The Ends of the Humanities

September 16, 2017

A conference with the same title, held between 10-13 September 2017, at the Université du Luxembourg’s Belval Campus, Esch-sur-Alzette, was provocative, insightful and challenging. Of our contribution later, but it’s worth pointing out that of all the discipline groups it is perhaps the Humanities that increasingly struggles to justify their place in the academic pantheon. The Arts, despite unfunded, at least sees tangible products in its performance. Science delivers the ‘advances’ that our societies demand and the Social Sciences observe, comment on and pontificate over such advances. It is the Humanities that feel so out of place, with the contemporary, with the narcissistic individualism focused on ‘me right now’ and the imminent promises of tomorrow.

There is a clear need emerging from this conference to remind our societies that they depend on the cultural skills and knowledge highlighted through the humanities disciplines. They are invaluable in revealing the present and future, reflected in the past. The Humanities sense of their responsibility towards societies is sadly not requited.

The conference provided multiple tracks all serving to highlight the means by which the humanities engage with, and inform, future societal cultural endeavours. The emphasis, at times with a tinge of defensiveness, was clearly on an acknowledgement of the need to reach beyond established academic practice. Hence there were contributions from neuroscience and linguistics, from political science and social policy as well as some analysis of the curriculum disparities in the humanities disciplines.

Our contribution, that of my wife Dr Jeanette Atkinson and myself, was a presentation entitled “An Alternative Education for the Heritage Decision Makers of the Future”. The presentation documented the course development process I’ve been evolving over a decade, and first taught as a PGCert module at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences in 2011.  It integrates other personal scholarship, notably around educational taxonomies and constructive alignment (S. P. Atkinson, 2013), but the process is in essence a structured professional dialogue between educational developer and academic course teams.

In this case the dialogue originated from a need, identified by Jeanette, based on her experience in researching and writing about the perspectives of heritage professionals in New Zealand (J. C. Atkinson, 2014). This work prompted a desire to inform practice in postgraduate education for future heritage professionals, focussed less on the preservation of the past, but rather on future societal impact through a popular engagement with heritage. Giving primacy of cultural values in any such education, combined with my research on higher education learning design processes, we went through the design process and originated a Masters programme. Given that the programme is currently being considered by a UK-HEI it is inappropriate to share too many details here, beyond the fact that following a sound educational learning design model, resulting in a constructively aligned curriculum, future graduates will develop not just subject knowledge but a range of contemporary and relevant intercultural skills.

The abilities, identified as being key affective and interpersonal domain learning objectives, are believed to be crucial skills for future graduates in an increasingly complex geopolitical landscape to advise and guide international policy processes well beyond the heritage sector. Flipping the process from ‘what’ to teach but to ‘why’ to teach, results in an original programme structure rich with significance. Arming students with these skills is surely one of the ‘Ends’ of the Humanities.

Atkinson, J. C. (2014). Education, Values and Ethics in International Heritage: Learning to Respect. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Group.

Atkinson, S. P. (2013). Taxonomy Circles: Visualizing the possibilities of intended learning outcomes. London: BPP University College.




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