On Wednesday 12th of February I went had breakfast at the House of Lords. Unfortunately, I can’t pretend that this is how I generally start my Wednesdays. I was invited to these grand surroundings on business, specifically to attend the launch of a new website and publication from the British Academy: Prospering Wisely: How the humanities and social sciences can enrich our lives. Given that my current research and other professional activities are concerned with precisely this question, I was curious to see what arguments would be presented at the launch.
As its title suggests, the focus of Prospering Wisely is on the role that the humanities and social sciences play in determining how we (collectively and individually) understand notions of ‘prosperity’ itself. It seeks to ask how we might marshal our collective wisdom to reconceptualise this concept in terms beyond the purely economic and material, which make room for different understandings of happiness, wellbeing, and ‘living well’.
Launching the publication, Professor Lord Nicholas Stern (himself an economist and president of the British Academy) emphasised the crucial importance of maintaining independence within academia, and of allowing space within the humanities and social sciences for critical voices to ‘speak truth to power’. These sentiments were echoed by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, who outlined a number of concerns about the state of investment in the humanities and social sciences and the commercialisation of higher education. Pointing to the ever-increasing financial burden of graduate study, and to the ever increasing instrumentalisation of study linked to an (often non-existent) ‘real job’ at the end of a three year course, she argued that study in the humanities, particularly, risks becoming perceived as a ‘luxury’ pursuit rather than a social necessity.
Drawing upon her own career in civil rights law, Baroness Kennedy made the argument that the humanities had proved not peripheral but essential to the deeper understanding of her professional practice as a lawyer. To her, she said, civil rights is where the law becomes poetry—and can only be understood in terms informed by theory, philosophy, and poetic notions of humanity itself. To applause from the floor, she stated that, ‘I want to make the argument for poetry in our lives, whatever our discipline, whoever we are’.
This resonated with me. Personally, I am always refreshed by avowals of the importance of poetic thinking in public life.To hear it in the House of Lords was refreshing indeed. Perhaps Prospering Wisely might offer one route towards more thinking and more statements of this kind. At the very least, as Nicholas Stern put it, it might help to ‘put the disciplines to work’ in addressing some of the core challenges and issues of society.
I am currently involved in another project—also involving the British Academy along with the Arts and Humanities Research Council—which aims to offer another forum for such debates. Being Human: A Festival of the Humanities will run between the 15th to 23rd of November 2014 as the first national festival pioneering public engagement within humanities research. The School of Advanced Study is leading the festival, and is currently inviting applications for small grants to facilitate festival activities. Taken together, these activities will form a programme that will raise public awareness not only of the breadth and diversity of humanities research, but of its essential place in the fabric of our society and our everyday lives.
Can the humanities enrich our lives? I believe that they can, and that they do. I hope that Being Human, like Prospering Wisely, will provide a means of demonstrating this.
Michael Eades is Cultural Contexts Research Fellow in SAS Central. He joined SAS in 2013 to coordinate their programming and engagement with the Bloomsbury Festival, funded by a Cultural Engagement Pilot Scheme award from the AHRC. He currently works on the AHRC-funded project ‘Bloomsbury Festival in a Box: engaging socially isolated people with dementia’, and on programming for the forthcoming ‘Being Human’ festival of the humanities. Led by SAS and supported by the AHRC and the British Academy, this will be the UK’s first national festival of the humanities, and aims to inspire public engagement with research in this area.