Humanities help to provide ‘foundation of a civil society’

View from leading scholar is among many put forward ahead of major prize recognising arts, humanities and social sciences

March 4, 2015

Do the social sciences and humanities open up whole new imaginary worlds or run the risk of “autoerotic” self-indulgence?

A range of views were expressed in a debate on “Promoting Humanities and Social Sciences in Today’s Society”, held at the Norwegian Ambassador’s residence in London last week.

It formed part of the presentation ahead of this year’s Holberg Prize, which the chair of the board, Sigmund Grønmo (University of Bergen), explained was established by the Norwegian Parliament in 2003 and given annually to scholars who have “made outstanding contributions to research in the arts and humanities, social science, law or theology, either within one discipline or through interdisciplinary work”. This year’s prize is due to be announced on 12 March.

Because it is now worth £388,000, continued Professor Grønmo, the prize ranked as “one of the most prestigious academic prizes in the world” and was designed to “increase society’s awareness of the importance of research in [its] fields”. 

Taking up these themes, Sir Jonathan Bate, provost of Worcester College, Oxford, cited a comment of playwright Anton Chekhov to argue that “scholarship, like creative work, is about asking questions in the right way, not providing answers”.

In the tradition of much utopian writing, he went on, Shakespeare set The Tempest on an imaginary island. In the same way, “all art and humanist scholarship create a separate world which illuminates ours, partly by showing the differences. Imaginary alternative worlds help us criticise our own and imagine others”.

Sarah Churchwell, professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities at the University of East Anglia, noted that there has been “a general elision in Anglo-European societies between market values and social values”. What the humanities provided were “spaces that exceed the marketplace…not soft arts, but the foundations of a civil society”. Since many of the most important developments come from collaboration between the humanities, hard and social sciences, “English educational culture has to get beyond its view that a general education [eg on the American liberal arts model] is dilettantism”.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research in India, suggested that we “need to ask slightly harder questions”.

In India, he pointed out, demand for the arts and humanities had never been greater: “Lahore recently had a huge literary festival in the midst of a terrorist attack.” Yet many defences of them do not make a general case for their value but “end up defending a particular organisational model, self-referring disciplines and particular institutional forms of practising them”. 

The humanities and social sciences, Professor Mehta suggested, were “valued when they were seen to be embedded in structures of common life”. Universities were “originally sectarian and pathways to God”. Later, culture and then nationalism took over from religion, but universities were “still enlisted in creating a common language. They have always been embedded in a much larger story of common purpose – and that has given them their power.”

Today, however, Professor Mehta continued, “humanities claim to reveal much about the nature of humanity while also deconstructing the whole idea of ‘the human’…Can they move beyond their deconstructive impulses and reach redemption too?” If not, there was a danger they ended up being “done for their own sake” in a way he described as “autoerotic”.

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