Professor Joe Wolff was one of five academics who gave lightning talks at the Being Human lab where participants were asked to consider how the humanities could help create solutions for issues faced by humanity in the future. During the lab, problems such as the refugee crisis, social inequality and climate change were creatively dealt with through discussion, Lego and tapestry workshops.
I was asked to consider the role of the humanities in relation to some of the problems we face in the world today. But didn’t want to talk about global health, poverty, climate change, war, or terrorism. Urgent as these problems are, few of us have much scope to act upon them directly. Powerful, co-ordinated, political action is needed, which is one reason why they are so stubborn. Instead I chose to focus on issues that affect the great majority of people likely to be reading a blog such as this, and to illustrate how they intersect with problems of social inequality. Rather tendentiously I presented them as ‘the seven stages of pub or dinner party conversation’, taking us from early to late adulthood.
Stage one: ‘how do I get a decent, satisfying, job?’ For some this will be the question of choosing between different graduate training schemes, for others whether menial manual work is available. Family connections will always help, which shows that at any level of economic and social status some will be better placed than others. This will be true for all the questions that follow.
Stage two: ‘where do I find somewhere to live?’ For some this is the question of ever-rising house prices, for others, the availability of social housing.
Stage three: ‘where do I send my children to school?’ For some it is a question of social conscience: should I pay or not? Most are not lucky enough to have the problem in that particular form, though it certainly appears in others.
Stage four: ‘where should my children go to university?’ Strictly, this is your child’s problem. My experience is that many parents regard it as their own too, or even more so.
Stage five: ‘what should I do about care for my parents?’ With increasing life expectancy and no cure in sight for conditions leading to dementia, this will get ever worse.
Stage six: one’s own health. Recently, I was asked as a conversational gambit what pills I am taking. ‘None’ in my case. Yet.
Stage seven: pension and retirement. An important site of inequality. Those who are healthy and index-linked have the time of their lives, others experience an unprecedented level of poverty.
There is no stage eight. You can’t get down to the pub and you are no longer invited to dinner parties. Each one of these questions is related to social inequality, being a cause, effect, or intensifier of social difference or discrimination.
The accents and body language of some will get them jobs others, equally talented, cannot access. Getting in to the ‘right’ university will smooth much in later life. The social gradient in health tells us that the higher status, wealthier and better educated you are, the better your health. And so on. Reducing social inequality may make the seven problems less intense, although, as they are part of life nothing will make them disappear.
These problems are acute because of the social structures of privilege and advantage we find ourselves in. These structures are sometimes noticed, but often not, and are reproduced when we respond rationally to the difficulties we face. For example competition to get into the best schools and universities renders them more competitive and desirable and hence reinforces problems of inequality.
Those who see friends and family dying young may feel early death is inevitable and so continue to smoke and drink heavily. It is primarily the task of the social sciences – part of the humanities broadly conceived – to unmask these structures and their effects. All disciplines can help us imagine alternatives.
New technologies and clever policies can certainly help. But the humanities are in a special position. Professor Geoffrey Crossick gives many excellent examples of the work we can do to inspire change. But we must not forget that the humanities have often been an intensifier of privilege. We distinguish between high and low art, between culture and pulp.
Our jargon polices the boundaries between those fit to receive knowledge and those not. Through the canon we validate some and render others invisible. Thereby we inadvertently exacerbate the very problems we are tying to solve. To help break the structures of social inequality, part of our work must be to rethink our own practice. Our goal should be to replace the notion of the elite with a celebration of many sources and forms of value.