Humanities are essential in foreign policy

For Jan McArthur, failures in foreign policy could be prevented by a better understanding of history and culture

Jan McArthur is senior lecturer in education and social justice in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University.

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The western failure in Afghanistan is not military. It is educational.

It is a failure of governments to understand the culture of the country and people, and this is an enduring feature of US – and its allies – foreign policy.  They assume a western norm and cannot understand any society or people who do not fit that model.  This happened in Vietnam, Iran and now Afghanistan, among many other places – and the responsibility here lies firmly with governments.

The arts and humanities provide a portal to understanding different societies and cultures, but according to the UK Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson earlier this year, these often represent dead end courses because they are not economically useful. Afghanistan demonstrates how limited such thinking is.

The “useful” subject

The “useful” subject mantra reflects a narrow view of higher education, but also of economic wellbeing. It assumes we can draw a straight line between what is studied and one’s eventual career. And that everything needed to be a successful professional can be taught within one degree: as if there are no other forms of cognitive and human enrichment.

The problem with these positions is that they assume knowledge exists in silos and that removing history, for example, makes no impact on engineering. All professional domains supported by higher education are realms of judgement – engineering for example, is a discipline about making decisions to solve human problems. This cannot happen in a vacuum where we have no knowledge about people, their contexts and how their values and beliefs may differ profoundly from our own. This is the strength of the arts and humanities.

Perhaps we could keep some military historians – for their “use” value? But few military historians draw only on the work of other military historians. The required depth of knowledge and insight comes from a range of disciplines, many of which are arts and humanities. The line between philosophy and military history may not be linear and easy to see, but there are nonetheless connections to be found.

Such interconnections are more important than ever as higher education seeks to decolonise. This distinction between arts and culture and “useful” makes no sense within Indigenous thought. If we are to decolonise chemistry or medicine, we must have the capacity to understand ideas of philosophy or politics. This does not mean we are all experts in everything, but rather that higher education is a collaborative endeavour, and more socially useful when understood as such.

The UK Government’s own project of Global Britain requires us to better understand people and cultures other than our own. And yet one could equally argue that Brexit occurred because of sustained UK misunderstandings of our European neighbours, often based on a stubborn sense of British exceptionalism which meant we took pride in not understanding anyone different.

Lessons from Afghanistan

Few things demonstrate the folly in such pride in not understanding other cultures, than what is now happening in Afghanistan. Such myopia means that Britain does not even understand its own history. The 1839-43 military intervention by Britain in Afghanistan might have been worth more people knowing about: their lack of understanding of Afghan history, culture, social organisation and religion, led to chaos and defeat, having achieved almost no change whatsoever. Clearly twenty years of respite from the Taliban cannot be dismissed as no change whatsoever. But the neglected lesson from history remains, and with it the loss of the possibility of more enduring change.

The philosopher Raymond Guess describes how we can make false assumptions about unfamiliar concepts by trying to apply a common term to them. This approach of linguistic best fit generates profound misunderstandings which can be invisible. The Afghan “tribal” social organisation is complex and does not match western expectations of a fixed and static loyalty. It is formed by fluid individual allegiances which can change and adapt to circumstances.

In An Intimate War, Mike Martin (who is an academic who also served in Afghanistan) explains the repercussions of this misunderstanding: the western assumption of a simple insurgency against the legitimate government was not how many Afghans understood the issues in their country; misunderstanding the fluidity of tribal society meant the US and British couldn’t tell who were friends and who were enemies; and, locals in Afghanistan could not understand why the UK and British had such little understanding of their society, culture or religion – which led to fears that their behaviour hid a secret mission.

Greater respect for the complexity of knowledge

The western intervention in Afghanistan ended in the chaos and suffering we see today because the west lacked knowledge and understanding of the country and people. Greater respect for studying the arts and humanities is not the answer, but it would help. Understanding other cultures cannot be reduced to a single discipline or degree. We need theologians to understand a culture deeply embedded in its religion, and they in turn need historians, political theorists and philosophers to further their knowledge. They may all turn to art historians to understand cultural symbols and their role in historical and contemporary society.

The ongoing devaluation of arts and humanities represents a misunderstanding of the nature and purposes of higher education. It does not only lead to educational impoverishment but also social and economic damage. The myth of an economic sphere disarticulated from social concerns and cultural values has led to this narrow, utilitarian idea of what counts as “useful”. Tragically, what we are witnessing in Afghanistan is, in part, a reflection of western governments’ lack of appreciation for the practical and economic importance of the arts and humanities. Knowing something about history, sociology or philosophy could literally save lives.

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