Celebrate The Need of Humanities In The 21st Century

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Do Humanities Matter in the 21st Century? Neil Harrison, Richard Reed, and Sascha Wilts all agree with a resounding and resonating… YES! 

Words by Siobhán O’Toole

Left to right: Richard Reed, Neil Harrison & Sascha Wilts
Today’s award ceremony celebrated three deserving winners who all entered wonderfully diverse pieces in reaction to the above question earlier in the year. 

The competition, launched by MMU’s Humanities Faculty, asked students from all subject areas to enter either an essay of 1000 words, or a three-minute video, which responded to the question: ‘Do Humanities Matter in the 21st century?’ The competition brief encouraged entrants to consider Humanities in regards to new media, new messages, new meanings, values and attitudes, culture, and the rising significance of the digital age. 

Dr. Jess Edwards, Head of the English Department, kindly began proceedings by introducing the significance of such a question, and reminding us that the asking of it today is not a new thought, but one that has occurred innumerable times before, notably so in dark periods of austerity. Such periods encourage societies to defend the study of Mathematics, Sciences, and subjects with clear economic benefits, but question the study of subjects such as Philosophy, Politics, History, English, Sociology, and so on. These are seen as subjects with indistinct economic benefits, despite their immeasurable influence regarding our development and improvement as people and communities. 

To convey this, Jess discussed the role of Patricia Waugh (literary critic and professor of English Literature at Durham University), and her thoughts on this significant question—one notable opinion being that such enquiries regarding the value of Humanities, in no way affect the creative output of a society. On the contrary, Waugh said that it is in times of deep austerity that the greatest works arise. 

Jess supported such views by sharing that, despite national decreases in applications to study Humanities subjects, this is not the case at MMU, which remains resilient and receives encouraging numbers of applications every year. Before introducing the three winners, and presenting them with their prizes, Jess conveyed his pride in his position as Head of the English Department, and ‘defending the role of Humanities every day’. He noted that the work entered by the three winners was, ‘marvellous, passionate, articulate and persuasive’, whilst also presenting a summary of the judges’ views on the entries as, ‘very different in style, approach and message. However, all entries were equally as convincing and stimulating as the next.’ 

It was then time for the presentation of prizes, something highly anticipated by all three winners, due to the fabulous nature of each award. Firstly, Jess presented Sascha Wilts, a German Erasmus student of English, with third prize of a £25 Amazon voucher for his essay: ‘Do Humanities matter in the 21st Century? – A Plea for Humanities’. Secondly, Jess awarded Richard Reed, a combined honours student of International Politics and Marketing, with second prize of a £100 Amazon voucher for his film, entitled with the competition question. Lastly, Neil Harrison, student of History and fellow Student Press Officer, was presented with first prize; a brand spanking new iPad, for his essay: ‘Responding To Threats: ‘Do Humanities Matter in the 21st century?’ The iPad, he said, would go straight to his children, who would know how to use it better than him due to using them frequently at their school. 

Richard’s entry was the only one in video format, all others were essays, and so I automatically assumed that he was adept at filmmaking, to which he replied, ‘it’s something that I’m interested in, but not very good at’, a comment that many academics present would disagree with. 

Of his inspiration, Richard said that a major factor was science and technology, noting that, ‘I come from the 80s, before mobile phones, and I remember that everyone got on and survived very easily without all of these new technologies. They have taken over in a sense, and they are not necessities’. In addition, he explained his love for the Humanities in regards to how they permit you to speak and understand the world in which we live: ‘I love different opinions and learning from mistakes, otherwise how do we grow and develop?’ 

Whilst the room of academics and staff mingled, drank coffee and enjoyed nibbles, Neil added, ‘all Humanities subjects are important, they all have a role to play, and I tried my best to convey the importance of all subjects; Politics, History, Philosophy, English’. This he certainly did, his essay exuded a love of the Humanities and a passionate defence of their inclusion in Education today. 

Today’s event was extremely touching and rousing. In a society where many deem the study of subjects such as my own (English) as rather pointless, it is extremely encouraging to see that there are many who, not only value the study of the Humanities highly, but regard it as a vital component to society. These people silence those who question our studies; the friends who interrogate your future, the taxi drivers who ask, ‘but you speak English beautifully dear, why study it?!’, and the masses who assume that your vocation must be to teach. Discussions similar to the one I was lucky enough to attend today, silence such negativity and closed-mindedness. 


Do Humanities Matter in the 21st Century? – A Plea for Humanities
An Essay by Sascha Wilts

Sascha Wilts’ essay, which examines and argues for the value of Humanities in the 21st Century, is an extremely passionate and convincing piece that provides substantial reasoning for his views. He begins by outlining that, for him, Humanities is questioned due to a modern focus upon statistical results, rather than the critical thinking and analysis that exposure to literature, history, philosophy and the arts provides.

However, for Sascha, in order to change the world and its problems, we must understand it, something only achieved through constant examination and reflection upon our society. In order for society to develop, we must consider others and the differences within society, so that we welcome and celebrate such differences. Only when people are open to communication, reflection, critical thinking and the welcoming of otherness, will society truly flourish and develop. His quote from Einstein says it all, ‘Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.’

Do Humanities Matter in the 21st Century?
A Film by Richard Reed

Richard’s argument for the value of Humanities in society today, begins with an extract from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and his ‘to be or not to be’ monologue. He provides a fitting example of the arts and literature, and their value when contemplating the development and change of our world, ‘and by dream we say mend the heart-ache’, the heartache of society’s lost connection with its true needs. In order to convey his ideas, Richard does so effectively through the attention-grabbing form of video, with informative, and sometimes amusing, discussion of his thoughts. The first of which, is the importance of studying Humanities in reaction to the development of market driven science, and a move away from peace.

With images of wartime cemeteries and poppies, Richard discusses the need for Humanities when taking from the past, and learning from its mistakes. Overall, he argues that in order for an equality of Education, communication in Politics, cultural balance, equality of market forces, understanding of science vs. nature, and development of imagination, love and understanding, we must embrace the study of Humanities. His argument is flawless, intriguing, stimulating, well informed and its format highlights that the Humanities can work in harmony with the digital world.

Responding to Threats: Do Humanities Matter in the 21st Century?
An Essay Neil Harrison

Neil Harrison’s piece on the value of Humanities, in regards to society’s response to threats, provides fervent, insightful and fresh ideas about a day which has been covered innumerable times on a global scale. He analyses the ways in which society responded to 9/11 as conveyable of society’s need of Humanities in order to develop, and most importantly, react against and alter atrocities in the world that need such an outcry from such large numbers of people. Atrocities such as malnutrition, economic crises, consumerism, all of which affect societies on a global scale, and could be altered and banished purely by awareness and the will to change, which for Neil, originates from Humanities: history, the arts, literature and politics. In Neil’s own words, ‘we must understand what has happened in the story so far, and we must communicate our messages creatively and effectively. In other words, we need Humanities.’

Siobhan studies English Literature at Manchester Metropolitan and is an inspiring writer, hopeless optimist and romantic, and a complete technophobe. Follow Siobhan on Twitter @smo_07

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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