10/10/2014 04:51 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

We Need the Humanities As Much As Science to Solve the World's Problems


'On the third day God created Chemical Engineering. On the fourth day God created Constitutional History. And on the fifth day God created Economic Geography'. Except it wasn't quite like that, was it? However the world was created, the Big Bang delivered an organic holistic entity and we humans, too, developed as singular creatures.

All of us who have launched our careers via a college education can be forgiven for thinking of the world through the lenses of compartmentalized academic subjects, at which we are variously clever or clueless. But this siloing of sciences, social sciences and humanities is just a convenient intellectual ploy, and we forget, at our peril, that this is but a helpful but artificial act of academic disciplining. 'At our peril' because the many global issues which currently challenge the world only stand a chance of being seriously addressed and resolved if seen, themselves, as holistic, complex but organic developmental issues, invariably with a determining human context. As such, they require a properly holistic response.

We need our best academic brains to solve our global challenges. But that braininess must join up. The humanities, the sciences and the social sciences must all work in an intelligently interdisciplinary way to get a total take on any issue and to share in a multi-perspective response. The engineer needs to work with the historian and the local theologian to address the environmental issue in Kano. The economist needs to work with the linguist and the biochemist to tackle the medical issue in Yangon.

Chemistry, philosophy and anthropology don't, in themselves, exist. They are our mental constructs to help sort our thinking and cerebral methodology. Academic subject areas are human inventions that enable us to organize the complexities of learning and taxonomize the world's total knowledge about itself.

So, as we bring knowledge and research out of academia and into the world of work, the world of development and the world of serious issues, we should be ready to lay aside our academic siloing mentality and re-integrate the application of knowledge, learning and research in addressing the challenges of our times.

The British Council is partnering with a range of organizations in the US and the UK, and eventually more internationally, in a new project called Mobilizing the Humanities. The intent is to build better international networking in order to research the value of the humanities in improving world wellbeing, security, prosperity and employability. We need more research into the humanities to better advocate their value to people and organizations who command resources and decide policies. The project will also seek resources to encourage and fund interdisciplinarity in research and development projects which will bring scientists, social scientists and specialists in the humanities and arts together. These experts can draw on their combined knowledge to address global developmental issues. Any project which involves human need must pass through the prism of human understanding, and it is interdisciplinarity that provides that prism.

Mobilizing the Humanities -- the development perspective is the first piece of research resulting from this new initiative. It's a first trawl of development agencies' take on the value of the humanities and how they might couple with the sciences and social sciences in tackling development issues worldwide. All development issues touch the lives of actual communities. Their strategies must be conditioned by questions of local history, legacy, value systems, sociology, beliefs and customs, and alert to local attitudes to family, home, authority, inclusion and otherness.

What the research clearly shows is that the development world values the critical approach that the humanities teach. Students of literature, fine arts, music, history, philosophy take a broad, sometimes relative, approach to learning and the interrogation of data, rather than the often more linear approach pursued by the scientist. They tend to see the world through multiple perspectives and, as such, can be tolerant of confusion, irrationality, inclusion and ambiguity. If, to cite William Empson, there are seven types of ambiguity in our reading of literature, how many more types of ambiguity must there be in our reading of the world?

So -- scientists and artists -- there are no two cultures. There's one human culture with myriad manifestations. Let's get it together, approach the world as one and see that world in a grain of sand once more.