What can the humanities offer in the Covid era?

Scholars put the case for experts in philosophy, narrative, literature and culture to work along the scientists in fighting Covid-19

July 2, 2020
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Recovery and resilience: in tackling the pandemic, history can offer lessons from the experience of the 1918 influenza epidemic and the social sciences can highlight the challenges facing Indigenous communities

The coronavirus pandemic inevitably puts the humanities at a disadvantage.

With everybody focused on the immediate crisis, the need for medical and scientific expertise is obvious – and it is relatively easy to see the relevance of economics, demography, psychology and several other strands of the social sciences. Experts in very specific areas of the humanities such as the history of plagues or “death studies” can bring their insights to the table, but it is far less immediately clear what many other fields can contribute. It seems unlikely that a deep knowledge of baroque opera or Impressionist painting, however valuable in other ways, is going to be of much use during a pandemic or in rebuilding societies afterwards. So where do scholars in the humanities and the organisations that speak for them feel they have something to offer?

For Alan Bowman, Camden professor emeritus of ancient history at the University of Oxford – and former vice-president (humanities) of the British Academy, representing the humanities and social sciences in the UK – the arts and humanities retain their traditional value as “the sector in which debates take place and understanding is enhanced about the nature and meaning of all human activities and culture”. At the heart of “all research questions are really big eternal questions about being human, individually and in groups, which can be found in the foundational literatures and arts of all cultures”.

As for his own discipline, Professor Bowman acknowledged that it was “probably not the best approach” to directly “impose historical templates on modern episodes”. Instead, “the usefulness of historical precedents is perhaps best thought of in terms of identifying effects and patterns of human behaviour in dealing with impacts of such events – demographic, ecological, cultural, political, etc”.

Visitor looks at art exhibition on coronavirus prevention and control at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chognqing, China

But others put the stress on much more hands-on interventions.

“If ever a time called for rhetorical analysis alongside scientific and technical, it is this one,” said Paula Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association in the US.

A particularly powerful example of how “the crisis is highlighting the value of our fields for public life” came from “medical humanities practitioners” such as Rita Charon, executive director of a programme at Columbia University, who were “helping physicians understand their own responses to what they’re dealing with, using reading groups and literary study”. At the same time, ethnic studies scholars are illuminating “the differential effects of Covid-19 on communities of colour as well as the outbreaks of anti-Asian sentiment connected to the virus”, Professor Krebs said.

Similar themes were taken up by Teresa Mangum, an authority on 19th-century fiction who serves as director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa.

“Consulting the people most directly affected by an event – rather than assuming you know what they need – is always good practice,” she argued. “Faculty from across higher education should be much more actively included in decision-making through this crisis. Humanities scholars bring historical perspectives, intersectional approaches to complex problems – attentive to cultural and social differences regarding the impact of Covid – and valuable awareness of nuance in language, communication style, public narratives, ways to move and persuade the public to commit to collective, altruistic action.”

In the longer term, Professor Mangum continued, she hoped that the Covid crisis would spur universities to “embrace more diverse forms of research, including what I think of as the ‘applied humanities’. We often praise interdisciplinarity; now is the time to support and reward literature scholars working with public health colleagues and historians collaborating with environmental scientists…

“When we do our homework about the potential of the humanities to inform policy and we seriously ask and answer ‘How can I help you with what you need from my work?’, humanities scholars often can have a significant impact.”

For Joy Damousi, president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities (AAH), these are times that “will bring the best of the humanities to the fore” so as to “ensure that ethical, creative, cultural and historical perspectives are informing our way forward”.

Back in April, the AAH launched a call for scholars who could offer expertise not only in past “epidemics, pandemics and quarantine” but also in themes such as “social distancing challenges for Indigenous communities”, “translation and analysis of information for multilingual populations” and “the role of arts and culture in community building, recovery and resilience”. It provides evidence-based policy advice to government and forms part of the recently established Rapid Research Information Forum, collaborating with Australia’s chief scientist and other learned academies to produce a series of research briefs for ministers, largely to ensure that ethical issues are taken into account. And it also made a significant submission to the Australian Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.

Anyone wanting to make a hard-headed financial case in these turbulent times might point to the facts that teaching and research in many humanities disciplines are comparatively cheap and that, provided there are enough domestic students who want to study English and history, for example, they will remain “reliable earners” even if the flows of international students – so crucial for many other subjects – dry up.

“The research infrastructure required for philosophy is certainly less expensive than in engineering or biomedical research,” agreed Duncan Ivison, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Sydney. “But it still requires investment to give philosophers – and other humanities scholars – the time and space to write and engage around these very deep and complex problems. I do think the best universities in the world will see the value in continuing to support philosophy and other humanities disciplines, not because they are ‘cheap’, but because they are doing incredibly important work, especially at a time when the world is faced with so many profound problems and challenges.”

Yet Professor Ivison also saw a danger that “the Australian government, in particular, doesn’t understand the profound importance of investing in and supporting a comprehensive research system that supports both basic and applied research [across the spectrum of disciplines]…I worry that the multidisciplinary nature of the research that has supported Australia’s generally very successful approach to Covid won’t be fully recognised and that there will be a short-term focus on applied research to the exclusion of the truly transformative nature of basic and discovery research, without which you have nothing to apply in the first place.”

Anyone seeking evidence of “why the humanities matter”, reflected Tamson Pietsch, director of the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney, should note how the media has turned its attention to historical events such as the Spanish flu of 1918-19, the Second World War and post-war reconstruction, something she saw as “a reflection of the uncertainty everyone is facing, and the need for some orienting narrative”.

Aboriginal men at Black Lives Matter protest in Perth

Because she works on the history of universities, Dr Pietsch observed that “Covid-19 in many ways touches on questions I’ve long been thinking about in the context of past periods. It is very difficult to imagine what new societal settings will look like, because all our reference points are with the world we have known. That’s why historians are so interesting – their job is to explore societies organised on terms very different to our own and to get a sense of how people have lived through times of change. One of the things that Covid-19 is teaching us is that the consent of populations and their willingness to participate in collective action is just as crucial to fighting the virus as is expertise.”

In response to the crisis, therefore, Dr Pietsch has drawn on her historical research to create a series of podcasts called “The New Social Contract”, bringing together vice-chancellors, academics, journalists and policymakers to address the question “How might the relationship between universities, society and the state be transformed by this crisis?” Exploring this is crucial, she said, as “much rides on how universities will be reconfigured, because we are going to need them more than ever as our societies confront not only the effects of this pandemic, but the imperatives of the ongoing ecological crisis”.

There is, of course, a major difficulty for academics working in the humanities who want to make an impact in such crucial real-world debates: a political climate that, in many countries, is hostile to expertise and sometimes to universities themselves.

In both the US and the UK, agreed Professor Mangum, “we’re currently so polarised that any kind of collaboration involving policymaking is tough going. But few scholars I know fear difficulty or complexity.”



Print headline: ‘Ethical, cultural, historical views must light the way ahead’

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Does anyone monitor these comments? In any event does the editor have any other words than COVID to start the headlines? There are other things happening in the world.


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