The crucial role of arts and humanities in societal change

Arts and humanities research is useful because it gives societies the capacity to do more good things and improve the quality of life for more of its population.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

This argument rejects two simplistic claims. The first – often made by arts and humanities researchers – asserts their intrinsic value, that is, that “arts and humanities research is good for its own sake”. The second – the economic value argument often looked upon favourably by policy-makers – argues that “arts and humanities research is worth billions of euros to the creative and cultural industries”.

We argue that the real value of this research lies elsewhere – in its influence on societies’ capacities for transformation.

The global financial crisis of 2008 and the crises in public finances that followed halted a period of steady growth in public research investment. Countries such as Ireland, Spain, and Greece were immediately struck by debt crises leading to cuts in public funding for higher education institutions. Other countries, less drastically affected, also announced significant reductions. These crises have driven policy-makers to more closely scrutinise how research support creates public benefits.

Pressure on government budgets has placed arts and humanities research in the firing line, with politicians in Europe, Japan and America lining up to take pot-shots at the apparent uselessness of arts and humanities research. Even Barack Obama got caught up in this imbroglio saying: "I promise you folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

Societal benefit

Cuts to public funding have taken place alongside efforts to raise the quality of universities’ teaching and research and policy-makers have pressured universities to improve their contributions to society as a whole. In Europe, the idea of universities’ societal contribution has become increasingly synonymous with creating direct economic benefits through patents, licensing and spin-off companies.

Norway, the Netherlands and Ireland provide interesting case studies of how the value of arts and humanities research can be perceived in alternative and more fruitful ways. The public benefit of research is not considered narrowly within the university. Instead, research cascades outwards in a dynamic rather than a linear way to create new capacities.

We started our research with a certain scepticism regarding arts and humanities scholars’ claims of their research’s wider public value. However, by the end, we were clearly convinced that arts and humanities research can have robust public value. Indeed, we identified many ways in which fundamental arts and humanities research created value beyond the academy, through interactions with social partners, ultimately expanding and enhancing wider societal capacities and capabilities.

Arts and humanities scholars find it useful to engage with practitioners who are involved in their fields of study, even more so with a relative lack of public funding.

For example, researchers in all three countries actively engaged with theatre and music groups to recreate and revive historical forms of music and theatre, in order to better study and reflect on the histories of music theatre as part of their research. These academics subsequently became involved in cultural production itself in ways that captured the attention of and involved the public as active audiences and users.

In this way, there is little sense that arts and humanities academics are confined to their “ivory towers”.

From Green politics to social reform

The philosophy of Norwegian Arne Næss provided a basis for modern Green politics, articulating a platform and vision of the political preferences of more than nine million European voters.

The Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies undertook a forensic examination of events surrounding Dutch military involvement in the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian war and provided a country in mourning with the capacity to deal with a national trauma.

The Irish philosopher Philip Pettit worked with the Spanish socialist government in the 2000s to develop a new social contract for Spanish citizens as the basis for a major programme of social reforms.

These examples of arts and humanities research were profoundly transformative and affected the daily lives of millions of Europeans, not only those who actively seek out and enjoy cultural experiences. The benefit of arts and humanities research can be and is public in the widest possible sense.

In this regard, it becomes possible to consider the public benefit of arts and humanities research in terms of what is necessary, not simply what is useful. These results challenge the dominant science-based model of innovation. The case studies show that many arts and humanities researchers are more comfortable with a reasoning based on strong societal engagement. Ultimately, they highlight the fact that innovation – putting something new into practice – occurs in everyday life.

Realising that arts and humanities research has a profound capacity to transform society exposes the real threat to society. This threat doesn’t emanate from disengaged ivory tower academics, but rather from those responsible for research funding who are unwilling or unable to believe that the public value of research is more than spin-offs and licenses.

Without the new ways of thinking and understanding developed through arts and humanities research, and the public funding that makes this possible, we will never be able to build the liveable, equitable, creative and innovative societies we deserve.

Paul Benneworth, Magnus Gulbrandsen and Ellen Hazelkorn are authors of The Impact and Future of Arts and Humanities Research (Palgrave Springer, 2016) which was funded by the European ERA-NET programme Humanities in the European Research Area.
Ellen Hazelkorn is policy advisor to the Higher Education Authority, and emeritus professor and director, Higher Education Policy Research Unit, Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland.
Paul Benneworth is senior researcher, Center for Higher Education Policy Studies, University of Twente, the Netherlands, and scientific leader of the EU-funded Eunivation project.
Magnus Gulbrandsen is professor at TIK Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture, University of Oslo, Norway, and adjunct senior researcher, Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education.
Andrew Gibson is Senior Research Assistant, Higher Education Policy Research Unit, Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland, and with the Centre for Global Higher Education, UCL Institute of Education, London. He co-wrote one of the chapters in the book which has now been published in e-book format.