Innovation and the Humanities

Posted Thursday September 4, 2008 by John Gunders in |

Yesterday Senator Kim Carr, Minister for Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, presented at the National Press Club on the topic of innovation and the humanities. You can read the full speech here, and while I am not of the habit of putting too much trust in the words of politicians, this seems refreshingly honest, and I am told by someone who has had close dealings with this minister that the expressed views are firmly and personally held. The speech concludes:

As I said at the beginning, the humanities, arts and social sciences are critical to solving our most pressing real-world problems. These are problems so complex that our only hope of sorting them out is through a multidisciplinary effort.

We can’t improve Indigenous health without understanding the social and cultural circumstances of the people involved.

We can’t build better cities without understanding how people live, how they want to live, and how the different parts of their lives fit together.

We can’t adapt to global warming without understanding what people’s capacities are, how they interact, and what motivates them.

The humanities, arts and social sciences also have important political work to do. They can give a voice to people who might otherwise be silent. They can articulate the needs of people whose needs might otherwise be overlooked. They can defend the rights of people whose rights might otherwise be denied. Without them it would be impossible to create an innovation system that was truly inclusive, democratic and just.

Without them life would also be pretty dull.

My cultural activities are fairly restricted these days, but a couple of things I’ve enjoyed recently are Peter Temple’s novel The Broken Shore; and the Bell Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet.

The first showed me a world similar enough to my own to feel familiar, but different enough to make me look at my own world with fresh eyes. The second reminded me where a great deal of our language comes from, and left me with a strong sense of the continuity between past and present.

Did the book and the play turn a dollar? I hope so. Did they add to the nation’s bottom line? No doubt, in a small way. Is that why I enjoyed them? No, it’s not.

I believe the creative arts – and the humanities and the social sciences – make a terrible mistake when they claim support on the basis of their commercial value. Whatever they may be worth in the marketplace, it is their intrinsic value we should treasure them for. We should support these disciplines because they give us pleasure, knowledge, meaning, and inspiration.

No other pay-off is required.

I like the way in which Carr turns the critique back on the humanities at the end, by pointing to the mistake of conducting arguments of worth in the terms of narrow economics. Of course any reader of Stuart Hall will know that when the primary definers set economics as the framework of the debate it is very difficult for anyone else to move outside that paradigm. But try we must. For too long the humanities—when they are mentioned at all—are talked about in terms like “the handmaiden of science” (whatever that means). We should no longer be content to sit on the sidelines watching, when we know more about the social and cultural impacts than many of the scientists who are creating those impacts.

A case in point is an interdisciplinary conference run in Sydney last year about cultural research on water. This is a clear case where the critical insights offered by a cultural studies (or cultural geography) training can make important contributions to a national crisis that the science and political communities are clearly unable to address:

There are a number of water conferences held annually in Australia by various scientific and professional groups, but feedback indicates that what made Pipeline particularly valued by participants was that it brought together a wide range of people enthusiastic to meet with others who shared concerns with the cultural, social, and political dimensions of water issues.

C.P. Snow’s famous Rede Lecture of 1959 entitled “The Two Cultures” made the claim that a well educated humanist should be able to intelligently discuss the second law of thermodynamics, while a properly rounded scientist should read Shakespeare. Well, for my part I can explain entropy (at least at a layman’s level), and plenty of my engineering friends are happy to talk about literary matters, or discuss John Cage or Philip Glass. But overall the two cultures are just as separate as they were fifty years ago.

I don’t have much hope that a single Australian politician can make much difference, but even a small step in the right direction is welcome.

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