Being human: honesty, respect and tolerance

Being human: honesty, respect and tolerance

Wednesday 1 October 2014

What exactly are the qualities that make us human? According to respondents in a recent survey, the most highly prized qualities are honesty, respect and tolerance.

These people were taking part in a research project commissioned by the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, as part of Being Human, its forthcoming nine-day national festival of the humanities being run in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. Two thousand people were involved, and their choices were made from a list that also included humour, spirituality/religion, loyalty and fairness.

The Being Human festival, running for the first time in November 2014, aims to build public understanding of the value and relevance of research in the humanities. The survey therefore sought to explore public attitudes to the humanities as a subject area. It asked questions about the perceived relevance of the humanities to people’s everyday lives as well as about the fundamental qualities involved in ‘being human’. When asked about the humanities subjects they felt had been most helpful in their daily lives, nearly 18 per cent of respondents voted for literature, and slightly more than 16 cent for history, drama and music. However, women and men differed in the importance they attributed to specific subject areas in use in daily life. Women were more inclined towards literature and men towards history.

‘The research has revealed that almost three-quarters of the people consulted believe that humanities subjects, such as philosophy, history, music and languages, have a real impact on day-to-day life,’ said Dr Michael Eades, curator of the festival that will run from 15-23 November and involve more than 100 free events hosted by over 50 higher education institutions.

‘The events programmed for this year’s Being Human [festival] respond to some of the fundamental aspects of our shared humanity. We have events exploring our understanding of comedy and humour, events exploring our very first forays into language, debates on religion and ethics, even a tour of the UK Supreme Court that explores The Humanity of Judging. What this programme demonstrates in relation to the poll is that there is a wealth of research being conducted in the humanities that respond to the core principles of humanity itself, and to the very qualities that people continue to see as fundamentally important in others. In other words, the humanities help us to understand and intelligently respond to the complexity of who we are, how we live and what we value most.’

The survey also revealed that, for an overwhelming majority (nearly two thirds), the humanities is not only important to how we understand ourselves, but is fundamental to our culture. Only 140 respondents viewed the discipline as something that is studied by ‘professors in ivory towers’.

The survey suggests that science enjoys a higher profile than humanities. Overall, more than half thought scientific and technical breakthroughs such as the Human Genome Project are our most important achievements. This compares with 11 per cent who thought that the accolade should go to how we’ve developed ways of expressing ourselves through mediums such as great literature or paintings.

‘One of the really pleasing things about the survey results are that they demonstrate a genuine public understating of the value of what we do as researchers in this subject area’ added Dr Eades.

‘Clearly there is a gap between that and the value currently placed on research in the sciences, and that gap is in many ways what the festival seeks to address. Just as we cannot move forward as a society without cutting edge research in the sciences, and indeed in the arts, those of us working in the humanities need to take every opportunity to demonstrate, explain, and contextualise what it is that we do in ways that people can understand and relate to. That is a process that we learn from ourselves and which enriches our research. Honest, respect and tolerance are qualities that we should ourselves embody in our research practice, just as we do as human beings.’

Find out more about the festival at and follow the latest news about the festival on Twitter at @BeingHumanFest (hashtag #BeingHuman14).

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Notes for editors:

For all other enquiries, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London 
+44 (0)20 7862

1. Being Human: A festival of the humanities 15–23 November 2014.
What does it mean to be human? How do we understand ourselves, our relationship to others and our place in nature? For centuries the humanities have addressed these questions. Artists, writers, philosophers, theologians and historians have considered who we are, how we live and what we value most. But are these long-standing questions changing in 2014? We are more connected than ever, yet we spend more time with smart phones and computers than face to face. The world is becoming smaller, yet the digital information we can access and store, even about ourselves, is vast and growing.  Developments in science and technology are moving fast, challenging our understanding of the self and society. What sense can we make of these changes and what challenges do we face? We need the humanities more than ever to help us address these issues and provide the means to question, interpret and explain the human predicament.

The festival is held as part of the School of Advanced Study’s 20th anniversary celebrations and draws on the success of the 2013 King’s College Festival of the Humanities. Being Human will be the UK’s first national festival of the humanities. Led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy, and universities, arts and cultural organisations across the UK, it will demonstrate the value, vitality and relevance of the humanities in 2014. Find out more at or follow the festival on Twitter at @BeingHumanFest.

3. The School of Advanced Study (SAS) at the University of London is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and facilitation of research in the humanities. The School brings together 10 prestigious research institutes to offer unparalleled academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. The member institutes of the School are the Institutes of Advanced Legal Studies, Classical Studies, Commonwealth Studies, English Studies, Historical Research, Latin American Studies, Modern Languages Research, Musical Research, Philosophy, and the Warburg Institute. The School also hosts a cross-disciplinary centre, the Human Rights Consortium, dedicated to the facilitation, promotion and dissemination of academic and policy work on human rights. Find out more at or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.

4. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

5. The British Academy is the UK’s national champion of the humanities and social sciences. As a Fellowship of distinguished scholars and researchers from all areas of the humanities and social sciences, it promotes these disciplines and facilitates the exchange of knowledge and ideas. It funds research across the UK and internationally, and seeks to raise understanding of some of the biggest challenges of our time through policy reports, forums, conferences, publications and public events.  For more information, please visit Follow the British Academy on Twitter @britac_news.