Barack Obama. Emmanuel Macron. Teresa May. Boris Johnson. George Soros. Bill Miller. Even Carl Icahn. What do these world political and business leaders have in common? They all majored in the much-maligned humanities and still went on to achieve tremendous financial and professional success.
This list of bold names was summoned by Professor Sarah Churchwell, from the School of Advanced Study, University of London, as she and other experts championed the arts in an age where science, technology, engineering and maths seem to get all the esteem in schools.
“We have, to me, a very perverse spectacle of ministers of education actively steering young people away from studying the humanities on the basis that they are not useful subjects,” Prof Churchwell told an audience at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai.
“This seems to me such a remarkably narrow-minded and foolish and short-sited way of viewing the world. That is the political conversation that I keep hearing, the cultural conversation, that the humanities don’t matter.”
Instead of pressuring children to study stem, educators should encourage them to pursue whatever subjects are of interest to them, the experts said at a public briefing titled, “Will we still need the arts and humanities in 2030?”
“I don’t think that we can solve any of the challenges facing us as the human race if we don’t bring the humanities and the stem knowledge together,” said Prof Churchwell.
“We are not going to solve climate change without understanding the way in which human cultures interact with climate change. We will not solve conflict if we don’t understand religion, if we don’t understand language. We will not be able to resolve conflict if we don’t understand the history of regions and where those tensions arise from. All of those things come under the rubric of the humanities. So of course we must study those things.”
The more advanced one’s thinking becomes – whether in arts, humanities or the sciences – the more one’s thoughts move toward the imaginary.
“What is advanced maths? Imaginary numbers, irrational numbers. What is advanced chemistry or physics? It is the theoretical, it is quantum, it is what you can imagine,” said Prof Churchwell.
“It’s true also for the arts and humanities that as you move forward through it, you’re moving more and more into an imaginary theoretical space, and that is where leadership comes from, that is where vision comes from, that is where creativity happens, that is where imagination happen.”
There is no evidence to suggest that only a stem degree will create a better workforce. On the contrary, said Prof Churchwell.
For Tamara Rojo, the English National Ballet artistic director and lead principal dancer, an arts education not long led her to a rewarding career path, but also helped her deal with personal inhibitions. Growing up as single child, Ms Rojo said she was introverted and shy to the point where she feared forced interactions with people.
“Dance saved me,” she said. “Not only are the arts good for society, but they are good for the individuals that don’t quite fit.”
Yet, despite the benefits of the arts, they are often the first to go under the budget chopping block.
“This for me is not only a mistake, but a social tragedy, because for many students the only and first point of contact with the arts is the school,” said Ms Rojo. “We know that the arts are essential to the world of tomorrow. They give you creative vision, entrepreneurial skills, artistic flair. They will have incredible value on the workforce of tomorrow.”
In his keynote address to the forum, British historian and author Simon Schama, argued that history and the humanities will become even more important with the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence. The mechanised world of the future will not make the humanities and history “redundant,” he said.
“Just the opposite, in fact. With machines taking over the physical production, short and long distance transport, performing massively in the service industry, it is in fact the creative side of things which will remain irreducibly human,” said Prof Schama.
The default setting of history is pluralism, he said.
“It is making space to understand cultures that are not like us, a reach through space and time to someone else, the effort of empathy,” said Prof Schama. “Delivering to our children the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. History is something other than self-vindication, self-congratulation. History is the challenge to uniformity.”
Moreover, history offers an “understanding of the past, which I deeply believe to be a vital enabler of the humane future.”