When the government call went out to academics to join the Covid Expert Database – a resource for parliamentarians – it was retweeted by some colleagues under the headline “NB they want Arts and Humanities academics too”.
That this fact had to be foregrounded is a depressing reminder of how entrenched debates about the relevance of the arts and humanities within society have become.
In practice, it should be no surprise that, when confronted with the challenge of a global pandemic, any government would want advice from experts in science and technology as well as from those in arts and humanities fields.
What the Covid-19 crisis has underlined is that while science and technology will be vital in tackling the tough times ahead of us, the power of narrative and communication in understanding and influencing how people adapt and change their behaviour and opinions is equally important.
The current generation of British undergraduates are now “Generation Post” – post-millennium, post-9/11, post-2008, post-Brexit and now, post-coronavirus. Raised in the shadow of a succession of traumas, they are well placed to understand that the implications of a global event will stretch well into the decade ahead of them.
The arts and humanities are uniquely placed to help prepare our students for a future we can now only imagine. Transition skills are at the heart of arts and humanities disciplines. From curiosity and optimism, to flexibility and persistence, the skills gained from study in these academic areas are now more essential than ever to future-proofing the professional and personal horizons of Generation Post.
Despite calls to the contrary from critical commentators, the arts and humanities are not simply the pastime of the aesthetically inclined among us. Our subjects might not be delivered in a lab or a workshop, but nor are they housed in ivory towers lined with leather-bound books. Instead they offer graduates of the future a crucial skill set in the current moment of pandemic crisis.
Central to this is the tool of citizenship and the ability to communicate effectively to a diverse audience on a number of different platforms – an important skill highlighted by the coronavirus crisis.
As active citizens informed and empowered by a range of abilities and experiences, our students go on to become global graduates who are ready to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. Offering higher-level skills that can be deployed in a variety of different contexts, the arts and humanities cultivate in students independence, adaptability and resilience. This means that they are prepared for a constantly changing labour market and they have the capacity to adapt and thrive within the unknown.
In a post-Covid-19 world, demand will be for real life experiences: actual encounters with art, culture, festivals and events. Our subject areas are united by a shared interest in narrative – how we tell stories about the challenges of today and make meaning and sense of our contemporary world. Likewise, the arts and humanities equip students with tools of critical reading and thinking, tools that are increasingly required to understand the proliferation of fake news and disinformation.
The Covid-19 crisis will cause significant losses, and will be the subject of much debate, analysis and academic research for decades to come. But what it has also created is an opportunity to rethink the relationship between disciplines and the importance of collaboration to confront the pressing challenges of our time.
Author Bio: Katy Shaw is professor of contemporary writings and deputy head of the humanities department at Northumbria University