Why it’s time for a festival of the humanities

Why it’s time for a festival of the humanities

by Professor Barry C. Smith

What do you think of when someone tells you that they’re a scientist or an artist?  You probably don’t know exactly what they do – there is huge variety in the arts and the sciences – but you have a rough idea.  Compare this with someone telling you that they work in the humanities?  What is that, you might say?  And what do you call someone who works in the humanities?  A humanist?  The term is catching on in the United States, but if often carries the wrong connotations.  Of course, we have a better sense of what someone does if they tell us they are a historian, or an anthropologist, or philosopher or linguist.  The trouble is the want of a collective term for researchers in the humanities, along with the obscurity of the term ‘humanities’ for the wider public.

Think back to the complaint made by C.P Snow in his lecture on the two cultures.  At that time, Snow thought that most educated people know what went on in the literary humanities but he worried that they knew very little about science.  Nowadays, it may seem to be just the reverse.  The sciences have done a great job on public understanding and the public at large read a lot of popular science in books and magazines.  The appetite is there and it is being fed by those who are able to explain their subject with clarity and passion, and it is the humanities which are now lagging behind and not getting their message across.  If anything, we now need professors in the public understanding of the humanities.

So how should we address this issue?  One way is simply to show people the best of what we do through a festival of the humanities in which researchers can showcase the latest research, making it accessible to a wider audience and showing that it is relevant to people’s lives.  After all, there are festivals of science and arts festivals.  Why not a humanities festival?  Well, there is the issue of that word, humanities.  So for that reason, we have come up with the festival title Being Human, a title previously used as a theme for a humanities festival at King’s College, London.

Most of what we do in the humanities addresses aspects of the human world, examining the expression of our natures and thinking through the products of individual and collective minds.  We uncover the factors that shape human culture and explore the way cultures have shaped us.  The vast outpouring of human creativity in music, literature, art and design, are all subjects of study, and through the interpretation and understanding of these works we hope to get just a little closer to what we are, and who we are, as human beings.  Each expression of mind is an act of communication that looks to reach out and change our way of thinking and feeling.  These are essentially human traits that mark us out as the species we are.  Though our sense of ourselves as humans has been shifting and changing with the recent findings of genetics and neurobiology.  Many cherished notions that guide our sense of ourselves as free agents and moral beings have been put in question and people are very keen to address these issues.  Researchers in the humanities are increasingly working with colleagues in the sciences and social sciences to engage with these questions and to locate them in their proper context.  We all feel that we are living in a complicated world where things are speeding up and where we are deluged by information and rapid technological change.  But have we been here before?  How did we face the large leaps forward in technology in the past?  There are models here we can learn from, helping us to understand the future through the past.

We are in an age of big data and we tend to think that digital technology will reform our ways of thinking and learning.  But in the humanities we have always had big data:  vast libraries and collections that had to be organised and catalogued, while still being useful to those who might need the information.  We relied on curators who handled anything from text, to objects, recordings, paintings, and drawings, giving us access to them and revealing connections between them.  These skills are needed even more in the digital age for if we don’t digitally curate all the information we are gathering it will become useful landfill in the future.  The skills we have of selecting, grouping and discarding information have been the cornerstone of historical research, and they have formed habit of mind that may yet still serve us well in navigating our way through the information around us.  These skills of analysis and interpretation are useful in everyday life and probably more needed than ever.  But they are also increasingly sought out by those in other disciplines.  In the sciences and the arts, there is a desire to set the ideas, methods and questions in a wider context, to locate the current thinking in its historical setting and to learn from the past to provide improved understanding of our futures.  Humanities research has a lot to offer and exciting collaborations across the arts, humanities and sciences are already taking place.  Being Human will be a chance to explore and discover the very best of this work and to catch the excitement and vitality of the humanities today.

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Professor Barry C Smith is Festival Director and AHRC Leadership Fellow for the Science and Culture Theme