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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).