Reflecting on the last few weeks of this year, it’s easy to see why that apocryphal Ancient Chinese proverb linked ‘living in interesting times’ with being cursed. Today we capture much the same idea when we talk about living with ‘disruption’. And it’s entirely possible that this past year will be seen as the start of some new ‘Age of Disruption’. This has been a year when many of the old certainties (along with the people who championed them) left us for good.
Alongside the major geopolitical events that blindsided most everyone, events across the Middle East keep showing us that we are a long way from ‘the end of history’. Even the internet, which was once promoted as tool for building communities and creating peace, seems to have become what the blog The Daily Banter calls ‘a disinformation dystopia’; a place that has fractured into ‘post-truth’ echo chambers where “lies, conspiracy theories, and general bullshit” thrive.
Add in what is happening with housing, social mobility, and economic inequality, and it’s no wonder that The Financial Times opined that “the west is losing faith in its own future”. Yogi Berra was right when he said “the future ain’t what it used to be” but the present isn’t making much sense either.
It’s precisely times like these when the liberal arts and the humanities show their true value. They do this by allowing us to engage in questions about ‘why?’ rather than simply ‘how?’. We live in a time of unprecedented technical knowledge but it’s hard not to think that people and communities are often left behind in these conversations. Martin Luther King put this much better when he said “our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power, we have guided missiles and misguided men”. His notion of ‘misguided’ fits superbly with our age of disruption. It reminds us that we need to talk about ends as well as means, and to subject both to the fierce light of critical thinking. The kind of conversation where we can separate matters of judgement from matters of fact. In the process, we can start to talk about how we collectively, be that as a city or a country, shape change rather than be shaped by it.
This is what the liberal arts and the humanities offer. They let us see where our current ideas fit within a historical and philosophical context, and they train graduates how to balance open-mindedness and scepticism. At the heart of these disciplines sits the question ‘what does it mean to be human?’. In this regard, these disciplines aren’t about anything in particular so much as a way to think about everything. And make no mistake, it is very much a ‘discipline’. These subjects teach how to ask difficult questions and mistrust easy answers. They also show how every solution creates new problems. As Seneca said, nobody was ever wise by chance.
If it’s true that many of living in the West have ‘lost faith in our own future’ then it’s time to rethink that future. To do that, what we need are people who can call that future to a higher standard. Which means, now more than ever, we need our Arts graduates to step up. Academics use the term ‘zeitgeist’ to capture the notion of the spirit of a particular age. The zeitgeist is the common core of assumptions and beliefs that people living at a particular time share. It’s this zeitgeist that shapes our actions, or leads to inaction on particular issues. But the important point about the zeitgeist is that it’s something most of us think with but rarely about. The exception here is in the liberal arts and humanities. It’s become somewhat unfashionable to talk about ‘deconstruction’ but this is precisely what thinking about the zeitgeist involves. By pulling it apart we can make the assumptions and values underneath the zeitgeist apparent, and in the process expose whose real interests those ideas serve. Interestingly, facing disruption the business world has become hungry for ‘contrarian thinking’ without recognising that the liberal arts and the humanities eat it for breakfast.
-Carl Davidson is the Head of Insight at Research First Ltd