Conversations About Complex Issues: Why Do We Need Humanities Today? (Part II)

- Professor Galazhinskiy, what other invaluable abilities and skills, besides aesthetic taste and creative imagination, do social disciplines and humanities develop?

- Critical thinking that has been already mentioned above, as well as the skill of slow reading and the ability to read and comprehend long texts. Yes, that’s right: another paradox! More than one generation of primary school teachers struggled to teach children how to speed read. It would seem that this approach is absolutely correct, given how much information a person needs to manage daily. However, now we understand that if you press only the “gas pedal” and do not use the “brake”, a catastrophe inevitably occurs: the ability to productively and critically reflect has been sharply reduced. Today’s students easily surf on their iPhones and laptops and grasp short information on the fly, but cannot force themselves to read and absorb relatively long texts. We began resolving this most serious problem at our university a long time ago. Since 2018, slow and thoughtful reading has been used as part of the TSU Core Baccalaureate project. The training of university professors takes place on the advanced training program “Educational Technologies for the Formation of Universal Competencies”. Slow reading with commentary is one of the most ancient educational technologies that has not lost their high efficiency in our time. Without it, it is difficult to form the very ability for critical and systemic thinking. One of the main teaching aids for our students is the work of the American philosopher, editor and teacher Mortimer Adler called How to Read Books: A Guide to Reading Great Works. I believe that this work could be interesting and useful for many. 


The inability to read thoughtfully leads to functional or so-called “new” illiteracy, which can develop not only among students but also graduates. It manifests itself in their tongue-tied manner of speech, their inability to conduct a reasoned dialogue and to perceive the content of official documents and instructions. It has already been noted that “new illiteracy” is growing the faster, as the information environment becomes more complex. Functionally illiterate people are more likely to be unemployed, and their activities are accompanied by all sorts of accidents. Tomsk State University traditionally pays great attention to these issues, including the language training of students and professors. Moreover, not only from the point of view of their learning foreign languages but also the languages of the peoples of Siberia and, of course, the Russian language, which, like all other languages, is experiencing a huge impact of digitalization.

– In fact, this is not the first time we have been talking about “slow” and “fast” things with you. The last time we discussed it in relation to knowledge.

 - Yes, and the mastery of any slow, that is, fundamental, knowledge is impossible without such a universal competence as slow reading. For the fundamental sciences are not “crammed”, but are mastered slowly in stages. The dichotomy “slow vs. fast” correlates not only with the fundamental and applied sciences but also, in a certain sense, with the anthropological and technological paradigms in general. It is important to maintain a balance between them. And if the former fades into the background or disappears altogether, then this is, at the same time, both a manifestation and the main cause of not only the crisis of socio-humanities scientific knowledge but also the cultural and civilizational crisis, which we talked about in the November issue. Everything is interconnected!

– If we talk about the social sciences and humanities on a global scale, what new priority tasks should they solve today?

– In the context of the radically changed world socio-political and military situation, the social sciences and humanities face a lot of research problems that until recently have not been updated so sharply, or did not exist at all. First of all, these are issues of socio-humanities' expertise of all the risks and consequences for society that the introduction of new technologies brings with it. For example, the creation of “universal soldiers”.


Even in non-war times, advanced scientific thought created very often and is still creating dual-use technologies that are applicable both for peaceful and military purposes. This significantly sharpens the ethical aspect of scientific and technological progress. How do we resolve the ethical problem of the conflict between what is possible and what is proper, when the same technologies, on the one hand, can significantly improve the quality of a person’s life, and on the other hand, make their life completely dependent on technology? For example, today it is often not clear whether microbiologists are developing means of protection against deadly diseases or improving biological weapons. Or here’s another example: when architects and urban engineers created projects for multi-million cities, they hardly thought that such huge agglomerations could be especially vulnerable during periods of military conflict. How do we prevent a global catastrophe without halting the development of advanced thought?

The very possibility of selective application of a large part of military technologies, in the end, can lead to the belief that they can really be used with strictly predetermined results and “zero” negative consequences for most people and the environment. This approach leads to a reduction in the threshold and frequency of use of such technologies, including their usage in non-military operations. For example, in the fight against violations of civil order. The expansion of the use of combat autonomous systems capable of functioning without human intervention raises the question of who should make the final decision on their activation? Should it be artificial intelligence itself, capable of instantly going through all the stages of “observation — orientation — decision — action” process or a person who needs much more time to decide? All these and many other similar questions should be actualized precisely by the humanities — philosophers, lawyers, social psychologists, and culturologists. It is they who should be moderators in interdisciplinary dialogues, the purpose of which is to reach solutions acceptable to society as a whole.

- Are there any questions on humanities that are not related to military issues, but no less acute?

- Conditionally, it is a question of the nature of man in the digital age. Conditionally, because, as I mentioned above, almost all scientific discoveries today have a potentially dual meaning: they can serve both peace and war. It is conditional also because these are questions not only for the global humanities, but for the global continuum of natural and exact sciences. The well-known German psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer, who specializes in the treatment of patients suffering from addiction to computer games and social networks, emphasized the following idea in his book called The Anti-Brain: Digital Technologies and Brain. When it comes to the functioning of the human brain, it is impossible to distinguish between the natural science and humanities aspects of the process. In other words, human nature is always an object of interdisciplinary research.


It is already obvious that people have not yet adapted to the rapidly transforming world and their place in it, either from a sociocultural or psychological point of view. Digital addiction leads to the degradation of many natural abilities of people, including their intellect and memory, since the use of many digital technologies reduces the mental load and motivation to memorize new information. Accordingly, it is necessary to develop new adaptive mechanisms for survival in an environment permeated with new technologies that “facilitate” people’s life so much that they become idiots. For this, among other things, a deep philosophical reflection of the changes taking place in people and society in connection with digitalization is also needed. And this is not a statement on duty but of a real need since there is the opinion that only more intensive digitalization will save us from digitalization!

– Is that another paradox?

– In a sense, yes. Recently, I came across an article whose authors drew attention to the fact that due to the expansion of digital technologies, verbal culture has finally given way to visual culture. The “readers” have been forever turned into «spectators», without preparation for this. Their figurative right hemispheres, associated with visuality, in the conditions of the devaluation of religious, philosophical and ideological values, turned out to be suppressed having “fallen into childhood”. The authors suggest that it is the computer, or rather, artificial intelligence, that can “wake them up”, playing the role of the third — digital — hemisphere of the brain, freeing them from the routine tasks of socialization.


Of course, such controversial opinions in many respects need a wide interdisciplinary and public discussion, otherwise, not only will artificial intelligence become the “third hemisphere” of the human brain, but the human brain will turn into something rudimentary, from the point of view of artificial intelligence, and finally degrade. The neoliberal attitude to the priority of the personal over the public also does not stand up to scrutiny. And especially in a situation where the Motherland is in danger. In a completely peaceful time, we must always maintain a reasonable balance between the personal and the public too. A sharp tilt in one direction or another threatens new trials for individuals and for the society.

– This is probably the time to talk about the moral and ideological education of students, which, as you know, social disciplines and humanities should deal with, among other things. But are they doing it?

- Actually, I am against such a “disciplinary” approach to educating young people. This should be done by all disciplines, including natural and exact sciences. Stories about the achievements of domestic natural scientists and engineers and their contribution to the technological security and competitiveness of the country can instill patriotism no less than, say, literary and artistic works. However, the real problem is that, until recently, the phrase “moral and ideological education of the youth” was tacitly tabooed because it was allegedly an attribute of the exclusively Soviet system of school and higher education. And in our universities, by and large, neither the humanities nor the techies have been doing this for thirty years. As a result, today we have what the classics once warned about. And not only the Soviet ones. For example, Karl Jaspers, Herbert Marcuse have long foreseen the most important problems of today.

However, not everyone knows that it was in the notorious West, with its seemingly constant priority of the personal over the public, that the issues of civic and ideological education have always been at the center of attention of the academic community and the sphere of state policy. One of the biggest discussions on this topic took place in the UK back in the 1930s and 40s, as evidenced by the archives of parliamentary debates. It was organized by well-known social scientists, political and religious figures, teachers. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority had a negative or extremely wary attitude towards such concepts as “propaganda” and “ideological education”, in fact, they raised the question of the possibility of socio-political propaganda from all the main social and state institutions of Great Britain. At the same time, such a goal was politically correct called “civic education”. And it was supposed to be achieved through the humanization of the mass schooling system.

I think that today it is time for us to organize such discussions, involving the widest possible range of specialists, statesmen and members of the public. And at the same time, we should not forget to engage the younger generation. Social sciences and the humanities should also have a say in this matter, providing materials for the creation of high-quality university textbooks on the basis of Russian statehood, history, literature, the Russian language, social science, and so on. The new project “DNA of Russia”, developed at the initiative of the Russian government and already included in the practice of the country’s universities, is also aimed at this.

– And what can the social sciences and humanities give ordinary people in such a difficult and troubled time as ours?

- Of course, knowledge that you can rely on in order to find a foothold for yourself and survive. Personally, as a psychologist, I am interested in the results of one of the studies, which aimed to analyze the main world’s religious and philosophical teachings in order to find out what human virtues are valued and whether there are coincidences among them. In addition, are they developed or purely innate? The researchers read Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, as well as the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, the Talmud, the samurai code, the works of Confucius, Lao Tzu and a number of other recognized sages. And, not believing their eyes, they saw six virtues common to all nations: 1) wisdom and knowledge, 2) courage, 3) love and humanism, 4) justice, 5) moderation, 6) spirituality. Of course, the description of each of these virtues is somewhat different in every teaching, but not so much for us not to understand that we are talking about the same thing. In addition, each of the six virtues is based on a certain set of positive qualities or virtues, of which there are twenty-four in all. Together, they create a positive character.

It is the task of each individual to determine which virtues or qualities they possess, to what extent and to learn how to develop them further. This is where the path to a happy and meaningful life begins. It is on these virtue-strings, valued by all peoples as something enduring, that modern positive psychology offers reliance on mankind in conditions when everything seems unsteady, and short-lived. Despite the fact that we are talking about psychology, in fact, this study is interdisciplinary. After all, philosophy, history, and culture of different peoples of the world were studied. The conclusion was unequivocal: social sciences and the humanities will always be needed as long as something the human remains in man. And the latter will exist as long as these sciences exist.

TSU Rector Eduard Gakazhinskiy

The conversation was transcribed by Irina Kuzheleva-Sagan

Translated by Snezhana Nosova


You may also like