The Value of the Arts and Humanities in the 21st Century

Faculty of Social Sciences - ICOSS building

Arts and Humanities subjects cause life-changing personal development, teach us to engage with ideas critically and independently, and equip students with the skills necessary to understand - and thus work in and manage - how complex organizations operate and change. They also 'sustain and preserve the heart and soul of our civilisation'.

In a lively panel discussion held on Thursday 5 May 2011, speakers from the worlds of politics, journalism, business consultancy and policy research were unanimous in their view that the Arts and Humanities held inestimable value for our society and economy. The public event was over-subscribed. The 400-plus people who wished to attend clearly considered the issue to be timely and important.

Yet the discussion was by no means consensual. Raising the hackles of some staff and students, Peter Hitchens wanted Humanities subjects to return to 'absolute qualities' in the form of the literary canon and narrative history.

Robert Hewison criticized the present government for creating a market in education - and a flawed one at that; he criticized attempts of the government agency HEFCE to assess excellence in the Arts and Humanities and described the new methods of evaluating impact as 'sinister'.

Representing HEFCE, David Sweeney defended governments’ attempts to distribute public money for research on the basis of both what academics and the public regard as 'relevant'. Those working in these areas needed to cast off 'victimhood' and make a stronger case to policy makers about the 'wonder' of their research.

Taking a different tack, Nigel Shardlow gave a moving account of the potential of the Arts and Humanities to transform the experience of an individual, enabling them to understand their place in the world with deeper understanding and humanity. Nigel went on to explain how this appreciation of human complexity and the skills to analyse this as generated by the Arts and Humanities in higher education were critical to the business world, and equally that those in science, medicine and technology benefit from a humanistic understanding of the social context in which they work.

people Equally impassioned were the comments of David Blunkett, who underlined the value of the Arts and Humanities to the individual, to society and to the global community; a scholarly understanding of language and history must underpin any effective political or social policy, he insisted. To threaten the position of these subjects would be a 'desperate' act.

Listen to the panellists' opening statements (MP3 file, 8.57MB)
The unanimity amongst the panel speakers and audience about the considerable value of the Arts and Humanities gives us good grounds for optimism. As Mike Braddick remarked, 'I think bright and ambitious people will continue to want to study in the Arts and Humanities because they can see the benefits that education offers them as individuals, future employees and citizens.'

Yet the panel were also agreed that we - staff and students - need to draw upon our considerable skills and expertise in language to articulate this value more clearly to the public and politicians.

For more information about the event email Karen Harvey (Assistant Faculty Director of Learning and Teaching) on k.harvey@sheffield.ac.uk.

Read more about this event

More about our speakers at the event

'More than just a Book at Bedtime' - event coverage on Times Higher Education