The Stem obsession does a disservice to arts and humanities

Opinion: Creativity and strategic thinking will help graduates compete with robotic and automated work practices

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock


There seems to be an obsession that in order to survive the global war on talent our graduates must be herded in ever-greater numbers towards science, technology, engineering and maths subjects.

The irony is that neglecting the arts and humanities will put us on a dangerously narrow path for the future.

Five years from now the skills required in the workforce will have changed significantly from those required today.

The World Economic Forum estimates that, due to advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, the top skills required for work success will be creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking.

In the arts and humanities – disciplines that include everything from classics to cultural studies and ecumenics to English – we educate our students to think critically, to ask awkward questions, to challenge orthodoxies and to explore what is distinctive about Irish, European and global history and culture.

Skills such as creativity and an ability to think strategically ensure our graduates will be well-equipped to compete with the advanced robotic and automated work practices of the future.

My own son was passionate about ancient Greek and Latin in school. His decision to study classics at university did not prevent him from running his own profitable businesses during the holidays and prepared him well for a career in the corporate world.

Some of the biggest issues of the contemporary world can be better understood through the prism of the arts and humanities, because these disciplines have important things to say about every aspect of human existence.

Some pressing examples come to mind: terrorism and war; migration and multiculturalism; security; privacy and freedom; environmental and digital issues; and mental and physical wellbeing.

The human condition

The arts and humanities both celebrate and challenge the expression of the human condition in its numerous manifestations; they place human values at the centre of our world. They are not just at the heart and soul of a civil society; they are its conscience, shining a mirror on the good, bad and ugly aspects of humankind, urging us to think harder and do better.

What is not so well-known is that the arts and humanities are the only faculty area in which an Irish university ranks among the top 100 universities in the world in two of the leading world university rankings. (Trinity College Dublin ranked 61st and 74th in the most recent faculty rankings by QS and Times Higher Education respectively). Of course, years of austerity have taken their toll. Back in 2009 the arts and humanities at TCD were ranked even higher.

Despite the importance of the arts and humanities, in 2014 only 6 per cent of the European Commission’s major research funding programme, Horizon 2020, was allocated to topics that could involve social sciences and humanities.

The challenge is to persuade the European Commission to integrate fully the perspectives of the arts and humanities into its funding calls for research on Europe’s societal challenges.

Selling our research

Unfortunately this is largely a political issue that also prevails in the research-funding culture in many countries. It also highlights the need for the arts and humanities research community to tell our stories about the importance of our research more effectively.

Part of the problem might be that there is no agreed way of measuring the impact of research in the arts and humanities.

Colleagues in Stem subjects and in health sciences conventionally employ as an indicator the frequency with which an academic article is cited in other academic articles (its “citation impact”). The arts and humanities hardly feature in the major commercial databases that drive these citation metrics. This might suggest to the ill-informed observer that research in these areas is not important or does not have impact.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as our global rankings show. Given the chronic underfunding of universities, the current position of the arts and humanities in the world rankings is a remarkable achievement.

Global rankings should not drive governmental or university strategies. But we must acknowledge that our position is important. Potential international recruits, both staff and students, examine the rankings before deciding to move to Ireland. Global collaborators and funders consider the rankings when they are deciding whether or not they will collaborate with our universities or invest in Irish companies.

That the arts and humanities have performed as strongly as they have is something to celebrate and on which to build.

Just imagine what, with appropriate investment at European and national levels, might be achieved and how it would positively affect our society.

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