Why are the humanities important? How, at a time of declining student numbers (outside of a small group of universities), can we encourage students to study these subjects? What is their wider value, not just to the university, but to society more widely?

These, and other related questions, were the subject of our Annual Centre for Public History debate.

Our public history debate

In past years our public history debates have welcomed external speakers from outside higher education including BBC journalist Clive Myrie, journalist and author Kavita Puri and curator Paul Goodwin.

As history and humanities courses and departments face challenges across the sector it seemed sensible this year to focus on their role and value in the modern world.

I was lucky enough to be joined at the debate by Professor Jo Fox, School of Advanced Studies, University of London; Professor Emma Griffin, the Royal Historical Society; Professor Ludmilla Jordanova, University of Durham; and Professor Claire Langhamer, Institute of Historical Research.

Ukrainian lessons on why history matters

If anyone needs to be persuaded of the importance and value of history and the humanities today, they need look no further than the ongoing war in Ukraine. While President Putin draws on the memory of the Great Patriotic War, and the defeat of fascism in 1945 in his attempts to justify the invasion of Ukraine, Russian soldiers are attacking, destroying and looting Ukrainian archives and museums, sometimes literally carrying Ukrainian history across the border into Russia.

The theft of these histories and this heritage of course echoes the removal of artefacts and archives from colonised countries by European imperial powers; the legacies of which we are only now beginning to understand. The value that Russia places on the removal and destruction of Ukraine’s history shows the importance of the past, and of an understanding of this past, to contemporary politics and identity in the most vivid way possible.

‘Culture wars’ and the role of history

Slightly closer to home historians, archivists and other humanities scholars have often found themselves on the frontline of the so-called ‘culture wars’, for example in the recent National Trust report on how the profits of colonialism and slavery funded some of their properties, or recent government attempts to prevent the appointment of museum Trustees they perceive as being critical of the nation’s ‘contested heritage’.

A critical understanding of the past, and the use of this understanding to explore and interrogate power structures in the present, so central to humanities scholarship, has increasingly been positioned as problematic by a struggling government keen to imagine enemies and animosities in an attempt to hang onto power.

Why we need humanities students

Humanities students learn the skills of independent research, of how to disentangle fact from fiction, the importance of supporting argument with evidence, and the ability to recognise when such evidence is absent, or misrepresented. They learn how to base their arguments on evidence, not just opinion, and to recognise when the opposite is the case.

In short, they learn the skills so necessary to today’s world of misinformation, alternative facts and ‘fake news’. The humanities equip students to be engaged, critical citizens.

All of this helps to explain why there is a real appetite for history in today’s society. Television, radio, films, novels and podcasts all provide material for this enthusiasm. Community history groups recruit large numbers of volunteers, and produce vibrant, collective histories. History remains popular in schools, with the numbers taking GCSE History rising from 202,482 in 2009 to 278,880 in 2022.

The recent closure and merging of departments teaching history, literature and other humanities subjects across our universities shows not a crisis in the humanities, nor the failure of these subjects to attract students and provide training in the knowledge and skills, but the ongoing impact of the removal of the cap on student numbers in 2015.

But this does not have to be an ongoing trend. With imaginative and inclusive government policy, and wider recognition of the importance of the humanities to democratic society, the humanities could yet be on course for a new ‘golden age’.