By Professor Christopher Smith, executive chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council
In truth, things move slowly, but here are some of the changes we may be starting to see already …
I see the arts and humanities as transforming, not declining. There are challenging shifts in what and how we study, but there is a huge amount of work being done very effectively in the border zones between subjects.
Most of the sciences have already accepted the porosity of disciplinary boundaries while maintaining the importance of rigorous discovery led research, and we can learn from this. Some sciences look to us; this has led to the encouragement of more research in medical humanities, environmental humanities, combinations of technology and creativity in design.
Classically the study of humanities has put the human at the centre, but even or perhaps especially in the Anthropocene, this needs some rethinking. The catastrophes of pandemic disease, diminishing biodiversity and increasingly damaging climate change threaten our ways of living with each other and with nature. At the same time, the interpenetration of artificial intelligence and algorithmic strategies in our daily life continues apace. There is a critical role for the humanities to tackle the challenge of the decentring of the human, both through the privileging of other parts of our complex ecosystem, and in the face of potentially diminishing areas of choice and influence. We must think through the consequences because they are fundamentally about how we preserve our humanity.
Research is always political, with a small ‘p’; and to study humanities is always about the polis, the community, at some level. However densely technical the study, there is always an underlying bedrock of shared human experience that underpins the study and makes it fiercely relevant.
It is no surprise that we have been able to demonstrate brilliantly the impact of humanities scholarship through outreach, exhibitions, and community engagement, or that humanities researchers found critically important ways of engaging with, for example, Covid rapid response calls or the Grand Challenges Research Fund. This energy and enthusiasm for the more explicit application of humanities needs to and often does drive policy. But here we still have much to learn.
This is my most optimistic reading. At present, we feel acutely the sense that humanities are out of favour, in universities and in government. Yet the significance of cultural activity driven out of arts and humanities is instantly recognised and has been underlined during the pandemic.
The engagement of humanities perspectives is actively sought. The humanities are inescapable and inescapably relevant. We have enormous opportunities therefore in the context of public engagement.
All our efforts are needed now to take a vision of the study of humanities actively engaging with and contributing to a holistic view of science, to the pressing challenge of rethinking the place and future of humanity, and effectively bringing voices to policy debates, and embed that more securely in the popular imagination, and to build on where we already have public trust.
Professor Christopher Smith is executive chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). His research explores constitutionalism and state formation with particular emphasis on the development of Rome as a political and social community, and how this was represented in ancient historical writing and subsequent political thought. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books and in 2017 he was awarded the prestigious Premio ‘Cultori di Roma’. He is a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland, the Royal Historical Society, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Royal Society of Arts and a member of the Academia Europaea.