Why we should be less stressed about the humanities

Why we should be less stressed about the humanities

In this guest blog, Professor Geoffrey Crossick, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the School of Advanced Study, University of London, reflects upon the current status of the humanities in the UK and the USA. He argues the case for a self-confident articulation of the value of the humanities and their continuing role at the heart of our society.

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I’m puzzled by the way people in the humanities so often feel under attack. That is why the Being Human festival is so important in showing what we do rather than presenting ourselves as misunderstood victims. I have many criticisms of government higher education and fees policy, but cannot see that the humanities are being singled out for attack. Finance for humanities subjects at £9,000 is more generous than before the withdrawal of public funding (which doesn’t mean that I agree with the new fee regime itself but science and creative arts subjects will suffer more). The AHRC’s research funding is holding up as well as all research councils (only medicine is doing better) and humanities research funding comes overwhelmingly from HEFCE and that is now being protected within the science ring-fence. And, whatever my disagreements with his wider policies, the recently departed Minister for Higher Education was the first I can remember who really believed in the humanities.

So, why do people in the humanities feel so embattled? One powerful explanation is that UK humanities researchers tend to look to the USA for their networks and collaborations. And in the USA the humanities (and the arts) are under serious political attack. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities are having to ensure that whatever it is that they are funding cannot be exploited by the Republican right in Congress. When do humanities research grants get challenged here in Parliament? There are regular Congressional attacks on the very principle of public funding for research in the humanities and social sciences, something that is not questioned in this country. Much of the sense of anxiety has been caught from colleagues at US universities who are genuinely embattled.

The value of the humanities

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges, however, which we in the humanities must address. One is to ensure that prospective students, who will be accumulating considerable debt by going to university, appreciate that the humanities are important for them to study because it will influence who and what they are throughout their lives, and because it will get them rewarding employment and careers. Another challenge is to ensure that the contribution that the humanities make to society is understood. We’re getting increasingly good at showing that and we need to be, with public resources for teaching and research under a great deal of pressure, pressure that will continue for at least the next decade. There is also an intellectual challenge, to move forward with the potential of interdisciplinarity and the potential of digital scholarly communication in a way that strengthens the humanities rather than diluting their intellectual quality.

The goal of Being Human is to show how the humanities are defined by studying the very fundamental characteristics of what it means to be human. In my view, we need to be careful not to claim ownership of this terrain: the social sciences and sciences also study what it is to be human, and without them our understanding would be so much weaker. I remember when, as Chief Executive of the Arts & Humanities Research Board soon to be a full research council, I started working with the existing research councils, and with the government’s Chief Scientist, finding a genuine warmth of welcome. Some were more convinced than others, but all knew that the arrival of the arts and humanities would enrich the research councils and their potential.

The humanities: in praise of complexity

What then is the difference about the humanities’ part of that research landscape? It lies above all in those aspects of being human that are often the most elusive and complex. The humanities study cultures, languages, religions, communication, literature, art, ideas and more, and they do so across different societies and through time. Good public debate and good public policy, as well as good citizenship, are impossible without them. One problem often thrown at us, and not only by policy makers, is that the humanities don’t provide the straightforward answers people want. That is not because we overcomplicate our analysis (though we must admit that some do) but because what we analyse is bound up with what people are. People are complex, as are their societies, shaped by language, identities, history, faiths, and cultures. The humanities help us understand that complexity, in our own society and in others, and if it doesn’t always produce neat answers then we need disciplines like that. Disciplines that show us nuances and complexity, and don’t look for simple answers to complex realities. Disciplines that have different approaches to causal relationships and the way we investigate them – not better approaches but more appropriate ones for what we’re studying. Disciplines that have different ways of using and testing evidence – not better approaches but more appropriate ones for what we’re studying.

I doubt that the Being Human festival needs my advice, but here it is anyway: convey what the humanities are about with a confidence that comes out of knowing our importance and not with a defensiveness born in the mistaken belief that we’re under attack.

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The Being Human festival features over 100 events dedicated to public engagement with humanities research across the UK. We are delighted to announce that the full programme is now available to view via our ‘What’s On’ calendar. For updates on the festival follow us on Twitter @BeingHumanFest, and on Pinterest. Don’t forget to sign up to our e-newsletter, too!