The Arts and Humanities: shaping the future (AdvanceHE)

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We all know the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), and there is now a new kid on the block: SHAPE (, an umbrella term for the Arts, Humanities and Social Science disciplines. Of course, there is great variety between the disciplines across the range of Arts and Humanities and Social Science, as there is across science too. This does not stop SHAPE being a potentially useful term in enabling a group of disciplines to have greater visibility in public discourse through giving them a collective presence; indeed such terminology might, slightly counterintuitively, enable conversations that break down the barriers between areas rather than cement them.

One of the greatest challenges for advocates of the value of the Arts and Humanities has been that the case tends to falter when we attempt to assert a value both unique to those disciplines and shared by all disciplines in that group. Yet it is unnecessary to suppose that the value of the Arts and Humanities rests on the provision of skills that it is their sole preserve to supply. The reality is more likely to be that different disciplines bring a different degree of focus to different skills, and exercise more fully different parts of the brain, and that they might certainly enable distinctive routes into particular skills – and it is this variety of perspectives that makes it essential for society that we value and learn from all disciplines, regardless of whether any of them have something absolutely unique to offer at the level of transferable skills (as opposed to knowledge-content). While not necessarily having a monopoly on any particular skill, it’s difficult to see what could be more relevant to the contemporary information economy than the highly sophisticated reading, writing, and communication skills that are central to many Arts and Humanities disciplines.

There are, of course, many who are adamantly opposed to valuing the Arts and Humanities disciplines through the skills they can offer for the workplace. For some, to suggest the vocational and economic relevance of A&H is to risk reducing our disciplines to the instrumentalist (see Martha Nussbaum’s  2012 book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities). Yet, surely we can celebrate the usefulness and relevance of the skills our disciplines offer without that being a reductive claim? Kevin Vanzant has argued along these lines in his piece ‘Humanists Should not Pride Themselves on the Unworldly Nobility’ (Times Higher Education, December 5th, 2019).  While vocational (skills based) arguments for the importance of the Humanities are sometimes parodied as instrumentalist, those arguing instead for the importance of these disciplines to broadening hearts and minds are, in turn, parodied as suggesting that Arts and Humanities degrees are a ‘finishing school’: useful only to ensure accomplishments of sensibility.  Yet can there be any doubt that Arts and Humanities disciplines give both the skills that are essential for jobs, and the broadening of mind and spirit that helps us live better? Isn’t it a false and damaging dichotomy to oppose the vocational or ‘instrumentalist’ with the enlarging of the mind and spirit?

A residual anxiety that lurks, I fear, for many who doubt the importance of Arts and Humanities disciplines is that the sciences ‘do’, while the Arts and Humanities disciplines only provide commentary and reflection and therefore are at one remove from meaningful and transformative action. Yet it is crucial that SHAPE is a verb as well as a noun: and we are missing a good deal if we don’t recognise these disciplines as agent as well as interface; active as well as reflective. To give an example from my own current field of research: studying poetry doesn’t just enable us to learn about literature and cultural history, it also enables us to practice different modes of attention: modes that might break and challenge habits of attention in order to enable us to notice different things, or simply to notice differently. The power this holds for challenging bias that is deep-rooted in our cultural economy is clear; what must also be recognised is that this is in itself a form of action.

None of this is to claim that Arts and Humanities disciplines are more valuable than the others, but it is to recognise something of the distinctive potential they bring to the mix. I have never felt the value of my own home discipline of English more powerfully than when I taught it to students who were majoring elsewhere (pre-med students, for example), or when I taught within a broadly multi-disciplinary programme. Special pleading for individual disciplines can too easily entrench us in our respective corners, when our sense of what’s possible really expands through genuine collaboration across disciplinary boundaries.

It is noticeable that in spite of the powerful rhetoric around interdisciplinarity today, such practices still too often entail drawing on the resources of another discipline without really moving outside of one’s own disciplinary space.  And how could it be otherwise when our all or structures of knowledge in Higher Education are largely still strictly demarcated along disciplinary lines.  We tell our graduate students how valuable interdisciplinary work is, but when they get to the academic job market, they will have to fit squarely not just within a discipline, but usually within a traditional subfield of that discipline. How can we encourage graduate students to undertake truly innovative interdisciplinary work when we know the institutional structures are not there to recognise and reward such achievements? Our funding councils, also, while encouraging interdisciplinary work still sit broadly within disciplinary areas.

What would it look like to create spaces of intellectual inquiry that are genuinely outside of the usual disciplinary boundaries? Finding these new spaces will be crucial to ensuring that one discipline is not brought in as the handmaiden of another–an add-on to an established disciplinary paradigm–but as equal partners in a space where new modes of enquiry can be discovered through collaboration. Such new spaces will enable us to train graduate students in genuinely innovative modes of inquiry, and they will take forward new combinations of skills and methods that will have the potential not just to develop but to transform. New interdisciplinary spaces (or even new disciplines) also have the potential to open up fields that are less formed by historical power structures and colonial legacies. What methods, what paradigms, what precedents, and what histories would we claim in setting up our new interdisciplinary-disciplines? How could these change institutional structures and opportunities? And what challenges will these new disciplines be designed to address?

This is what new terminology such as SHAPE might, ideally, help support: the valuing of all disciplinary spaces equally, the opening up of new spaces between and across our disciplines; a meaningful shift of baked-in institutional biases through pointing the way to structural change; and the embedding of collaboration as a foundational methodology across greater disciplinary breadth. STEM and SHAPE must not be seen as opposing monoliths, but as ways of making visible connections that need to be forged and lines that need to be crossed. And of course, none of this can be achieved without recognising the essential resources the Arts and Humanities offer for understanding and reframing the dynamics of history, power, and culture within and across institutional structures.


Professor Marion Thain, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, King’s College London.


This blog is kindly repurposed from AdvanceHE and you can find the original here: The Arts and Humanities: shaping the future