly go through our course content and prospectus. Now back to correcting those essays… soft option my left buttock!

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