In search of understanding
Arto Mustajoki believes the purpose of the humanities is to help people lead better lives. Research and education in the field face great challenges.

Dean Arto Mustajoki (@ArtoMustajoki) from the Faculty of Arts has written a great deal about the social impact of universities. The topic is one of his favourites.

Science encompasses a wide range of research topics, but there are also many different users of research results with different information needs. What ultimately is the relevance of academic research?

 “The most essential thing is that nature, society and the individual are healthy and that better decisions can be made," responds Mustajoki.

Mustajoki considers the main duty of universities to be the education of coming generations. He believes that the tools for functioning in society must be provided by research-based education.

“If the big-picture goal of medicine is to help people live longer, healthier lives, the same goal for research in the humanities is to help people lead better lives, and to make the world a better place.”

“We must produce and spread the kind of information that will enable individuals to better understand themselves, their environment, their society and the world."

What are the impacts of science and research?

Mustajoki praises humanities researchers for their active efforts to render information more accessible.

“We should still focus more on decision-makers. We would have a lot to give them in terms of research-based decision making, but the dialogue is currently not working particularly well.”

There are several reasons for this: there should be more contact between researchers and politicians, but the main challenge is a lack of mutual understanding.

“The language of politics is not the language of academia, and the different realms employ different approaches. The media and decision-makers need facts immediately, regardless of how much time it takes to research an issue,” explains Mustajoki.

Politicians demand immediate answers from researchers regarding the extent of scientific information on a particular topic at a given moment. This means a completely different process from that of writing a scientific article, where researchers can extensively explain their observations and findings.

“It’s good that we have improved our network forums, such as Tutkas, the discussion forum for researchers and members of parliament. However, developing a constructive dialogue takes time.”

The human factor decides

Mustajoki points out that research in the humanities has a great deal to offer, also to the business world.

“We have only recently begun to understand that we cannot save the world with technology alone. Humans, their behaviour and values are the forces behind everything.”

 “When faith in technology falters, the world cries out for the humanities.”

For example, 90% of research funding for the preservation of the Baltic Sea is still spent on studying water. However, the water is not the problem, people are.

“We humanists should have a clearer view of what we have to give, and apply our expertise more to socially relevant themes,” Mustajoki points out.

The problem with understanding

Known primarily as a researcher of Russia and linguistics, Mustajoki has recently focused on the problem of understanding. He has established a consortium of researchers from different fields to examine the causes and effects of understanding and misunderstanding.

“The biggest problem in the world is that people don’t understand each other.”

The foundation of constructive interaction is the desire to understand each other. This is also true of interdisciplinary debate.

“The problem is that information is fragmented and pigeonholed. It’s not easy to gain a comprehensive view of an issue, which means that the information does not accumulate,” says Mustajoki.

Big Wheel speeding things along

According to Mustajoki, society is relatively well aware of the significance of the humanities, but their value is not always brought up when discussing science policy or allocating funding. The same is true for humanities education.

“I absolutely think that our expertise will be increasingly in demand in the future. Technology and digitalisation may replace the work currently done by humans, but profound understanding, knowledge of different cultures and history as well as literary skills are difficult to replace. We just have to be able to show that we are necessary in society,” Mustajoki muses.

One of the great challenges in this effort at the University of Helsinki is the Big Wheel education reform. The reform means that all of the University’s education leading to a degree will be organised into degree programmes.

“Even though the amount of work associated with the reform is stressful, I see it as a great opportunity. The Faculty of Arts has always had many small disciplines, and in the future, all studies will fit into six Bachelor's programmes," Mustajoki explains.

“It's good that degrees are being planned from the student's perspective. They key issue is what skills must be provided to the student so that she or he will be able to function in our society and be respected as an expert."

Mustajoki praises the University’s strategy for placing the student at the centre of focus.

“It’s a brave thing to elevate teaching and education to such a prominent position alongside research; it will help the University community to rethink things.”