Our Academic Community Could Lead World

Posted on: 22 November 2006

Arts, humanities and social sciences should not be underpromoted as desirable academic pursuits, argues Trinity College Provost, Dr John Hegarty.

Published in The Irish Times – November 22, 2006

Irish society has undergone unprecedented change in recent years. We have experienced a very welcome economic transformation based on new and advanced knowledge. At the same time, the social fabric of our society has been altered. We increasingly ask questions about identity, what it means to be Irish, to live a good life, when pressures and stress are reaching new levels.

This transitional Ireland places even greater demands on its universities: to help sustain a vibrant economy, find answers to the pressing social questions, and develop a civil and wise society. All disciplines are needed in this endeavour: science, engineering, the health sciences, the arts, humanities and social sciences.

The arts and humanities broadly comprise the disciplines of archaeology, classics, drama, film studies, history, language (ancient and modern), linguistics, literature, music, philosophy and religion. They, together with the social sciences – disciplines such as anthropology, business, economics, education, geography, politics, social policy, sociology and psychology – are the heart and soul of any civilisation. They enable us to make connections to the past and to other cultures, to appreciate the development of human thought and ideas, to cultivate creativity and the imagination, and to promote inclusion and justice. They do this best by continually challenging accepted notions through excellent scholarship and teaching, and by transmitting effectively the critical outcomes of policy-relevant research into government thinking and planning.

One could form the impression from the public debate of late that the economic dimension is the principal preoccupation of our society. Nonetheless, our school leavers and mature students continue to enrol in great numbers for courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

This demonstrates clearly the value our society places on these disciplines. They continue to attract outstanding students who go on to pursue exciting careers in the public and private sectors, heritage, publishing, the media and the creative industries.

Within the universities, there is much comment on the apparent tension between the sciences and the humanities. Many have claimed that there is an overemphasis on science to the detriment of the humanities. It is certainly the case that the sciences have had a resurgence over the last 20 years but this was from a dangerously low base in this country. It was, and remains, right for government to invest in them. We must not forget that the sciences are equally part of our culture and should not be viewed in terms of their practical applications only, even if those applications are of central importance.

A great university is one in which there is a balance between the humanities and the sciences across a wide sweep of disciplines and across the breadth of human knowledge and experience. Students learn best in this broad environment even if they specialise. Scholars advance knowledge and wisdom best in a broad academic community of scholars. All disciplines share common values of enquiry and the pursuit of truth; they are all about creativity and the imagination, whether it is to do with understanding nature, the workings of society or the workings of the human spirit. While recognising the differences in approach between disciplines, we should be conscious that the similarities in scholarship are greater than the differences.

Having, in recent times, witnessed the scientific disciplines move onto the main stage, there is now a pressing need to re-articulate the critical importance of the arts, humanities and social sciences and the need for investment in them. There is a belief among some that scholarship in these subject areas is far less expensive than that in other disciplines. The humanities and social sciences require libraries, museums, archives, galleries, and digital access, just as much as the sciences need laboratories. These resources are not cheap. Most importantly, good scholarship requires a great time commitment from academic staff, and time is the scarcest and most expensive commodity.

Building on a great cultural heritage, Ireland can be a world leader in the arts, humanities and social sciences. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement (November 1st 2006), international peers have ranked the arts and humanities in Trinity College at 39th in the world and 14th in Europe. Trinity has been ranked above prestigious North American universities such as Brown, Cornell, Johns Hopkins and New York University and higher than equally distinguished European institutions, such as St Andrews, Manchester, Leiden and Helsinki.

This is an unprecedented accomplishment for Ireland. Such high rankings are an outstanding achievement for a university in a small country, competing internationally with much larger and better-resourced institutions and much lower student-staff ratios. Imagine what Irish universities could achieve if a level of investment comparable to that in some of these other institutions was available.

Government has rightly identified the need to increase the number of students pursuing postgraduate studies to PhD level, in response to the needs of an increasingly knowledge-intensive society.

This should include the arts, humanities and the social sciences and should not be at the expense of good undergraduate teaching. It is a matter of investment, as well as good management and planning of resources by the institutions. Resource allocation models, at sectoral and institutional levels, can and must take account of this.

The Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) has made a huge difference to the landscape of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences since it was established in 2000. It operates six schemes that aim to promote original and innovative research, increasingly on a collaborative basis.

Yet the council’s budget (€8 million in 2004) is sadly inadequate, especially when compared to the resources available to equivalent research councils elsewhere. If the IRCHSS is to make a real difference, it needs a greater budget and needs to be put on a firm statutory footing.

After more than five years of silence on the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) front, a call is finally imminent and one hopes that the arts, humanities and social sciences will feature strongly.

In short, there is a compelling case to be made for greater emphasis on the arts, humanities and social sciences at the national level, and for increased public investment at undergraduate and graduate levels. This is clearly an area where Ireland can lead the world.

It is now incumbent on the Government, working in partnership with the private sector and the universities, to ensure that this is achieved across the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Dr Hegarty’s article draws on the opening address he gave to the Irish Universities Association conference on the humanities and social sciences on October 23rd last.