> Dialogue > Dialogue

Wang Ning: Time needed to assess true value of humanities

By Zhang QingLi | 2016-10-10 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Born in 1955 in Nanjing, China, Wang Ning is the director of the Center for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Tsinghua University. Professor Wang is one of the first scholars to introduce Western literary theories like post-modernism and post-colonialism to China. He became an academician of the Academy of Europe in 2013—this was the first time that a Chinese scholar of the humanities won the honor.


In recent years, the value of humanities education has been called into question not only in China but in many other countries as well. At present, prospects for the humanities in academia seem grim. Recently, Professor Wang Ning from Tsinghua University received an interview from Chinese Social Sciences Net (CSSN) to talk about the status quo and future of the humanities.


CSSN: From you own perspective, what goal should disciplines such as literature, history and philosophy aspire to achieve in terms of cultivating a person’s knowledge, competency and character?


Wang Ning: First of all, we need to realize the role that humanities play in contemporary society—the discipline’s function as well as its impact. From my point of view, the opening of humanities courses in universities is quite necessary, especially in those world-class ones. Definitely, some would say that students who major in disciplines like literature, history and philosophy will find it difficult to secure suitable jobs after graduation, but I think this outlook is sort of slanted. It depends on how you frame the issue of the suitability of a job relative to one’s major.

There is suitability in the general sense and in the narrow sense. The former requires graduates to explore ways to adapt themselves to workplaces by applying their knowledge of humanities in jobs in an appropriate and deep way. I do not think it is that difficult to discover such generally suitable jobs in the labor market.

Speaking in the narrow sense, students who wrote a doctoral thesis on Shakespeare study and stream of consciousness may find their major in school does not exactly match their jobs. However, the research methods they have learned in school can also be employed in the fields of teaching or research. What the humanities offer students is not only the professional knowledge and expertise, but also the research methods and a comprehensive humanistic character. I believe that students who possess a good humanistic character are able to acclimate themselves to most job environments quickly.

The humanities are not merely about scholarship; They are about the humanistic atmosphere, which can be created through boosting mutual communication and confrontation between different academic paradigms. It is through such friction between schools of thought that new ideas are able to take root and new masters are able to emerge.

Many of our students do not realize that what they have learned in school is far from being sufficient until they become editors at academic publishers after graduation. Fortunately, the fundamental theory and methodology they absorbed in school lays the groundwork for them, which will be profoundly useful for their career path.

I myself often give lectures on the knowledge of humanities in some universities. I find that students who come to my lecture are usually not from my own major but from other related disciplines of humanities, even the disciplines of science and engineering. To them, it is instructive to learn some knowledge of humanities, which helps them to better understand the environment that surrounds them and refine their thinking patterns.

In a larger sense, the courses of humanities opened in the universities also serve all of society. By offering advanced ideas and fresh perspectives, they elevate people’s moral ethics and shape people’s beliefs, enabling them to fully utilize their subjective initiative in their workplace. For a student who majors in literature, history and philosophy—if he or she has grasped the basic knowledge of the three disciplines and also possesses exceptional foreign language skills—I think he or she will definitely stand out in the highly competitive talent market as well as in the workplace.


CSSN: According to some scholars from the field of humanities, people usually measure talent according to its ability to create wealth in society. To some, the study of humanities is incapable of producing social wealth, so it is of little value. This has led to a greater emphasis on technology to the detriment of the liberal arts. Why do you think this kind of thinking dominates?


Wang Ning: Indeed. I myself have often heard such arguments: Is it useful to learn the disciplines of liberal arts, especially the humanities? My answer is that it is both useless and useful. By “useless” here, I mean humanities may not be able to bring immediate economic benefit or to improve people’s living condition in a fundamental way. By “useful,” I mean the importance of humanities is its potential to, bit by bit, influence people’s ideology and concepts as well as their outlook toward life and the world. Subtly and unconsciously influenced by the humanities, people are more likely to make achievements at different degrees in their own fields. For leaders who hold important decision-making posts, a change in concepts could predicate a radical reform in politics, economy and culture. In this context, the humanities are significantly useful, the value of which is immeasurable according to the benchmark of immediate economic effect. However, they are capable of generating indirect, long-term economic benefit.

I have been dedicated to the study of globalization since the end of the last century. I was often invited to deliver speeches in some universities, and also some governmental departments, military units and enterprises. Though I usually made it clear in advance that my speech would not enhance the economic effect of the enterprises, the CEOs often told me that my speech about the issue of globalization had largely broadened their horizons, enabling them to realize why it is important for Chinese enterprises to develop their overseas markets and “go global.” Therefore, I deeply feel that, no matter in which direction our society progresses, the humanities will continue to be indispensable. Without an awareness of this, pursuit of economic effect in both the short and long term will only lead to the degeneration of the spirit of humanity.

China now is vigorously pursuing its goal of building world-class universities. In this context, scholars from the disciplines of humanities have the potential to accomplish great deeds. A world-class university needs not only first-class teachers of natural history but also first-class thinkers and academic masters of the humanities. This has become the consensus shared by the heads of world-famous universities.


CSSN: There is another saying that the value of the humanities can be most clearly seen in ancient agricultural civilizations, but modern civilization is mostly driven by technological rationality. What do you think is the side-effects brought by such a biased idea? In what way do you think a favorable atmosphere for the disciplines of humanities can be created?


Wang Ning: As I mentioned before, the disciplines of humanities—unlike those of social sciences such as the economics—cannot directly strengthen a country’s financial and political power. Unlike the disciplines of natural sciences, they could do little to develop a country’s science and technology. The result is that some Western countries are reluctant to invest much money in humanities. In fact, the value of humanities not only existed in the ancient agricultural civilization but also in modern and post-modern civilization. But it is pitiful that many people fail to realize this.

Consequently, each time that there is economic crisis, the courses of humanities in the university as well as related research projects are always the first on the chopping block. This is commonly seen in today’s European and American universities. I want to emphasize that when the economy is booming, do not forget to invest more money in the disciplines of humanities, and when the economy encounters temporary difficulties, the humanities should not be the first to be downsized—their influence can only be slowly seen after a long period of time—otherwise, we will regret it several years later. The dilemma of humanities that some Western countries now encounter provides a warning to us.

To build an atmosphere conducive to the development of humanities, we could make efforts in two aspects. One is to persuade the government to increase budgetary allocations for humanities to institutionally guarantee their development; Second, the scholars of humanities themselves should rightfully defend the value of the disciplines they are engaged in.

In the past 20 years, I established the platforms of comparative literature and humanities in three Chinese universities. Through both competition and cooperation with domestic and international academic counterparts, these platforms have been widely recognized, with the support of the academic resources from both institutes and private sectors of China and the abroad. Therefore, I think any discipline can be valuable and can be able to thrive as long as people have done their best in that field. At the same time, the role of the leading talents in the field of humanities is particularly important. And only with confidence in the discipline that one is dedicated in, is one able to lead the team of the discipline to develop and thrive.


Zhang QingLi is a reporter at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.