Broadening horizons – Being Human 2017
By Professor Sarah Churchwell
What purpose do the humanities have in the current political climate? In this post, Sarah Churchwell, director of the festival, speaks about this year’s programme, our theme ‘lost and found’, and the growing need for humanities disciplines to bridge divides and celebrate difference. A sneak peek of some of this year’s events can be found at the bottom of this post.
It’s an exciting year for the Being Human Festival. In the just three years since we started, we have nearly doubled our number of events and our number of cultural partners, while establishing an annual footfall of over 30,000 participants from all over the country. In 2016 the festival featured activities in 45 towns and cities across the UK. This year, we will continue to showcase the best, most exciting and innovative humanities research around the country, from Belfast to Dundee, from Glasgow to East Anglia, from Swansea to Nottingham, and everywhere in between. We have events about the history of language and music, walking tours of landscapes and cities, explorations of art and the senses, and for the first time we have opened up a strand on the history and culture of sport, including events on cricket and British wrestling.
But this year we are also broadening our horizons. In the year of Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn, of Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron, of the atrocities at London Bridge and Manchester Arena, it seems more important than ever that we facilitate humanities work doing what it does best: building human bridges. We’ve heard a great deal in the last few years about the redundancy of experts. Some might say that if we do indeed live in a post-truth world this might have something to do with having chosen a post-expert world. We are told that universities inhabit a bubble, a safe space. The best humanities researchers make a practice of wrestling every day with the most difficult ideas they can find. They challenge their own assumptions, in order to challenge society’s. The safest space, the purest bubble, is the evidence-free bubble, the bubble of pure opinion. By celebrating humanities research, we celebrate human curiosity, sharing our curiosity with the curiosity of the publics who support that research.
Our goal, as ever, is to break down barriers, to push ourselves out beyond “safe spaces” of received wisdom and settled thought, and explore new conceptual horizons. To do that, we certainly need to ensure that ideas are shared freely and constructively, that we all listen and learn from each other, which is why at Being Human we are so committed to continuing to extend our dialogues with publics who may not have established relationships with universities or academic life. Sharing ideas, listening to each other, building connections through dialogue and mutual communication: it’s not rocket science, as they say. In fact, it’s the humanities.
And so in that spirit, in 2017 we are taking Being Human even further out into the world, with our first programme of international events. Following last year’s successful debut with the University of London’s Institute of Paris and the University of Kent in Paris with a discussion of literature in the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks, we are moving farther afield. In September 2017 we will be presenting Being Human events in collaboration with the University of Melbourne in Australia, and in November we will be in Singapore, working alongside the Singapore Writer’s Festival to celebrate literature across cultural divides. Humanities researchers around the world are rising up to speak out about the foundational role that humanities subjects (politics, history, law, language, narrative, media) and methodologies (critical thinking, debate, evidenced-based reasoning) play in democratic society. The humanities are the bedrock of liberal democracy, and we are delighted to begin our collaboration with colleagues in Melbourne and Singapore. We hope this is just the beginning of a worldwide recognition of why, if we don’t want to live in a post-truth world, we cannot make do with a post-humanities one either.