Don't neglect the importance of the humanities

Britain is at a crossroads. It needs the radical and thought-through responses which expertise from humanities and social science can provide

Nicholas Stern
Monday 22 July 2013 16:14

The world faces a lack of trust in institutions and a lack of confidence in existing ideas and models: it is hungry for new insights into meaning, identity and policy. We can see this wherever we look. There is rapid change in the political environment and the geo-political landscape is shifting fundamentally. Our politicians are not inspiring younger generations. There is decline in membership of political parties, a lack of public engagement in political issues, and it is especially true of the young. These processes are magnified and intensified by the revolution in communications and social media. The public political arena - the quality and quantity of questioning and serious discussion of evidence - is shrinking before our eyes – and we will all be the losers if this continues.

What is urgently needed is a new focus on serious public discussion of a host of difficult challenges. What kind of society do we seek to live in? How can we rekindle economic growth that can last, and bring communities and people together? We need to drive public debate forward on issues that face us all – issues such as ageing, migration, well-being and environment and climate change. These all require a deep understanding and a search for responses which need the essential input of humanities and social science research in order to help policy makers and politicians find a new focus and fresh ways of thinking.

Research stemming from understanding our behaviour and choices can dramatically redefine the crucial decisions we need to make – about the future direction of our economy, broadening education to all, tackling our widespread cultural impoverishment, or how we deal with the challenges and effect of constitutional change. Academics and researchers can do more to inspire our younger to engage more strongly with the world we are creating. We must all play our part in contributing to how our future will unfold.

Science, engineering and medicine are vital drivers of human progress and we must celebrate and nurture them. However, without the humanities and social sciences we can never find responses to the urgent issues that trouble us. The knowledge and expertise they add are the high-level analysis and insights essential to social and cultural well-being, to a rounded knowledge-driven economy. And ultimately to the UK’s contribution, place and reputation in the world. From history to psychology, economics to law, literature to philosophy and languages to archaeology, they alone help us understand what it means to be human, to make sense of our lives, and to understand the choices we make for it. And above all, how we interact.

The UK economy is now 75 per cent services, hugely reliant on the analytical, negotiating and communication skills which humanities and social sciences disciplines develop in people. The crucible for developing this learning is at our universities where 65,000 UK academic staff (36 per cent of the total) teach these subjects, accounting for 50 per cent of active researchers (28,000). 970,000 undergraduate students in the UK (46 per cent of the total) study humanities and social science subjects, and a further 230,000 postgraduates (60 per cent of the total). These subjects attract 250,000 overseas students annually (nearly 60 per cent of the total), contributing to the economy and to the UK’s international links. Most of the leaders in public life – government, commerce, public sector – were educated in humanities and social science disciplines.

The humanities and social sciences infuse our economy and our public and cultural life in a myriad of ways. One of the fastest growing sectors is the cultural, creative and digital industries, which now account for nearly 10 per cent of the whole economy. But in addition, the humanities and social sciences play a vital and often under-acknowledged role in pushing politics and public debate forward, in bringing new ideas to the fore, in helping to create the kind of world we all want: a world in which everyone can contribute and prosper.

The humanities and social sciences are not just about prosperity, however widely and deeply understood. They are also about challenge and questioning. Sometimes being awkward; always demanding rigour and honesty; often forcing ethical issues and choices into the open. Academics and politicians have to share in the responsibility to encourage everyone to get involved in public debate influenced by the best and most up-to-date research which can help define the decisions we all need to make about how we live and work - making sure that everyone can prosper, in the fullest sense, throughout their lives.

The UK is at a crossroads, facing enormous challenges in the years ahead – economically, politically, socially, constitutionally – including tough decisions for public spending. Tackling these issues will require the kind of radical and thought-through responses which expertise from humanities and social science can and must provide.

Leading British researchers can help us understand the choices that confront us as a society and as human individuals, and how best to respond. Their voices need to be heard more clearly; it is paramount that they help us all to wrestle with these challenges in new ways. The younger generation are not politically engaged and it is our responsibility to help create an intellectual environment where they feel moved to confidently contribute their ideas, commitments and inspirations.

Professor Nicholas Stern (Lord Stern of Brentford) is President of the British Academy

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