Today I stumbled across an article by historian Thongchai Winichakul on “Southeast Asian Studies in the Age of STEM Education and Hyper-Utilitarianism.” Being a fan of Thongchai’s work on Thai history, and seeing that this essay covers a topic that I’m always interested in – Southeast Asian Studies in the current (digital) age – I decided to read it.
It is no secret that the world of area studies in general, and the humanities in particular, are not faring well these days. What I find problematic is that in discussing this issue many academics simply try to argue that area studies (or history or the humanities, etc.) is important because it promotes/teaches critical thinking or certain knowledge that leads to a more meaningful life.
They do not turn the spotlight on their own discipline/field to ask if there is anything inadequate about their own approaches, and to investigate how they might need to change in order for area studies/history/the humanities to adapt and prosper in the digital age.
This essay is likewise another call for the importance of critical thinking, and again, without serious consideration of the failings of area studies in the digital age. However, it ends with an intriguing suggestion that scholars in Asia can bridge the divide between the humanities and the digital world that is so wide in places like the US.
Thongchai begins his essay by talking about the history of knowledge production about Southeast Asia, from the work of colonial-era scholars who examined ancient texts and inscriptions from their colonial possessions to the post-war American-led move toward social science research about Southeast Asian nations.
He then goes on to talk about how the end of the Cold War and the rise of Globalization both affected area studies negatively in “the West” but opened new opportunities for its growth in Asia.
Finally, Thongchai looks at the transformations that have taken place in higher education in recent years as the digital revolution has led, he argues, to an emphasis on STEM subjects and to a decline in support for area studies, the humanities and the social sciences.
It is in discussing these recent changes that Thongchai makes the comment about area studies and critical thinking. To quote:
“The visionary advocates of the. . . [digital] age recognize that the next era of digital transformation demands and places more emphasis on the ability of a workforce to adapt continuously and learn new skills and approaches within a variety of contexts. It needs the innovative ability of individuals. It needs an educational provision suitable for people with the social and creative skills and decision-making ability under constant change, uncertainty and novel ideas. The complex problem-solving ability will be far more in demand, and this capacity of individuals is not automatic or given. Nor is it the outgrowth of technical training, coding skills, technological know-how, or scientific empiricism on which STEM education usually focuses. It requires, I would argue, training in critical thinking, skeptical questioning, and comparative and interpretive reasoning. This is the realm of social studies and the humanities. The greater understanding of cultural differences and how to deal with them, as a society and as individuals, require education and scholarship provided in such fields as area studies.” (172-173)
What Thongchai presents here is a dichotomy between technical training and humanistic/social science critical thought. On the one side is STEM, a world of “technological know-how” (and apparently lacking in critical social thought), and on the other is the realm of the social sciences and the humanities where we can find “critical thinking, skeptical reasoning” and an “understanding of cultural differences and how to deal with them.”
This dichotomy is of course simplistic (yes, people in STEM fields also think critically about society. . .), but it is also misleading in the way that it diverts our attention away from the enormous segment of the population that the digital revolution has affected tremendously, and that clearly thinks critically about the world we live in.
While it is true that today there are some people who have, for instance, “coding skills,” and some people who don’t, in between those two extremes are millions upon millions of people whose lives have been transformed by digital technologies (i.e., who make use of digital tools every day) and who have had “to adapt continuously and learn new skills and approaches” so that they can possess “the social and creative skills and decision-making ability” in this time of “constant change.”
Take the business world for instance. The above image is of some topics for business courses on Linkedin Learning, a provider of online courses where one can “Learn business, creative, and technology skills to achieve your personal and professional goals.”
Several of these topics are for types of knowledge that only came into existence with the digital revolution: Digital Marketing, Email Marketing, Lead Generation, Mobile Marketing, Pay-Per-Click Marketing, Search Engine Marketing (SEM), Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Social Media Marketing, Web Marketing Analytics.
20 years ago, people in the business world did not need to know about most of these topics because they did not exist yet. Now they are all essential, and therefore, people in the business world have had “to adapt continuously and learn new skills and approaches.” (Indeed, if you look at the courses on more “traditional” topics like “Public Relations,” you find that they have also been radically transformed by the digital revolution.)
Does someone need to know how to code (i.e., “technological know-how”) in order to optimize a company’s web page for search engine optimization? No, but it is essential to be able to write clearly and concisely (and much more clearly and concisely, I would argue, then we require in academic writings).
Does one need to know “technological know-how” in order to understand web marketing analytics? I guess a tiny bit. One needs to know, for instance, how Google records activity on the web. Beyond that, however, one needs lots of social science knowledge and critical thinking skills in order to examine, compare, interpret and evaluate what web metrics can tell us about human activity.
That in turn requires that one know a lot about how human beings engage with the Internet through various devices, and how this differs from one demographic, social class, gender, age group, etc., to another.
This topic of how human beings engage with the Internet and their devices is one that the fast-growing field of UX Design (User Experience Design) deals with in ever-increasing depth and sophistication. And yes, people in this field are trying to design webpages that can address the particular needs of peoples of different cultures, and of people with different types of abilities and disabilities.
They are also thinking historically about how limited literacy has been in human history and how the digital revolution is moving humanity towards the orality that has been at the core of human existence since the beginning of time (and what this means for communication, web design, the building of online communities, etc.).
What UX designers and business people of all shapes and stripes share is that they make full use of the Internet (desktop/tablet/mobile) and of all of its media (text, sound, image, video, motion graphics, etc.) to communicate. What is more, this is something that people in myriad other fields do as well.
Then there are academics in fields like area studies and the humanities.
As the digital revolution has unfolded, how have area studies scholars “adapt[ed] continuously and learn[ed] new skills and approaches within a variety of contexts”?
What are the topics that they teach today that did not exist 20 years ago?
What are the new tools that the digital revolution has created that are essential for area studies specialists to know how to use?
And what are examples of the ways in which area studies specialists have made full use of the Internet (desktop/tablet/mobile) and of all of its media (text, sound, image, video, motion graphics, etc.) to communicate, like their many counterparts in countless other realms of the workforce, with the changing world?
When one looks at the changes that the digital revolution has brought about, and how little those changes have affected people in fields like area studies in the US (and by extension, the humanities and to some extent the social sciences), at the same time that they have dramatically transformed so many other fields and the lives of the people who work in those fields, I think one has to wonder what exactly it is that area studies specialists have to offer our world in the digital age.
Thongchai concludes his article by suggesting, however, that scholars in Asia have the potential to bridge the gap between area studies and the digital world and to make a contribution to area studies in the process. To quote:
“First, in Asia, given the relative weakness in the humanities, Asian and Southeast Asian studies should pay more attention to the technological-related issues, instead of taking the humanistic turn, thus making area studies more relevant to the social changes of the disruptive [i.e., digital] age. We need to explore the social and human dimension of technology-driven transformation, in research and in our classroom. The transformation of the digital age needs knowledge on these matters.” (175-176)
I don’t quite follow the logic in this suggestion (Why, for instance, can’t/shouldn’t scholars anywhere else in the world pay more attention to technological-related issues?), but what I see here is a sincere attempt by Thongchai to try to come to terms with the fact that the world has changed dramatically and that area studies scholars like himself do not know what to do.
Getting universities in places like America to start promoting area studies for its critical thinking and its understanding of cultural diversity would be great, but it’s never going to happen, and the world doesn’t need that as it’s moving far ahead into the digital age and dealing with those issues just fine on its own.
Hoping that scholars in Asia will figure out something that works. . . Hmmm, an article today about rankings-crazy Singapore suggests that it is highly unlikely that any such development will come from there. . . Other universities in the region are turning to ASEAN studies. . . I wouldn’t bet on this as a possible development.
I suppose that area studies scholars could also try doing what the rest of the world has done – adapt and learn new skills. . . Might that lead to at least a better sense of how to communicate with the world today, and from that point, might it likewise lead to a better sense of what it is that people today need/want to know?
Just a suggestion. . .