On past, present and future

As term ends and Christmas approaches, I’m delighted to note that the 2015-16 academic year has got off to an exciting and eventful start.

Much has happened, certainly, with highlights for me including the spectacular Arts & Humanities Festival in October; the King’s Awards last month, at which Dr Carool Kersten, Senior Lecturer in Theology & Religious Studies, was named King’s Media Personality of the Year; a dinner earlier this week for this year’s Desmond Tutu Scholars, fourteen of whom are in Arts & Humanities, during which Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne gave a moving and inspiring speech; and the news just in that four of this year’s 33 Leverhulme Major Research Fellowships in the Humanities and Social Sciences have been awarded to colleagues in our Faculty. With such wonderful things going on in education and research, we shouldn’t have been surprised earlier this term to see ourselves rising in this year’s Times Higher Education subject rankings from 23rd in the world to 15th and from 5th to 4th in the UK. We have much to celebrate and to be proud of.

It has also been a difficult term, though, with a significant number of our students and staff having been affected by the atrocities in Paris last month. I’m grateful to all those, including members of the French Society, who rallied around and offered moral and practical support where they could. To break the copycat cycle of conflict and violence that seems inevitably to follow such events – a kind of ‘mimetic desire’, diagnosed in such devastating detail by the philosopher and literary critic René Girard, who died just days before the attacks in Paris and who would have been 92 on Christmas Day – I’m in no doubt that we need the Humanities now more than ever.

A Faculty such as ours has a key part to play in confronting inhumanity with humanity, in confronting the ideology of hatred and ignorance with the love and pursuit of knowledge: if studying Philosophy helps us to think better about ethical questions, if learning another language helps us to appreciate more acutely the similarities and differences between cultures, and if studying History helps us to understand better the past and to approach the future more thoughtfully, then in all these ways – and in many more besides – we as a scholarly community can dare to embody defiant, life-changing hope.

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