Academics in STEM fields such as epidemiology and virology have found themselves centre stage since the coronavirus crisis began to unfold. As the world waits with bated breath for news from the labs on the viability of a vaccine, scientists have become the heroes of the hour. All hope for humanity seems to rest on the quality of their research.
At the same time, many of us have been seeking – and finding – solace in the arts. From virtual art gallery tours to poetry parties and rocketing sales of books like Albert Camus’s The Plague, it is clear we are turning to literature, art and music for meaning and substance in the chaos. Many have sought out analyses of historical crises in order to extract any wisdom that could help us navigate such difficult, disorientating days.
Few would dispute that an interest in humanities subjects enriches an individual. But the bleak reality is that, time after time, economic downturns trigger a sharp drop in the numbers of students opting to study these subjects. In a post-Covid world in which budgets will be tighter than ever, will we find ourselves questioning whether humanities should remain the focus of rigorous academic study and significant research funding?
Arguably, the capacity of humanities research to ask and explore big, messy, difficult questions may hold the key to its survival. The complex challenges we face demand a breadth of understanding and depth of vision that simply cannot be achieved without the multiple, varied insights offered by the humanities. That’s why, for example, at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk you’ll find an interdisciplinary research team drawn from fields including philosophy, history and literature.
The specificities of humanities research fuel wider debates about areas as diverse and relevant as identity, resilience, empathy, imagination, self and society. Deepening our understanding of a fast-changing world and ever-shifting human attitudes and behaviours is vital to our survival, as is finding the language to capture and communicate them.
At a time when machine learning is growing in previously-unimaginable scope and influence, the questioning, humanising, connecting approach of humanities research is essential. As the troubling blind spots of big data become increasingly evident, the nuance and breadth of perspective humanities disciplines bring is sorely needed, as is the readiness to ask not only what we can do, but what we should do.
The advance of technology, now compounded by the effects of Covid-related restrictions, is bringing with it serious issues of estrangement. Crucially, the study of humanities seeks to identify, explore and extend that which connects us. By its nature, it serves to take the focus off the isolated individual and to remind us of wider humanity, of our roles as citizens as well as lone agents. By inviting us to step out from a single point of view or restrictive narrative to consider a multiplicity of perspectives, humanities research helps to challenge division, discrimination and disconnection.
In a world where growing populism is leading to the increasing rejection of the views of ‘experts’ (in 2016, for example, the UK’s then-Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’), the ability of humanities researchers to understand and speak to culture, to inform and enrich it, is invaluable. In societies across the globe dominated by those who shout loudest and create the most chaos, the voices of clear-sighted, critically thinking academics are urgently needed to help rebuild disintegrating trust.
One apposite example of the calming, life-enhancing power of humanities research is Contagious by Duke University English Professor, Priscilla Wald, who says she was motivated to write it by the ‘conviction that an analysis of how the conventions of the outbreak narrative shape attitudes toward disease emergence and social transformation can lead to more effective, just, and compassionate responses both to a changing world and to the problems of global health and human welfare.’
In times of such accelerating change, it is vital to wrestle with questions of what it means to be human, to question assumptions and power structures, to be curious, creative and boundary-pushing.
As the HE sector itself looks set to experience swift and sweeping change, it is surely time to continue that bold, agenda-setting momentum rather than retreat to reductive arguments about how much humanities graduates earn when they enter the job market. Now more than ever, the world needs people who can draw on centuries of human thought and experience to reimagine a new future.
Sources and further reading
‘The Unintended Value of the Humanities’ from The Chronicle of Higher Education
The University of Copenhagen’s ‘Impact of humanities research: 24 case studies’
‘The value of arts and humanities research to life in the UK: A museum perspective’ from the Victoria and Albert Museum