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We must make the case for our subjects more strongly than ever before, cautions Cannadine in annual presidential address

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Professor Sir David Cannadine has hailed the work of British Academy Fellows and staff in his Annual President’s Address, marking the end of his first year as President, but warned of the need to make the case for the humanities and social sciences more strongly than ever.

In a speech to Fellows at the British Academy Annual Dinner in central London on July 19, Sir David spoke of the “exceptionally good, productive and creative year” the Academy has enjoyed.

Sir David highlighted the success of the Academy’s first ever Summer Showcase (which attracted over 1,700 visitors in three days), a host of “fundraising successes”, increased engagement with the Fellowship, and the strengthening of ties with fellow European and American academies, as examples of the Academy’s achievements.

He said: “It has been a very busy and productive year here at the Academy. And for me personally, it has been both a joy and a delight, as it is also both a privilege and an honour, to preside, if only for a short time, over such a distinguished body of women and of men.”

Sir David also spoke of the “generally gloomy” political environment of the day and warned of the need to make the case for the arts, humanities and social sciences more strongly than ever before.

He said: “The arts, the humanities and the social sciences…[are] major fields of endeavour for human creativity and intellectual brilliance, essential components of the national culture and the global republic of letters, and vital resources for helping us to understand so many of the problems that vex our tortured present and challenge our uncertain future.

“We need to make the case better in Westminster and Whitehall that the humanities and the social sciences matter and are not just for recreation or are an optional extra, and we need to get others to make that case on our behalf,” he added.

The Annual Dinner marks the election of new Fellows to the British Academy Fellowship. This year a record 76 academics were elected – the largest cohort of new Fellows elected to the Academy in its 116-year history.

The guest speaker at the event was former Labour MP Dr Tristram Hunt, now Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Dr Hunt echoed Sir David’s support for the arts, humanities and social sciences and described the power of the subjects to explore and celebrate “difference,” and unearth truth.

He said: “At a time when the politics of nationalism – of particularity and exceptionalism – is being weaponised by populist forces, displaying and exploring the complex nature of difference, and debt, exchange and interaction, is more important than ever.

“This is why the arts, humanities and social sciences matter. By studying peoples, cultures and societies, we elucidate the pluralistic nature of our identities, which so often prosper under a shared civic banner.”

“As the great Iris Murdoch once wrote, ‘Anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism’ is an act of great virtue,” he added.

Dr Hunt also spoke of the current focus on STEM subjects – at the expense of the arts, humanities and social sciences – in the national discourse and warned of its potentially dangerous consequences.

He said: “The widespread perception created among teachers, parents and young people is that the arts do not equate with success. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. With GCSE entries for arts subjects now at their lowest level in a decade, there’s a real danger of us destroying something we are very good at.”

“There’s much work to be done to ensure our national policy makers recognise the essential qualities of the arts, humanities and social sciences – vital for a rounded education, the well-being of our society, our jobs, the economy and our place in the world.”

The full text is available here.

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