Last weekend, the awarding ceremony of the prizes Princess of Asturias took place in Oviedo. Among the wonderful winners in its several categories, the Cambridge Classics Professor Mary Beard (Much Wenlock, UK, 1955) received the prize on Social Sciences. In her speech, she underlined the need we have to establish a fruitful dialogue with history, and consequently, she said she was receiving the award not only on her name, but also on behalf of all “those teachers, scholars and writers who work hard to make our conversation with the Ancient world so live, so engaging and so rewarding”. Indeed, it was her capacity for making accessible her vast knowledge of the Ancient World to the general public one of the aspects that the Jury most appreciated in their awarding Prof. Beard the prize.
What Prof. Beard has done is something worth a great merit, because she has challenged academic conventions in order to fulfil a social task that the Humanities necessarily has to undertake. For many decades, academic circles have refused to enter into that necessary dialogue with society, arriving to such specialization of knowledge and attention to detail that render all efforts inane in terms of dialoguing with the past. To a certain extent, we don’t see the forest for the trees anymore. And that is tragic, because at the university we should have the social responsibility of taking care of transmitting, for present and future generations, everything we have been able to learn. Being a scholar of the Humanities without trying to reach the society in an ample sense is like being a doctor and treating only those patients that are going to be cured for sure. It doesn’t really make much sense.
As Prof. Beard explains in her latest book, SPQR, entire academic careers have been made and lost over tiny details that do not change the general picture of what we know and why is still relevant. It is imperative that we rethink what is the call and aim of the Humanities in the modern world in order to understand what is the task that we all as scholars have to undertake not before our colleagues or our institutions, or even before our students, but in a wider sense to the society in general. There isn’t much point, really, is preaching to the converted. Isolating ourselves in arcane departments, spending time and resources in endless navel-gazing exercises is not going to make our role in society more important, quite the contrary, and it is not going to bring students to our classes, because nobody is ready to devote the best years of their youth to study something they have not even heard about. The compromise of Prof. Beard and of many others who, due to their writing for the wider public are being accused sometimes of being “dilettantes” by their own colleagues, is indispensable to save the Humanities from being the instrument of self-centred ambitious scholars who refuse to share their impressive knowledge with the wider world. It is more than crucial that we descend from our own trees and start contemplating the forest.