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What About #GBL and the Humanities?

Whenever you watch the rare event of big chunks of money flying in the direction of serious GBL development like wild geese in winter, you can bet your tenure on it that it’ll be all about STEM. But education isn’t just Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—it’s about a zillion other things too! And that includes Social Sciences and the Humanities.

The humanities, despite being ridiculously underfunded, are doing fine in principle. And if we care at all about what kind of society, political system, historical self-image, or perspective on justice should be shaping our future, or what public and individual capacities of critical and self-critical thinking, introspection, and levels of general knowledge to make informed decisions about anything and everything we want future generations to have at their disposal, then we should be as deeply interested in bringing the humanities and social sciences into game-based learning than we are already with respect to STEM.

Because if you aren’t interested in such things or can’t motivate yourself to take them seriously, then you’d better prepare for a near-future society best represented right now by FOX News and talk radio programs, comment sections of online newspapers, and tech dudebro social media wankfests.

That said, there are at least two fatal mistakes the humanities must avoid at all costs: neither should they put themselves on the defensive about their own self-worth, nor should they position themselves conveniently in the “training” camp.

Jeffrey T. Nealon in Post-Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012):

The other obvious way to articulate the humanities’ future value is to play up the commitment to communication skills that one sees throughout the humanities. For example, Cathy Davidson writes in the Associated Departments of English Bulletin (2000), “If we spend too much of our energy lamenting the decline in the number of positions for our doctoral students, … we are giving up the single most compelling argument we have for our existence”: the fact that we “teach sophisticated techniques for reading, writing, and sorting information into a coherent argument.” “Reading, writing, evaluating and organizing information have probably never been more central to everyday life,” Davidson points out, so—by analogy—the humanities have never been so central to the curriculum and the society at large. This seems a compelling enough line of reasoning—and donors, politicians, students, and administrators love anything that smacks of a training program.

But, precisely because of that fact, I think there’s reason to be suspicious of teaching critical-thinking skills as the humanities’ primary reason for being. The last thing you want to be in the new economy is an anachronism, but the second-to-last thing you want to be is the “training” wing of an organization. And not because training is unnecessary or old line, far from it; rather, you want to avoid becoming a training facility because training is as outsourceable as the day is long: English department “writing” courses, along with many other introductory skills courses throughout the humanities, are already taught on a mass scale through distance education, bypassing the bricks-and-mortar university’s (not-for-profit) futures altogether, and becoming a funding stream for distance ed’s (for-profit) virtual futures. Tying our future exclusively to skills training is tantamount to admitting that the humanities are a series of service departments—confirming our future status as corporate trainers. And, given the fact that student writing and communication skills are second only to the weather as a perennial source of complaint among those who employ our graduates, I don’t think we want to wager our futures solely on that. (187–88)

Everybody who’s involved in a rare GBL game pitch for the humanities or social sciences that travels down this road should turn the wheel hard and fast in a different direction—or get out and run.