Photo credit: UNESCO - Photo: 2017

Humanities to the Rescue of Sustainability

By A.D. McKenzie

PARIS (IDN) – If you suggest studying the humanities to some college-bound young people, you might be met with loud, pitying laughter. What is the value of a degree in literature, philosophy or history, they may ask.

An ambitious conference in Liège, Belgium, aims to provide an attitude-changing response to that question and, at the same time, draw up a programme to keep the humanities from becoming more “marginalised” at universities.

The event, titled the “World Humanities Conference: Challenges and Responsibilities for a Planet in Transition”, will take place from August 6 to 12.

It will bring together some 1,800 international participants to “redefine the foundations, role and responsibilities of the humanities in contemporary society,” according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), a co-organiser with the International Council for Philosophy and Human Sciences (CIPSH) and the World Humanities Conference – Liège 2017 Foundation.

The UN agency says that the humanities “have an essential role to play to help us face the major challenges” in the world today and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015.

“Through the study of history, critical thinking and nuanced analysis, the humanities can contribute to the development of sustainable inclusive societies,” the agency adds.

John Crowley, chief of research, policy and foresight in the UNESCO sector for Social and Human Science, told IDN in an interview that the conference’s main objective is to set a new “global agenda” for the humanities. “Yes, it’s ambitious. We have to be,” he said.

Crowley argued that the humanities as a “collective intellectual discipline” is in institutional difficulty, as students opt to study what they think will get them “a good salary afterwards”.

Asked if this was not an understandable approach, considering how many barely surviving artists, writers and would-be philosophers the world has, Crowley responded that “employability is the wrong argument.”

“The humanities are the core of public culture,” he said, adding that the discipline’s shrinking popularity had created a “moral and intellectual” vacuum.

“In areas like the environment, purely technical solutions are not going to work sustainably. We need social transformation … and there the humanities can play a very important role in re-imagining our futures,” Crowley told IDN.

He said that governments were also interested in the role of the humanities to tackle extremism, given that there is concern about “where the world is going and where its values are coming from” among UN member states.

Despite the sense that young people may be avoiding the humanities, some experts argue that there really is no crisis, since many universities around the world require students to undertake general courses in literature, history, the arts and other fields that have to do with human culture.

However, Adama Samassékou, a former minister of national education in Mali and president of the World Humanities Conference, says he has observed a “progressive marginalisation of the human sciences in the world.”

Writing in the UNESCO Courier, he said the conference is an “opportunity to step back to rehabilitate and rebuild the human sciences, to produce a paradigm shift, enabling the reinvention of a world founded upon respect for its rich cultural and linguistic diversity.”

This new paradigm will “enable us to substitute the conflictual relationships of competition with a genuine, universal solidarity, which is the only way to help meet the challenges of our planet in transition,” he continued.

The World Humanities Conference will include academics, artists, researchers and representatives of both intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations, according to the organisers.

Discussions will take place in six plenary sessions with themes such as humanity and the environment, cultural identities and cultural diversity, cultural heritage, borders and migration, history, memory and politics, and the humanities in a changing world.

A dean at the University of Liège, Jean Winand, will start the event with a keynote address provocatively titled “What If We Abolish the Humanities”, and other scheduled speakers will include French-language professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne of New York’s Columbia University, Belgian writer and politician Hervé Hasquin, and chief sustainability officer and director of the Sustainability Institute at Pennsylvania State University, Paul Shrivastava.

“The hope is that what is adopted by the conference will be picked up by the stakeholders,” UNESCO’s Crowley told IDN. “What we want is some action, even short-term action.”

The event’s conclusions will be discussed at UNESCO’s General Conference in November, although critics note that this two-yearly meeting of the agency’s member states includes countries that routinely harass those working in the humanities, such as writers and artists. [IDN-InDepthNews – 04 August 2017]

Photo credit: UNESCO

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

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