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    A changing world needs humanities and social sciences research

    The Cliché

    “The world is constantly changing” or “change is today’s only constant” is an often-repeated cliché. It is one of those insightful-sounding observations that everyone agrees with and which is completely meaningless at the same time. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem, or the “crisis” for those who are more melodramatically inclined, in the humanities and social sciences today. We know the world is changing fast, very fast, but we do not know what it really means.

    That technology has changed, is obvious. Today after lunch, I power up my old tablet and let my young children “talk” via video link to their grandparents who are 12,000 km and 6 time zones away. A useful distraction as I clear up the mess. And something unimaginable just 30 years ago when I was growing up.

    But we often forget how widely spread these “new” technologies are. Refugees who risk their lives on rickety boats will often carry almost nothing else but their smartphone. That’s why refugee camps have WiFi: in a stressful and traumatic situation at least refugees can get in touch with their loved ones back home.

    Because the internet is so dominant, the majority of the world’s people now get their news from social media, and this brings about social and political change. While there is plenty of attention on the effect that social media may have had on the 2016 American presidential elections and Britain’s European Union membership or “Brexit” referendum, the impact of social media on the developing world may be greater still. Social media was seen as an important catalyst of the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt while during the ongoing Rhoyingha crisis in Myanmar, Facebook has become an effective platform for fermenting racial hatred and genocide. Hong Kong’s umbrella revolution appears to also carry many of the same hallmarks of the 2011 Arab Spring, with social media playing an important role, youthful leadership, and so far, limited political impact.

    While political movements grab headlines, they are supported by deeper social changes. While social media is usually blamed for rising immorality, consumerism and extremism, some suggest that social media also helps in developing the 4C’s (communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking) in its users. Digital natives, people who grew up using social media, tend to be more aware that you should not believe everything you read, critical thinking skills that are not always fostered in traditional and authoritarian education systems. These same group of students will fact-check their professors once they enter university, if they can be bothered to, and are constantly in touch with each other about how best to ace an assignment with as little effort as possible. All admirable qualities in terms of collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking and efficiency. Although one would be understanding if an old-school academic would have some difficulty in keeping up with it all.

    Finding Meaning: Academia to the Rescue?

    All these changes can be bewildering: refugees with smart phones, hate speech next to funny cat memes and birthday party photos, populist election results, and students who question authority and protest. And we have not even started on the dislocating effects of economic globalization. It is a world that is difficult to understand based on our conventional thinking about society and humanity: what do these people want? Why are they doing this? What should I do? What is my place in this world?

    Academia has an important role to play because it educates the elite who will help people find answers to these questions while the research it produces will help shape our understanding of this new world. However it is not entirely clear that the academic community has successfully managed to seize this role. In the public discourse there is a lot of anti-expert sentiment, the “post truth”-era is said to be upon us. In that sense academia itself has become politicized, a very unfamiliar position for many academics. It’s the pundits who are influential with their talking points and not the academics with their evidence and theoretical frameworks.

    So while the way forward for the academic community may be clear: help the public understand the new world that communications technology and other technologies have brought about, and ideally prepare them for future changes too, it is not entirely clear how the academic community is going to carry out this mission. While its authority and independence as a source of truth have been drawn into question, however unfairly, this may be a sign that universities and academics need to communicate more and differently with the public. Maybe scientific journals are not the always the best outlet for research. Maybe a well-followed Twitter account or Facebook group is more important and influential in this day and age.

    Rather than concluding that something is inherently wrong with the structure and purpose of modern higher education, although a little self-reflection is never a bad thing, the academic community, especially when it comes to social sciences and humanities education and research, may need to approach matters differently.

    We appear to be entering another era in which there is a battle of ideas, which we perhaps did not expect. When capitalism triumphed over communism during the early 1990s, Francis Fukuyama famously wrote The End of History, although around that time Samuel Huntington also came out with the Clash of Civilizations. Looking back, history did not end and civilizations appear to be clashing internally at the moment, but perhaps these thoughts lulled the humanities and social sciences into a political sleep. Publish or perish while we disconnect from the public discourse.

    Great Change, Great Ideas

    The re-emergence of divisive political and social issues may well be what kick-starts a new era of growth in the social sciences and humanities. Social, economic and technological upheavals are often accompanied by a flowering of the arts and humanities, whether it’s the renaissance, the first industrial revolution or the end of World Wars. While “industrial revolution 4.0” and mentions of artificial intelligence are fast be becoming another cliché, these ideas signal the realization that more profound changes are already underway. For social science and humanities research, such major changes provide a vast source of material and a need for new theories and ideas.

    But more than that, great changes and the resulting human and social challenges require that academics participate boldly in public discussions and debates. Modern communication technology has implicitly erased the classroom walls: there is no need to be limited by physical distance. And while many academics may be very comfortable to teach from behind a lectern and to publish behind a paywall, they are essentially hiding from the wider world.

    At a time when the world appears to be screaming for new ideas and is desperate to understand itself, now may be the time for academics in the humanities and social sciences to realize that the walls no longer exist and that the whole world is there, right behind their screen. It can be a scary thought, but if change is not scary, it probably does not mean much.

    About QS Subject Focus Summit – Humanities and Social Sciences Research 

    Organised in collaboration with Ca’ Foscari University, the Summit will be held from 29 to 31 August 2018 in the historic city of Venice, Italy.

    The aim of the Summit is to foster a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing humanities and social sciences research and to begin articulating a practical vision for moving the field forward. It brings together senior leaders from humanities and social science departments as well as other important thought leaders; and provides a platform for the sharing of new ideas and best practices, as well as a unique opportunity for networking and dialogue.