Arts and humanities support the skill of storytelling

For AHRC chief executive Christopher Smith, the value of arts and humanities degrees is demonstrated by our need to tell stories that resonate

Christopher Smith is Executive Chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)

Difficult times force us to make choices.

We have seen that medicine has produced extraordinary advances during the pandemic, and conversely, as budget pressures build, arts and humanities can quickly become the subject of much debate. This has prompted questions about the true value of arts and humanities degrees, and what it is that arts and humanities graduates contribute to society. But the truth is that science is at its best when it includes all our disciplines, and the current challenge to restate the value of our disciplines is an opportunity to articulate the breadth of ways in which arts and humanities education is vital for equipping people with the skills needed for the future.

The words and the story

To give just one obvious example, the arts and humanities provide us with an understanding of the ethical choices we must make which are vital to deal equitably and strategically with the contemporary challenges facing the post-pandemic world, such as vaccine distribution, the balance of constraint and freedom, or the advantages and disadvantages of an increasingly “online” world. Our creative industries research – such as the StoryFutures academy – is arming young people with the cutting-edge skills in AR and VR that will be in demand for us to remain world-leaders in the creative sector in the decades to come. And perhaps the most vital skillset – which is relevant to possibly every business and organisation in the world – and flourishes in the arts and humanities is story craft.

The first lesson I learnt when I began to engage in development activity for a charity was to tell a story. I remember fumbling for words in my first pitch – I knew I had failed inside two minutes. I then went and spent time with a professional who helped me develop a story, a compelling and authentic account of why this charity mattered to me. I realised that what I had learnt as a historian – marshalling evidence, putting it in order, finding the thread, setting it out clearly – was the skill I needed.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council recently funded the report Storycraft: The importance of narrative and narrative skills in business. This ground-breaking report, based on extensive interviews with 34 business leaders, most of whom are CEOs and Chairs of FTSE100 companies, reveals how prominent business leaders in the United Kingdom view and utilise narrative as an integral part of doing business.

It also goes further to show that the ability to devise, craft, and deliver a successful narrative is not only a requirement for any CEO or senior executive, but it is a skill everyone needs to have. The challenge of telling clear stories about complex issues though is that it requires using evidence well and with integrity; and communicating with honesty and empathy – all skills routinely honed as part of arts and humanities degrees.

A matter of translation

The Storycraft report has been published at the same time as the British Academy’s report on Knowledge exchange in the social sciences, humanities and the arts, which also highlights how these disciplines are fundamental in translating science for policy makers and communities. And above all, our report shows that business and the economy will only flourish and grow if underpinned by the ability to tell a story that is authentic, true, persuasive and evidence-based.

These reports not only demonstrate the clear value of narrative skills taught as part of arts and humanities degrees but make the case for increased collaboration between the arts and humanities and other disciplines. The challenge which is posed by the business leaders interviewed in the Storycraft report, and in the BA report, is that we need more connected research and teaching, that we must understand the value of narrative and evidence and think across methodologies and disciplinary boundaries.

This requires us to look at university curricula and how to manage breadth without losing depth in learning. There are many outstanding examples of curriculum design which allows students to fulfil their hopes of finding rich and demanding intellectual experiences and environments. The University of Birmingham’s Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences programme is one such. As we see the arts and humanities transform through the greater incorporation of practice research, the creative industries and design, we can also see that what we bring to systems thinking can influence and be integrated into science, and that science provides questions and evidence, methodologies and inspiration to invigorate our subjects.

To return to the pandemic, to understand this virus and create a vaccine we needed science, but the conditions under which contagion started and was spread are rooted in cultures and environments. Responses varied in part due to social expectations and norms and public heath communication was key to the success of the roll out of the vaccine programme. Our future will demand even more skills of analysis and lateral thinking, accurate use of data and imaginative framing of questions. I also believe that we will be judged, and remembered, by the stories we tell of ourselves and for each other. The value of story craft demonstrates the clear need for arts and humanities higher education but is not the preserve of one discipline or another; it is the skill we all need to build a just future.

2 responses to “Arts and humanities support the skill of storytelling

  1. Well this has been an absolute treat of a read on a Friday morning. Deeply affirming to me. Many thanks for sharing.

  2. Absolutely agree. Another great story and outstanding example of curriculum design is, of course, the suite of Open qualifications from the OU – the Open certificate, diploma and degree enable students to create a truly personalised degree across all disciplines.

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