Want to save the humanities? Try getting off your pedestal

The humanities, eh? What are we going to do with them?

There’s a minor subgenre of journalism, policy documents and research council reports sticking up for the humanities. These disciplines – ranging from Art History to Classics, Literature to Philosophy – are essential, they say. They generate benefit for the economy. They help people learn how to be better citizens. They give students the critical skills they’ll need in automated workforces. Some of them, with an air of desperation, quote humanities-friendly scientists and tech gurus. Steve Jobs was into philosophy, so they say. Bill Gates loves poetry. So there you go: relevance.

These arguments are not necessarily wrong, of course. But my god are they repetitive. Listening to these debates, trawling through these reports, I’m reminded strongly of the doomed campaign ‘Remain’ campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum. There’s a sense of peer-to-peer smugness. There’s a sense of a group of passionate, intelligent people talking amongst themselves, agreeing with one another. As the Remain camp have found with Brexit, there’s little point in making the same arguments, to people who agree with you, in isolated bubbles of shared consent.

An elite pursuit

If we are going to champion the humanities it’s important that we also acknowledge the bad things about them. There are plenty.

First, studying the humanities doesn’t always lead to a lucrative career. Indeed, the humanities often feed directly into job markets that are frankly some of the most closed, unequal, un-meritocratic, cronyistic and privilege-based out there. Publishing, galleries, the museum and heritage sector, politics, journalism and, yes, academia. For people from lower income backgrounds, the humanities and associated careers can look very unattractive.

Second, the humanities, even when they are trying to reach out, have an image problem. Because so many of the people who have succeeded in these industries come from privileged backgrounds, and have progressed into lofty positions, the message can be toxic: “these subjects are the preserve of an elite, who can afford to take risks, whose success is pre-written.”

It doesn’t take much research to realise just how much those educated at Oxford, Cambridge and a handful of other Russell Group institutions dominate the arts, academia, publishing and political worlds. The 2018 report Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries, for example, lays out in detail how inequalities are ingrained in some of the industries most closely associated with the humanities.  The Warwick Commission report in 2015 underlined the same issues.

To put it bluntly, we might ask: where are the working class advocates for the humanities? Where are the diverse voices? Where are the people working to link the humanities to everyday issues that people can relate to?

A radical rethink is in order. The good news is that there are people out there, including the charity Arts Emergency, who helped create the Panic! report, who are doing that work – opening up the arts and humanities and making the careers associated with them more open, too.  Professor David Olusoga has also been doing brilliant work here, but he can’t do it alone.

Being human

In a different way, since 2014 we’ve been trying to achieve something similar with the Being Human festival running 14-23 November. This national festival is all about developing a form of public engagement with humanities research that is down-to-earth and rooted in everyday lives.

Our festival doesn’t take place on campuses, but in community spaces. We have events in libraries, museums, shopping centres, pubs and cafes. Many of them are co-produced, developed in collaboration with communities to develop activities directly relevant to the places in which they live. The event titles speak for themselves, “Derby’s Moonstruck Philosophers”, “Sunderland’s Unsung Heroes”, “Warhol in Wolverhampton”, “Greeks in Edinburgh”.

These events don’t look like events you’d find in other arts festivals. They are creative, hand-made, maybe even a bit messy. They tell stories that connect to local contexts. They connect to issues affecting people every day in towns, cities and communities across the UK.

Collectively, they have been designed to encourage researchers to take a radical step outside their comfort zone, to learn by doing and to think hard about the barriers that separate them and their work from people outside their bubble.

If we want to change perceptions of the humanities and humanities research these are the lessons that we need to learn. Let’s stop talking amongst ourselves, drop the self-congratulation and pretention, stop concentrating on puffing up institutional reputations and start again working at grassroots.

If we don’t, we might just find that we’re the smartest people left in a very empty, very lonely room.

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