[OUTLOOK]We need to dream our own dreams

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[OUTLOOK]We need to dream our own dreams

I don’t know if I am in a position to talk about the crisis of humanities departments of universities. This is all the more so because when a group of humanities professors gathered recently to announce that humanities had fallen into a crisis, there was a conspicuous absence of political science academics in the group.
However, this is an issue that I can’t help but take interest in and from what I hear, there are several noticeable problems.
Humanities studies are being shunned by students, and graduates with humanities majors have a difficult time finding employment. Also, sponsors are stingier about supporting humanities research. Indifference from schools, society and the government has led to humanities departments being abolished in many colleges.
Two points come to my mind.
First, if this is the case, then social sciences, too, must be suffering the same lack of interest. However, social science departments are turning a blind eye to the seriousness of the situation, thus aggravating the problem.
Second, would attracting more students with entertaining classes, supporting professors with more research funds and educating the public about the importance of humanities solve the problem?
The answer, unfortunately, seems to be “no.” These are only temporary cures and as soon as their effects end, the problem is sure to return.
If so, what is the fundamental cure? The answer to this question lies in humanities departments’ willingness to ask and answer questions.
Humans ask questions to live. Have you ever had a child ask you question after question? Remember how troublesome it was?
“What is this? What is that?” “Why? Why?” What we do in universities is no different.
The duty of humanities is to ask “What is..?” For example, “What is life?”, “What is society?”, “What is history?” and so on. Yet, we try to avoid these questions.
We find them irrelevant and get annoyed when someone asks these questions.
In order to answer these questions, we must first ask “What is human?”
The essence of humanities, after all, is to study humans. Yet, today, in this 21st century, it seems that the whole world has agreed on the fact that humans are inconsequential.
While debating with my students whether humans are indeed inconsequential, we began to talk about the differences between humans and dogs.
After much discussion, it suddenly dawned on me that dogs don’t know how to look in a mirror and they don’t recognize their own reflections. This was the ultimate difference between humans and dogs.
Humans not only recognize themselves in the mirror and reflect on their selves, they can imagine and create the selves they want.
Who has never looked in the mirror and dreamt of becoming a better self?
Humans are capable of dreaming. Of course, they can also choose not to dream. However, a life without dreams is no better than the life of a dog.
Only when a human being dreams about his or her own self and about society and history can society and history change that human’s life.
Unfortunately, ever since the opening of our country to the outside world in the mid-19th century, we have been forced to dream the dreams of modern Western society. We were not allowed to dream any other dreams.
We were taught that humans were rational, that strife is inevitable in society and that there are unbreakable rules in history.
In short, we were taught that what Western civilizations experienced in a short period of time since modernization was the eternal, unchanging truth.
This is where our problem lies.
If our humanities departments return to the question of “What is human?” and return the depth to human existence ― assert that we are indeed different from dogs ― and translate the dreams that we dream in order to create our own culture, rather than be subordinate to the cultures of others, then students, society and the government will return.
We have world class heritages to accomplish this mission.
We have a spirit that cries out to be human and a passion to achieve our dreams.
May the ability of humanities studies to ask the one question ― “Why?” ― save us from being taken completely over by materialism.

* The writer is a professor of political science at Kookmin University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Cho Chung-bin
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