Humanities learning helps keep society sane

Humanities learning helps keep society sane

Humanities learning helps keep society sane

By Professor Sarah Churchwell, director of Being Human and chair of public understanding of the humanities at the School of Advanced Study

In this post, our new director talks about Being Human and the importance and use of the humanities.

It is difficult to believe that the Being Human festival is only beginning its third year, given its firm roots in the cultural and intellectual landscape. Perhaps because it is such a natural, and necessary, endeavour it feels as if it has always been with us.

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I am delighted to be taking over as its director, celebrating the rich, inventive, creative contributions humanities researchers make to collective knowledge. University research in the humanities is funded partly by the public, and by students. So it’s appropriate that as much of our research as possible should be shared with that public.

But that’s the least of our reasons for showcasing and celebrating the UK’s vital and innovative humanities research. The primary reason is because we are so profoundly convinced of its value to our society. We are all often asked to prioritise those endeavours that demonstrate instrumental or utilitarian value, the presumption being that what makes a given research discipline valuable to society is its ability to generate income (the arts and culture industries are worth £7.7 billion gross to our economy).

But the humanities can, and should, be making other arguments for their usefulness. They are also essential in our struggle to resolve some of our most entrenched problems: global challenges like the refugee crisis, radicalisation, or adapting to climate change.

Since being appointed chair of public understanding of the humanities, I have often been asked – not unreasonably – to explain what they are. My response is that they are to the human world what the sciences are to the natural world. The sciences attempt to understand the natural world, and its phenomena. The humanities focus on the human world and its phenomena: language, history, society, culture. They are not opposed, but deeply complementary and interdependent sets of knowledge.

shutterstock_330247589We live in a connected world, with digital media and global markets. When we talk about our culture and people, we rightly talk about pluralism, diversity, heterogeneity, and the richness of different skill sets and experiences. Yet our centres of advanced learning and knowledge allow financial and disciplinary structures to make our knowledge and expertise disconnected, homogeneous, monochromatic. Politicians, including our minister for education, tell us to choose STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) over the humanities. This is a false choice, and frankly it is a stupid one.

Some believe that cancer can be cured by religious faith, but the evidence suggests that medical science is more successful. Similarly, the refugee crisis will not be resolved by science or technology. We face not one but many humanitarian crises, and they need humanities experts to solve them.

The Being Human festival seeks to showcase all that is brilliant about arts and humanities research in Britain – and all that is connected, diverse and plural, including its connections to the equally rich and plural areas of the sciences. It hopes to encourage researchers to join forces with the public in celebrating all that we know, that we are learning, that we hope yet to learn.

The festival is one way for us to remind ourselves, and each other, that knowledge has value beyond its immediate, short-term ‘usefulness’, whether that is measured in cash or social gains. The American philosopher George Santayana’s said that if we do not remember history, we are doomed to repeat it. Less often repeated is his equally apt observation that a country without memory is a country of madmen. A deep tradition of humanities learning, in a very real sense, helps keep our society sane.

Knowledge makes us human, and we have far too many examples on a daily basis of how ignorance makes us inhuman. The Being Human festival is an opportunity for us all to remember and pay tribute to the ways in which curiosity and the hunger for knowledge are among the most intrinsic human values of all.