'Cultural Interventions' Consortium of Humanities Centres and Institutes (CHCI) Annual Meeting 2019

Edmund Burke Theatre, Trinity College

20 June 2019


Good afternoon,

It’s a pleasure to welcome so many distinguished guests to Trinity College Dublin. It’s an honour for our university to host CHCI’s annual meeting.

I know that earlier today you had a panel on Advocacy for the Humanities. I’m sorry not to have been able to attend. Let me say a few brief words now on this subject.

The first thing to say is that this isn’t something that I – or anyone else - should have to do. Why should arts and humanities need advocacy? It’s self-evident that they are essential to the progressiveness of any society. I say that as a mechanical engineer.

Each and every society is the sum of its history and culture, its arts and literature, its politics and laws, its religious, philosophical and social practices. And each and every society interacts with other societies in a rich, inter-dependent exchange of knowledge, creativity, and culture.

Without education in the arts and humanities we would find ourselves not knowing where we came from, not knowing what we should value or how we should relate to others. We would lose perspective on where we’re headed.

But it seems that arts and humanities, as academic disciplines, are under threat - not necessarily threat of disappearing, but threat of being side-lined. Rather than advocate, however, I’d prefer just to talk about how we do things in Trinity. Because in this university, arts and humanities are so embedded that it would be impossible to remove them and expect to continue functioning. As well try and function on half a heart, or half a liver.

In Trinity, we’ve identified four attributes which we believe all graduates will need in order to flourish in their careers and lives in a rapidly changing world. These attributes are:

  • To think independently
  • To communicate effectively
  • To develop continuously, and
  • To act responsibly 

It can be a challenge to embed all four attributes, and I’m not sure that we could, without the benefit of our multi-disciplinarity. Arts and Humanities, in particular, go across the university.

Student societies perform plays, films and concerts, for the benefit of all on campus. The creative arts give us the metaphorical means to confront moral issues, to start thinking about what it means to ‘act responsibly’.

The Trinity Long Room Hub drives political, social and cultural discourse on campus. The Hub takes on responsibility for debating crucial issues of the day, predicated on research. It brings together academics and other experts from across society. In just a short decade, the Irish public has come to see the Hub as a place of dialogue, discourse and elucidation.

The Hub also coordinates cross-faculty, interdisciplinary research. In Trinity we know that issues like ecology, digital engagement, ageing and international development require an interdisciplinary approach. The age of silos is past. Confronted with the global issues confronting humanity and the planet, it’s axiomatic that we should coalesce expertise and perspective.

With our cross-faculty Medical Humanities initiative, we acknowledge the central role that arts and humanities play in human health. They also play a central role in planetary health. Over the next few years we’ll be building a pioneering new Engineering, Environment and Emerging Technologies Institute, E3, to bring different disciplines together to help tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.

It’s through literature, art and the humanities that we articulate and depict the crisis now facing us. They bring narrative, metaphors, history and understanding to the crisis facing us - without which, we can’t hope to overcome it.

A hundred and forty years ago, Gerard Manley Hopkins, with astonishing premonition, seemed to envisage the horror of biodiversity loss in his poem, ‘Inversnaid’. He was writing about Scotland but he lived many years in Dublin, and this poem has always reminded me of the Irish landscape:

What would the world be, once bereft 
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left, 
O let them be left, wildness and wet; 
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. 

As an engineer, I’m excited about using technology to fight climate change. But we also need to change hearts and souls, to focus attention on the urgency of the mission and on the beauty of our planet. Engineers haven’t the words for this. It takes a poet.

Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet

Thank you

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