Something seemed quite strange when the results came in for the 2022 edition of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for arts and humanities subjects. Topping the list of the best universities in the world for a group of subjects including history, philosophy, performing arts, language, literature, theology and architecture, were two institutions world-renowned for science, technology and engineering.
Stanford University, the institution at the heart of America’s Silicon Valley whose students have spawned Google, Cisco, Hewlett Packard, Yahoo and Netflix, took first place in the world. It was closely followed by its east coast counterpart, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Other top tech schools have also marched up the arts and humanities rankings: Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands moved up from 65th last year to 42nd; The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (known as ETH Zurich) rose from 53 to 49; while Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology) rose from the 151-175 band into the world top 150.
Collaborative insight and research
In an article for Times Higher Education, two arts school deans at MIT, Agustin Rayo (humanities, arts and social sciences) and Hashim Sarkis (architecture and planning) were clear: “The arts and humanities fields — as powerful sources of knowledge and understanding of the human condition — are a core part of MIT education, research, and innovation.
“The insights of science and engineering are, of course, crucial to addressing many of the world’s most urgent problems. But science and engineering operate within human societies and serve the world best when informed by the cultural, political, spatial, and economic complexities of human existence and ways of inhabiting the earth.
“The sci/tech, arts, design, and humanistic domains are also mutually informing modes of human knowledge, and many of today’s most consequential issues can be solved only by collaborative insight and research.”
Into the metaverse
As we rapidly accelerate into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the new era of intelligent technologies will not just transform economies and societies more profoundly than the industrial revolutions of our past – steam, steel, electricity, petrochemicals – it will transform the very notion of society.
It was notable that when Facebook, now called Meta, announced its next phase of developing the “metaverse” last week, an “extended reality” encompassing virtual and augmented reality, it was at pains to point out the need to do so “responsibly”. “We… need to involve the human rights and civil rights communities from the start to ensure these technologies are built in a way that’s inclusive and empowering,” said Meta's Vice President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg, and the first academic research partnerships with universities that Meta confirmed were on projects concerning ethics, privacy, law, diversity and inclusion.
At a time of fake news and conspiracy theories – most alarmingly around Covid-19 vaccinations and climate change – we need a new generation of critical thinkers and communicators. With deep social divisions exacerbated by the pandemic, with the rise of nationalism and protectionism, and with the existential threat of global heating, we need to be reminded of our shared humanity, we need to learn lessons from our past, and we need a new generation of people equipped to speak truth to power.
The top ten skills of tomorrow identified by the World Economic Forum last year were dominated by skills perhaps best honed in the arts and humanities fields: critical thinking and analysis; creativity, originality and initiative; leadership and social influence; reasoning and problem-solving.
Scrutinsing the future of AI
New technology – particularly machine learning and Artificial Intelligence – is raising fundamental questions about what it is to be a human being.
John Tasioulas, professor of Ethics and Legal Philosophy at the University of Oxford and Director of the Institute for Ethics in AI, has said that perhaps the most fundamental contribution of the arts and humanities to the world is “to make vivid the fact that the development of AI is not a matter of destiny, but instead involves successive waves of highly consequential choices.”
The late physicist Stephen Hawking famously declared that AI “is likely to be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity”, with the risk that humans could be quickly superseded and even subjugated by intelligent machines. If arts and humanities scholarship in our universities is allowed to thrive, humanity will surely get the best out of this profoundly transformative revolution.