Enriching and informing society: what do the humanities have to offer?

Written by Ben Earley, CSaP Research Assistant.

This year, our annual conference kicked off with a panel on Enriching and informing society: what do the humanities have to offer? Chaired by Professor Tim Lewens (HSPS), the panel sought to explore in greater depth the type of knowledge humanities researchers’ produce and the value of this output to the policy profession.

You can listen to a recording of the talk here: //sms.cam.ac.uk/media/1957863/embed

“Using history without consulting professional historians is as misleading as doing economic policy without quoting economists” Simon Szreter on the value of history to policy making

Simon SzreterThe first talk was delivered by Simon Szreter Professor of History and Policy at the University of Cambridge and founder of History and Policy. Professor Szreter’s talk focused on the value of history to policy making using the history of the poor laws as an example. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries public provision for the care for the elderly, infirm, and even the unemployed was placed in the hands of local parishes. This care had the effect of stimulating population movement, economic growth, and industrialisation.Professor Szreter reminded the audience that whilst history did not provide an exact analogy for the present it was important to remember that public welfare in Britain has a history that extends far beyond the reforms of Nye Bevan in 1945.

“Ancient historians and classicists have a special right and privilege to speak with some authority on definitions of the humanities because it is from those subject areas that the concept of the humanities have arisen” Paul Cartledge on the definition of the humanities

Paul CartledgePaul Cartledge (A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek culture, emeritus) used his talk to point out that there are many possible definitions of the humanities and that the Greek and Latin classics provide us with a unique perspective on humanity. The ancient world produced the first philosophers, poets, dramatists, historians, and scientists as well as perennial questions which still excite our society today (via the renaissance and enlightenment). Practically speaking Greek and Latin thought provides us with a comparative and sometimes contrasting view of the world that helps us to think through subjects such as our democracy.

“What more can be done to stimulate collective reflection on the social and economic implications of technological change?” Robin Grove-White

Robin Grove WhiteIn his talk Robin Grove-White (Emeritus Professor, Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, University of Lancaster) explored the value of the interpretative social sciences and humanities in the adoption of new technologies from advances in biosciences to nanotechnology. New technologies have the potential to transform economics, society, and even human nature. Professor Grove-White argued that horizon scanning of future developments should be informed intellectual sensibilities rooted in the humanities.

“The humanities embody the cultural value of civilisations” Wendy Pullan on the value of the humanities

Wendy PullanThe final talk was delivered by Wendy Pullan (Head of Department, Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge) on the difficulties of communication between the humanities and policy. Prof Pullan used her study of divided cities to argue for the value of humanities treatment of complexity. Where many sciences attempt to remove complexity through experimentation and other methodologies the humanities revel in the numerous complexities, and even contradictions, that surround particular issues. Indeed, Professor Pullan reminded the audience that often the humanities point towards the chaos and irrationality of many situations. It is the humanities’ embrace of complexity that provides a unique voice to policy makers.


About centreforscienceandpolicy

The Centre for Science and Policy is helping to bridge the gap between academia and government by promoting engagement between researchers and policy makers.
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