Student using equipment in the Digital Humanities Center

January 4, 2018, by Guest blog

Liberal Arts – what is it and why study it? Part I

Liberal Arts degrees have expanded across universities in Britain over the last few years and their development reflects a growing sense that it is by knowledge across a range of disciplines that new ideas and perspectives can develop. The Liberal Arts degree at the University of Nottingham has been built to foster these links as we believe that by thinking differently we can build solutions to the complex problems we face in our world.

Liberal Arts seeks to address global problems

Liberal arts seeks to address global issues from a multi-discipline perspective

Whether its accusations of fake news, pressing environmental problems or rectifying social inequality, the issues that beset us are multifaceted. They are issues born out of historical circumstances, social issues, political debates, cultural developments, economic decisions and moral concerns. To attempt to address these problems with one approach, could mean we neglect other areas or indeed cause more damage by being too focused on one area.

Therefore, we need to be grounded in history, knowledgeable in sociology, tooled in philosophy, aware of politics, engaged in sociology and practiced in media. We need to be able to think as geographers, psychologists, archaeologists, artists, authors and mathematicians. The solutions to our problems and the means by which we will create our future will not be found in single areas but where our abilities to think in multiple, different ways can be located. Liberal Arts gives us this space.

Consider the impact of artificial intelligence which many commentators have considered to pose significant threats to society. From the apocalyptic visions of machines taking over the planet to the more realistic concerns regarding employment, we need to be able to address how humanity will respond to this new technology. This is a tool that no other generation has had in its grasp, what will be our reaction?

Luddites smashing 19th century technology

In this brave new world, liberal arts thinking helps us to adapt and evolve to technology.

This may well be a brave new world, but we do have awareness of human responses to new situations. We know how Luddites, textile workers in nineteenth century Britain, destroyed machinery that they believed was stealing their jobs. We know how access to technology in modern India creates new opportunities but contributes to inequality. We know how Confucianism philosophy can provide moral order as we redefine what it means to be human in a scientifically advanced era.

As such, as artificial intelligence takes an increasing role in our society, we can see ourselves adapting and evolving with a technology whose very development has been undertaken to make it think more like us.

Ross Wilson
Director of Liberal Arts, University of Nottingham

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