The humanities are often on a back foot when it comes to the ‘phoney’ dichotomy with the sciences, but the evidence shows this shouldn’t be the case, argues Professor Sarah Churchwell
As my title, which does what it says on the tin, explains, I am a professor of public understanding of the humanities, meaning that I profess the importance of doing humanities in public.
There are many reasons I believe in doing this, but an important one is how often people ask me when they hear my title if I can define ‘the humanities’. Given that it’s literally my job, the answer to that is yes – but the frequency of the question also matters.
People never ask what the sciences are, or what they are for, because we all know – ‘science’ is a word everyone understands, unlike ‘the humanities’, a term that constitutes a stumbling block for a lot of people. And so, because the sciences are a known quantity, I tend to define the humanities in relation to them: the sciences study the natural, physical world, and the humanities study the human world.
In other words: one benefit of doing humanities in public means that it shows that the sciences and humanities are much more intertwined than most people think: the human world inhabits and shapes the natural world, and vice versa. By the same token public knowledge and academic research are also far more intertwined and interactive than our polarising cultural narratives tend to allow.
Doing humanities in public means recognising that our institutions of education are not the only places where knowledge is produced or acquired. There is a wealth of knowledge across our society about humanistic ideas, and ideas of being human. Valuing that knowledge wherever it is found helps us challenge popular perceptions around knowledge deficits in both directions – myths that academics lack ‘real-world’ knowledge (in fact universities are not fictional spaces and are shaped by the same market forces as all public institutions) or that non-academics lack specialist or expert knowledge (in fact people do not only study, learn, and discover within formal educational spaces).
But this is not the story we tend to hear. Instead, our society is busily telling us all that the humanities are a luxury we cannot afford: that they won’t lead to jobs, or improve the GDP, that they are for self-indulgent dilettantes sitting in libraries asking fatuous questions about things that don’t matter. The evidence shows that humanities degrees make graduates just as employable as STEM, and many employers actively seek the skill sets that humanities students acquire in communication, critical thinking, analysis, and argumentation (among many others).
The contribution that arts and culture make to the UK economy in sheer financial terms is enormous: pre-pandemic the value of UK creative industries was estimated at £91.8 billion (Creative economy research – UK Research and Innovation).
The humanities matter far beyond their economic utility, however – and studying the humanities is one way we can remind ourselves to think beyond economic utility. It is often observed that science, medicine and technology inspire people to ask ‘Can I do this?’ whereas the humanities encourage people to ask ‘Should I do this?’ Asking those questions in public widens our ideas about benefit and value and helps us resist other people’s assumptions about what matters.
Doing humanities in public challenges older models of education in which the humanities were a luxury for the benefit of the privileged few, or paternalistic models that suggest academics are the source of expert knowledge trickling down to the masses. Instead, it welcomes the reciprocal exchange of different areas of knowledge, while working to build a shared authority of collective understanding.
We can come together to discuss common interests and learn from each other, without assuming we know what people’s values, questions, or priorities will be. This means acknowledging the importance of entering into the conversations and debates that inform our public sphere, while also urging our society to resist the easy out of anti-intellectualism, to appreciate the importance of analysis and interpretation in how we live our lives.
Doing humanities in public means recognising that the value of the humanities to society at large should be just as self-evident as the value of the sciences. No politicians are arguing that society would be a better place if we invested less in science or stopped teaching it (even if they may find it easier to ignore its advice), but cuts to the arts and humanities are endemic and increasing, suggesting that politicians and citizens alike believe we can dispense with what they offer.
A world without understanding of history or politics, that doesn’t believe in thinking about narratives or interpreting language, that doesn’t ask questions about where meaning comes from or how to live a better life, is not a world many of us would want to inhabit. All of those things are the routine business of ‘doing humanities’, and clearly all of those things can, and should, be done in public, with publics, and for publics – because we are all members of the public, and doing humanities in public, even if we never call it that, is central to being human.
Sarah Churchwell is chair of public understanding of the humanities and professor of American literature at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is also director of the annual UK-wide Being Human festival of the humanities, which is led by the School of Advanced Study in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy.