Arts and humanities will ‘deliver us from Covid’

Attacks on the disciplines are ‘source of alarm’, as they are central to employability in teaching ‘how narratives fool us’, THE event hears

April 20, 2021

The arts and humanities are becoming a lightning rod for attacks on universities as “left-wing bastions”, but those disciplines will be needed to help “deliver us from Covid” while graduates with the skills to understand “the ways narratives work and fool us” will be in demand from employers.

A session at the Times Higher Education Innovation and Impact Summit on 20 April, titled “Impractical or essential? The role of humanities in maximising impact”, heard from three senior leaders and humanities scholars: New York Academy of Sciences president Nicholas Dirks; University of Sydney deputy vice-chancellor of research Duncan Ivison; and King’s College London interim principal and president Evelyn Welch.

While science had done incredible work in delivering Covid vaccines, “I think HASS [the humanities, arts and social sciences] will probably deliver us from Covid fully when we’re able to fully imagine that possibility,” said Professor Ivison, highlighting that those disciplines would be needed to address issues such as vaccine hesitancy and the trade-offs between safety and freedom in lockdowns.

Looking at the empathy, justice and equality required to address such Covid issues is “the wheelhouse of the humanities and the social sciences”, he added.

Professor Dirks, a former president of the University of California, Berkeley, said a false narrative about humanities and social sciences subjects “not preparing people for jobs” was “pervasive across the political culture” in the US.

Attacks on universities as “bastions of left-wing thought” focus on the humanities, but are based in a failure to understand that “critical thinking does involve being critical of the status quo”, he added.

The general critique of universities, Professor Dirks continued, often “begins with this sense that the arts and humanities are too critical and they are irrelevant”, which he called “a source of great alarm”.

Professor Ivison highlighted the scepticism about the arts and humanities expressed by the Australian government in its “Job-Ready Graduates” plans – but noted that simultaneously employers were “desperate” for employees with “the attributes of a classic liberal arts education”, that there was high student demand for arts and humanities subjects, and that scientists were keener than ever to work with academic colleagues in those disciplines.

Professor Dirks said: “When I talk to people at Google or other technology outfits in the Silicon Valley [and] Bay Area, they thought…these [graduates with the skills taught by arts and humanities subjects] were the kinds of student they would want to recruit more than any other.”

Professor Welch urged those in the arts and humanities to emulate the kind of sustained public engagement effort undertaken by academics in STEM disciplines such as chemistry, which had low student demand in the late 1990s but was now “booming”.

She added that universities should work to ensure that “all our graduates are able to come out literate in both the ways narratives work and, indeed, fool us in many cases, and the ways numbers work and, in many ways, fool us…We need both in terms of employability.”

The presentation of a “STEM v HASS” divide is “very 1990s”, argued Professor Ivison, who said the arts and humanities should not just “problematise” issues but ought to take a role in “solving”, moving “into the public sphere more ambitiously than we have ever done before”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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