The Guardian view on higher education: humans need the humanities | Editorial | Opinion

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The authoritarian and populist government of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is guilty of many crimes. Some, like the assault on the rainforest, will damage the whole world. Others will only damage Brazil: the latest example is the announcement that the government is considering withdrawing funding from university teaching of philosophy and sociology. Higher education may not seem a top priority in a country where a third of the adult population is functionally illiterate. The government’s education policy is already eccentric. The most recently sacked education minister, a former general, had demanded that schools film their pupils singing the national anthem and listening to Mr Bolsonaro’s election slogan. But this is serious.

Sociology and philosophy are subjects which seem to their enemies to produce nothing but querulous unemployables fluent in sophistry and subversion. (Mr Bolsonaro has thundered about the need to “combat Marxist rubbish” in educational institutions.) Authoritarians promote a rigid society in which there is room for only a few guides and philosophers at the top. They need to know what there is to know about humanity and society, but everyone else need only know their place. This was certainly the model against which the great 19th- and 20th-century movements for workers’ emancipation rebelled. There is a strong democratic tradition of self-improvement for moral purposes running through socialism and some forms of Christianity before it. All these people understood philosophy and clear thought more generally as a threat to the pretensions of authority and a tool for a more just and better society.

Sociology is a special case of such an instrument of self-improvement. By helping people to think about their own societies, and to engage with what has been thought before, it can make for better citizens as well as better people. To understand the motives of others is to some extent to understand our own. Sociology and philosophy are not vocational subjects. They are the subjects that inform our understanding of any vocation. What happens when powerful people think that common sense can substitute for the disciplines of the humanities is obvious in the horrible consequences of social networks built by young men who understand computer code profoundly but everything else superficially if at all. The philosopher Karl Popper taught that subjects of inquiry could be divided into clouds and clocks: those whose boundaries and workings, however complicated, worked according to clear and explicit rules, and those where this couldn’t be done. Thinking about problems which are by their nature cloudy and cannot be reduced to clockworks is an essential skill in today’s world, as it has always been.

It is not, however, one which is always demanded by employers. Political authoritarians are not the only enemies of humanities. There is also the crude view that higher education is merely the servant of the markets, although any educated person can see that this is precisely the wrong way round. When Mr Bolsonaro praises subjects that generate “immediate return” for the taxpayer, it is a convenient justification for his ideological drive. Others actually mean it.

The principles of liberal democracy are threatened by thuggery, but also by some forms of intellectual assault. If they are to be defended, and their practice improved, we need more philosophers and sociologists. It is the subjects of least obvious use that may prove of ultimate value.

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