Things of the Past: Dying Sciences and Languages?

250px-Indy_promoIn a recent article, a new and disturbing (but given today’s economic climate, perhaps not surprising) trend appears: dying disciplines / sciences. Like languages which are disappearing as the world becomes more and more ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘interconnected’, so too are discipline’s starting to fade away – and among them, the science of archeology.

Leaving aside the loss of some pretty cool television shows on the Discovery or the Smithsonian channels, the potential loss of archeology has tremendous – and deeply disruptive – significance:

Combining insights from natural and social sciences, archaeology offers an exceptionally powerful way of understanding many of the most inscrutable aspects of our past – think of the difficulty of interpreting Stonehenge, for example, and what has now been achieved by this kind of sophisticated analysis. Archaeologists have plenty to tell us about the impact of climate change and fuel use, or the rise and decline of complex societies: they give us access, in other words, to a vast store of human experience, which is of direct relevance to some of the greatest challenges we now face.

When you think about, that’s pretty heavy stuff. What other discipline can you suggest combines various sciences – the sciences of weather, farming, energy, military to that of political, historical  and economic / financial studies? And this work is not done solely within the realm of obscure theory or some computer-driven simulation: archeology is done in the here and now about the past (you literally have to get down and dirty in archeology).

Indiana Jones aside, Archeology is not some arcane branch of science: it’s about who we are and where are we going. In military terms, there is phrase ‘five by five’ – that is, confirming that you and your colleagues are going where you are intending to go: this is because within any spacial coordinate system you need to have five points in space – four corners and a middle point showing where you presently are with a line reaching out to where you’re going. This is what archeology is all about: you gotta have those points of where you’ve been to know where you’re going – and what’s likely ahead.

So what’s the big deal? Simple:

This situation reflects a key principle of the (Browne) review: that investment in higher education should be driven by student demand, informed by information about the price and quality of courses. Archaeological science is expensive, and does not attract research funding driven by the search for economic growth. Student numbers are low, nationally, and although student satisfaction measures and price put it on a par with history and English, archaeology departments cannot attract students in the same numbers, and are finding it hard to cover their costs.

In other words, what kind of career can one reasonably expect if they become an archeology graduate? In my own personal experience, an old family friend of ours has a son who studied at the University of Washington on a full scholarship in the field of Archeology (no slacker he!). But after a while, as his studies were coming to a close, career options were severely limited. So he took advantage of another option: he traveled to Hawaii and eventually become a battalion chief for one of the fire departments on the islands (mind, this including HALO training – High Altitude Low Opening (think skydiving at several miles high) – with members of a SEAL team, a six month tour of duty with the U.S. Coast Guard in the Bearing Sea along with a whole lot of other stuff).

Not bad for a PhD in archeology, eh? But that’s the point: he’s not an archeologist. And not to knock having a good battalion fire chief, we’re down one less archeologist.

And it’s not just about archeology:

Archaeology is not alone. ‘Hard’ or ‘small’ languages are also under pressure. They too, will struggle to make their way on the basis of research grants so that the national capacity in Russian, German and Portuguese are likely to decline. As with archaeology, a standard university response will probably be to reduce costs – by concentrating on language teaching, and reducing the provision in the politics, sociology, history or literature of those societies. We might expect more degrees in, say, politics with Russian language, emphasising accurate use of the language, and many fewer which emphasise cultural understanding in the fullest sense. While this may satisfy student demand, and allow universities to continue to prosper, it would represent a significant loss to our national research capacity and knowledge base.

So what’s the big deal? If we can’t speak these languages or know these sciences anyhow, what difference does it make?

A big difference.

We ultimately are the sum of what we know and by continual learning and expanding our knowledge base, we achieve greater capacity and a stronger ability to solve what’s thrown at us. It’s worth noting that during the Italian Renaissance, at the same time that folks were inventing double entry accounting and establishing the first real international banking houses, folks also made it a point to learn to sing, dance, speak different languages and conduct art among many other skills and talents. Understand: the ability to learn is in itself a skill best acquired through the study of many things – and in this competitive world, like that of the Renaissance, this is also a very competitive world (albeit during the Renaissance, one also learned how to handle a sword, daggers and gunpowder as it was standard to be routinely assaulted or daily face the possibility of assassination – something to keep in mind whenever you think of the Renaissance as a time of a bunch of fops and wimps wearing funny clothing painting neat stuff on ceilings).

Moving back to the present, it’s interesting to note during the 1980’s the demand for arabic speakers was very limited: due to budget cuts, there was little demand for arabic speakers, save for some oil / energy companies or obscure scholastic positions. In fact, the U.S. State Department had very fewer fluent arabic speakers in these years. Enter 9/11 and viola! The demand explodes. But we’ve been behind the curve for some time; had we a greater pool of arabic speakers, chances are we could’ve prevented a lot of bloodshed and chaos (not to mention attain a greater understanding and appreciation of the Arabic culture that could foster better future relations).

Bottom line is you can’t read a book unless you start at the beginning; it doesn’t work when you start in the middle. And it’s no different when you walk into a boardroom session, not know what’s been going on before you walk in, and start to give a speech without any sense of reference; in fact, it can be downright awkward.

In today’s world, we’re increasingly facing big and ugly challenges – climate changes, growing conflicts over diminishing resources, rising social unrest – the list goes on. We cannot dismiss the past on the assumption of ‘been there, done that’ as there are many challenges we face now that were similarly faced in the past. Knowing our past is little different from when a professional undergoes intensive training: sure, it may not be the real thing, but when the building starts to collapse or when the shit hits the fan, those who are trained and have a deeper knowledge base are far more likely to survive and overcome a situation.

As the old saying goes, ‘those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it‘.

But here’s another quote truly worth remembering and sharing:

We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.

George Santayana has a good point.

For more about this subject, here’s a good article worth reading:


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