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Fatima might just get us out of this mess (she just doesn’t know it yet)

30 October 2020 – In her latest blog, Dr Louise Drake reflects on the contributions of the arts and humanities to leadership, making the case that society must continue to value the academic disciplines that nurture diversity in how we see, process and engage with the world around us.

In the context of the fourth industrial revolution embedding technology in society and even our bodies in previously unimaginable ways, it is easy to see why the UK Government is keen for 'cyber' to be viewed as a career change option for more of us. But its 'rethink, reskill, reboot' campaign suggesting ballet dancer 'Fatima' swap her tutu for tech has been criticised for its apparent disregard for the arts.

Despite distancing itself from the advert, the Government misstep adds to criticism already swirling that too little has been done to support the arts through the present Covid-19 pandemic. Many, however, would argue the malaise goes deeper and for longer. Sustained efforts by successive governments to promote science and engineering subjects has taken its toll in particular on the humanities, with UK university enrollments in languages down by 21% and humanities down by 12% between 2014 and 2019. 

The importance of the arts and humanities to the here and now might not seem obvious when confronted by a volatile world rife with complex problems: from health and economic crises, to climate and environment emergencies; from widespread political shifts to the right, to multiple ongoing conflicts and increasing racial and cultural tensions. In the midst of such existential threats, some might say they are simply fiddling while the world burns. But in reality, it may well be the ability of the arts and humanities – and their graduates and practitioners like 'Fatima' – to imagine other ways, nurture empathy for different cultures and perspectives, and explore and express what it is to be human, that will be vital to getting us out of this mess.

The leadership taken now in response to economic and social fragility, structural inequality, ecological decimation, and irreversible climate change, will profoundly shape generations to come. Scientists have rightly been at the forefront of such debates, yet science and technology alone will not be enough to deliver the radical shifts to a positive, flourishing future needed by all of us.

"It may well be the ability of the arts and humanities to imagine other ways, nurture empathy for different cultures and perspectives, and explore and express what it is to be human, that will be vital to getting us out of this mess."

It appears that many of the world’s major employers would agree, if their hiring record is anything to go by. A closer look at the education background of chief executives of FTSE 100 Index Companies revealed that 58% have studied Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences at some stage in higher education. Yet set against STEM subjects, the arts and humanities lack a compelling narrative about what these subjects are, what they do and where they can be applied.

Many of the issues faced by current and future leaders are incomplete, contradictory and socially complex, with no obvious end point or solution. Dealing with complexity and the unknown is not unique to the arts and humanities, yet they do nurture distinctive capabilities in analysing and responding. In a new paper from the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, arts and humanities experts explore what these subjects bring to our modern condition. They highlight the reasoning, clarity of thinking, and argument nurtured through philosophy, for example, which is especially important when traditional forums for debate are under attack. They also speak of the ability to navigate complex, interconnected issues, bringing multiple perspectives to bear on varied and incomplete data, and working with diversity, divergence and dissent, rather than pursuing artificial simplicity. Such capabilities are critical in opening up the potential for more authentic, fairer and credible dialogue on intractable societal issues. 

"Science and technology alone will not be enough to deliver the radical shifts to a positive, flourishing future needed by all of us."

The arts and humanities involve climbing into different worlds across time and space, nurturing appreciation for other ways of seeing, knowing and doing. Training ourselves to view the past through the eyes of other cultures can challenge what we consider to be ‘natural’ and therefore open up more hopeful discussions, for example on race. As one expert argues, colour vocabulary is often felt by its users to be obvious, but by looking at how race is viewed in ancient cultures helps us to see that we inherit categories from those around us, rather than them being inevitable. The decolonising movement has also been a critical development, examining what stories are told, about whose experience, and by whom, as a first step to undoing damaging imperial legacies. Furthermore, the experience of engaging with other worlds can be a great stimulus for creativity that can develop our imaginations, as well as broadening our outlook and tolerance of others. 

"The arts and humanities involve climbing into different worlds across time and space, nurturing appreciation for other ways of seeing, knowing and doing. Training ourselves to view the past through the eyes of other cultures can challenge what we consider to be ‘natural’ and therefore open up more hopeful discussions"

Finally, the arts and humanities are more than a vocational training ground. Experts speak of nurturing the soul’s yearning for beauty and exploring what it is to be human. At the heart of these endeavours is the question of “what for?”  For instance, in the context of machine learning, the more powerful AI becomes, the more important it will be to understand its potential impacts and specify its goals with great care. Issues of ethics, judgement and purpose are inextricably bound up with technological advancement, and they need to be identified and negotiated. 

Those in the arts and humanities have no claim to the final say in debates around the meaning of life and planetary well-being. But they are distinctly placed to nurture ‘double vision’: the stories of value, meaning and purpose that sit alongside the ‘single vision’ of science. By disregarding or misunderstanding the importance of these disciplines, governments and businesses weaken their ability to navigate the ever-increasing complexity and ethics of contemporary societal issues, and miss out on some of the more imaginative and meaningful contributions to achieving a world in which we all want to live.


Read the working paper here, and visit CISL's Leadership Hub.

About the author

Louise DrakeLouise Drake has a passion for supporting current and future business leaders to respond to some of the most pressing global leadership challenges and opportunities. She is currently one of the course directors and an academic tutor for the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership. She lectures and supervises on a range of topics relating to sustainability and leadership (including leadership theory, the history of sustainability, large scale behaviour change, social entrepreneurship, food systems, waste planning and management), and supports the Cambridge High Impact Leadership Online Programme, all with the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). Previously, she was Course Director for the Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business, and Deputy Director for the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership, both CISL graduate programmes. She has a background in strategy and financial planning, stakeholder engagement, and leadership development within the public sector. She holds a PhD in Environmental Policy, and an MPhil and BA in Geography, all from the University of Cambridge, as well as postgraduate qualifications in public sector leadership, and teaching and learning in higher education.

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Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.