We can be very grateful for scientists: we won’t be able to beat this pandemic without them.
It is the scientists who identified the virus and mapped its genetic structure. They developed protocols to help prevent its transmission: keep a distance of 2m, and wear a mask when you can’t do so. In an astonishingly short period of time they developed vaccines that are impressively effective. They will continue to improve those vaccines as new mutations emerge.
But scientists can’t win this battle on their own because in the end, to be successful, their amazing technical achievements have to be accepted and used by actual humans in the real world.
What use is a highly effective mask if people refuse to wear one? What good is a top-quality vaccine if you can’t persuade people to be vaccinated? How will we reach herd immunity if people’s sense of individualism trumps their sense of collective responsibility?
This is where the humanities come in. We need both the sciences and the humanities.
The humanities are all about understanding the human experience. The humanities specialise in complexity, ambiguity, and questions that seem to resist tidy, rationalistic forms of analysis. It thrives on pursuing broad questions. For example, in what circumstances, if at all, should individualism override collectivism? There’s no easy answer to that one.
New Zealand has been uniquely successful in its response to the virus. Why is that? Well, other Western countries have had access to much the same quality of science that we have, but they have approached the political, social, ethical, and legal challenges of the pandemic in quite different ways. So we can’t explain our success without including perspectives from the humanities.
First, there is geography (a subject taught at Otago within the Division of Humanities). A significant feature of the discipline of geography is the movements of peoples across the world and how people interact with their environment. As a small, isolated country with longstanding policies of border control we have had the advantage of being able to close our borders with great efficiency.
Then there is our political culture. New Zealand’s primary political value is equality. In contrast, the primary political value of the United States is liberty. So when we are called on to join the "team of fivemillion" we are generally willing to sign up. During lockdown last year we proved remarkably accepting of some very serious constraints on our personal freedom. In the United States, not so much.
When you’re dealing with people, words matter. The metaphor of a "bubble" helped everyone to understand what was required of us. In this country we pursued a positive communication strategy ("unite against Covid") rather than an alarmist one that relied on creating fear of the virus. That was a wise and effective way to go.
Our prime minister has a humanities degree — a bachelor of communication studies — and it shows. (I might add that Chris Hipkins, the Covid-19 response minister, has a bachelor of arts). Jacinda Ardern has demonstrated adept powers of communication that have helped us to accept the impositions that have been made upon us. Excellent communication skills will be needed more than ever as the vaccination campaign tries to reach those who are most reluctant or resistant.
And how do people sort through the mass of information they find in the media and on the internet? How can we distinguish a sound argument from a poor one? How do we weigh up competing presentations of the evidence? How do we discern a reliable authority from a misleading one?
These questions really matter, especially in an era when discerning reliable information from carefully crafted falsehoods can literally be a matter of life of death (consider the Delta variant proliferating among communities in the United States where vaccination rates are low). The task of philosophy — how to think well — has never been more important.
All of this illustrates what is generally true even without a global pandemic to demonstrate it. We need both the sciences and the humanities.
The humanities deal in what I call human skills. These are skills that a computer cannot replicate: skills like judgement, interpretation, intuition, empathy, critical thinking and communication. These are skills that are never obsolete and never go out of fashion. These are skills that will serve us well over a lifetime of learning and numerous changes in career. These are the skills that will best insulate us from losing our jobs to algorithms and automation.
And these are the skills that have made the difference here in New Zealand. We could never have achieved the success we’ve had against the virus without people who are skilled in the ways of the humanities.
We can be very grateful for humanities graduates: they have already played a central role in steering New Zealand to its enviable position in response to Covid-19, and we won’t be able to beat this pandemic without them.
- Tim Cooper is professor of Church history and head of the School of Arts at the University of Otago.