Wednesday 30 March 2011

Why Universities Must Retain Arts and Humanities

A science teacher I had at grammar school once said quite scathingly to those of us studying Arts and Humanities subjects that “Scientists can read and appreciate literature. Few writers and historians understand science.”
I think he was wrong, anyway. I and many other Arts and Humanities people have read and understood Stephen Hawkins’ A Brief History in Time and many of us watch and understand Professor Brian Cox and similar people as they tell us of the wonders of the universe. As a writer of science fiction I have to understand science.
But even if my former teacher were right, and “Arts” people were too stupid and / or lazy to understand science, he missed a fundamental point: there would be no books for the scientists to read if there were no writers to write them. Incidentally, all of the creative arts are part art, part science and part craft.
Science came from the Arts in the first place. It was because of the rigour of enquiry developed though humanities subjects that asked questions and expected logically formed answers that scientific investigation arose. Need I quote Plato, Socrates or Aristotle?
Historians and sociologist also play an important part. They observe human behaviour and draw lessons for living from what they see. We have to understand what really led to the Holocaust, for example, and recognise warning signs and take preventative measures to stop history repeating itself. Yes, we must apply academic rigour so that we do not repeat mistakes or reinvent the wheel. Or are we repeating history? Library cuts, Arts Council funding cuts and the reduction in funding to humanities subjects is reminiscent of books being burnt in the 1940s. Possibly it’s actually worse because it’s more subtle. It has the same outcome: fewer books and ideas available.
What of the creative arts though? It’s clear there is a need for them. But in the academy? Yes, certainly. Process, product and application are in need of as much studious scrutiny as any discovered particle, scientific methodology and application through engineering.
It is all very well knowing that it all started with a big bang. What that means in human terms is down to the philosophers and the creative practitioners who paint the world for us. Humans need explanations and interpretations as well as facts.
Anyway, a university with little or no humanities provision cannot by rights be called a universe-ity. It should be renamed a Science or Technology College. A universe-ity must present the bigger picture.

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