The humanities, being employable and a cross-cultural perspective

It is always great to be proud of your ethnic heritage. It is also the case that such pride can quickly translate into narrow ethnic chauvinism, blinding us to the achievements and perspectives of other cultures. The Armenians in diaspora have accomplished success against the odds. However, this must not cause us to be indifferent to interethnic solidarity, and we must learn about and respect the tremendous achievements of non-Armenian civilisations.

No, I am not singling out the Armenians for specific condemnation. I am relating a problem that I have found in Australia’s particular variety of multiculturalism. While we are more culturally diverse than ever, according to the latest census data, we are lagging in interethnic awareness and solidarity. While we need more ethnic diversity reflected in our institutions, we also require greater cross-cultural awareness to increase bonds of solidarity between ethnic minorities.

The most practical subjects that I have studied are the humanities, sometimes called the social sciences. There is nothing wrong with tackling subjects to increase employability. The law, accountancy, medicine – these are all essential professions. However, to dismiss the humanities as just time-wasting topics rendering their graduates unemployable is a perverse and narrow-minded perspective.

Consider the observations of Charlotte Colombo, in an article for The Independent. The problem is not that humanities graduates are unemployable or unfit for the business community, but that government policy and corporations are creating and sustaining employment conditions rendering more jobs precarious and casual. The rise of the gig economy makes the workforce the precariat. Do not scapegoat the humanities for the economic problems plaguing neoliberal capitalism.

What relevance does this have for interethnic cooperation? Migrant communities have focused on achieving material prosperity in the host nation. However, each group has exclusively highlighted their own stories while ignoring that which we have in common. One of the issues which my late father took seriously was the cause of the Palestinians. Why would an Egyptian-born Armenian and descendant of Armenian genocide survivors be interested in Palestine? Because of interethnic and anti-imperialist solidarity.

The issue of human rights is not the exclusive province of one ethnic or religious group. Promoting the cause of the Palestinians is not to ignore or belittle the issues of the Armenians. Cross-cultural solidarity is an essential requirement for the construction of a socially just society. As Araxie Cass explained why she went to rallies in support of Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian town in East Jerusalem under attack:

I attended the rally because I believe that the attacks, apartheid and ethnic cleansing imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli government is wrong. But it also reminded me of an important lesson I learned in the past year about solidarity.

As Cass elaborated, solidarity is not a transactional issue – going opportunistically to a Palestine event just so they can attend Armenian events is definitely not the purpose. It is important to have a cross-cultural perspective to understand the problems of apartheid, settler-colonialism and imperial power in the modern world.

Decades ago, while going through school, we learnt about Isaac Newton, the father of optics, but how many of us in the Australian school system know of Ibn Haytham (c. 965 – 1040 CE), an Islamic scientist and polymath who first suggested that light reaches our eyes in the form of rays? This observation overturned centuries of received Aristotelian wisdom, and he conducted experiments which established optics as a separate branch of physics, predating Newton by hundreds of years.

We all learn about, or are at least acquainted with, the mind-body dualism as elaborated by Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), a great accomplishment in the Western philosophical tradition. However, how many of us in the Anglophone world are aware of the thought experiments of Avicenna (c. 980 – 1037 CE), whose ‘flying man’ scenario was an earlier elaboration of the issue of human self-awareness; what we today would call the psyche.

There is a more contemporary comparison which can be made. Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972) was a pioneering poet, who influenced his peers and followers in the decades of the twentieth century. His poetry is still regarded in great esteem, even in the light of his fascist collaboration during the war years. That is all well and good; but how many of us are familiar with the poets, novelists, musicians and writers of the Harlem Renaissance? The poetry of Langston Hughes (1901 – 1967) was just one product of the cultural and intellectual revival of African American culture in the 1920s. This movement rejuvenated the fields of art, music, fashion, politics and literature.

The social sciences – history, sociology, philosophy, anthropology and so on – have proven to be quite practical in understanding the contentious sociopolitical issues of our times.

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