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The Evolution of the Humanities

  • 19 April 2023
  • By Marion Thain
  • This blog has been kindly written fro HEPI by Professor Marion Thain, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and Professor of Culture and Technology at King’s College London.
  • Join Marion, Lord (Jo) Johnson, Molly Morgan-Jones and Bobby Duffy at a free event on 26 April to discuss how the UK can make more of its leading expertise in humanities.

In a recent HEPI report, we reported on what’s going on in humanities in the UK today: the world-leading quality of research work; the value of an education that offers skills in the areas that are most sought after and growing in today’s economy; the offer of skills that fit not narrowly to one profession but will enable flexibility in what are these days often long and varied careers; and the intensely impactful nature of recent projects from a range of humanities disciplines. At a time when there is so much focus on STEM subjects in the UK, it is necessary to ensure we are preserving and encouraging a balanced range of skills for our future workforce. The humanities offer a range of methods that are vital to society’s ability to respond effectively, imaginatively and innovatively to some of the most pressing problems humanity is facing. 

However that doesn’t mean humanities disciplines don’t have to change. The landscape for humanities is changing in many ways in order to meet the needs of the modern world. Classics has been reconfiguring to highlight its profound relevance to the contemporary world, and projects such as the far-reaching Language Acts and Worldmaking are confronting head-on the role of language teaching modern Britain. At the same time as these evolutions have been taking place we have seen the growth of Liberal Arts courses in the UK, which bring disciplines together in powerful combined perspectives (something we highlight in our report); and, of course, new twenty-first century disciplines such as the Digital Humanities offer an essential complement to the technical skills of our colleagues in Computer Science. At a moment when world tech leaders have just called for a pause in the development of AI until we understand better how to frame and harness it for human good, the world is crying out for the expertise of our Digital Humanists. Figuring out not how to code but how to contain code within parameters that are ethical, that recognise the needs of diverse communities, that work against bias and that contribute to human and societal flourishing are surely some of the most urgent and important work universities can undertake.

Our humanities disciplines are evolving, then, but we need to do more – and we are doing more – to take our skills and expertise out to audiences inside and outside the academy in a way that meets people where they are. Many institutions around the country are offering innovative cross-disciplinary or interdisciplinary courses that connect in new ways the core skills and expertise of our humanities colleagues with issues of general public interest and priority. In the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at King’s College London, for example, we have reached out into the online learning space to create the online MA in Global Cultures. The first of its kind, this programme helps students understand how global cultures interrelate and coexist in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world. Aimed as much at helping to empower citizens for whom the world has changed in confusing ways as it is at workers in industries that need to work smarter to understand how to communicate across cultural borders, this course gives vital skills and knowledge for anyone who wants to interact successfully with the globalised contemporary world. Crucially, though, it is based around core humanities strengths. In addition to evolving their disciplinary offerings, colleagues from Classics and Modern Languages are connecting with new audiences through this frame, finding ways to surface the value and the relevance of their work to a broader range of students. 

At King’s, we have also just launched two new multi-disciplinary Institutes – developed by Arts and Humanities but involving all disciplines across the College – that serve to focus our response to key challenges and bring together colleagues in a radially interdisciplinary configuration around them. These two Institutes recognise that the Humanities have a leading role to play in identifying and implementing solutions to some of society’s most intractable challenges. The Global Cultures Institute is the research powerhouse for our online Global Cultures MA and other new educational initiatives such as our Cultural Competency training. It takes on the challenge of how we can have better communication across and beyond cultural boundaries, and it fosters research collaboration and education initiatives across all disciplines in a broad-based university. The Digital Futures Institute insists that challenges society currently sees as tech problems, which need technical fixes (more code) are actually social and human problems that need a humanistically-led method to resolve them. This Institute asks, how can we live well with technology? And the methods it brings to achieve this are radically interdisciplinary, involving colleagues from across the full range of disciplines, including Psychiatry, Informatics, Law, Engineering, Business Studies, as well as Humanities and Social Sciences. 

Central to the King’s vision for an evolving humanities is the recognition that we have an ethical obligation to move beyond critique. The humanities have an incredibly valuable role to play in ‘problematising’: this is about the undeniable importance of self-reflection and seeing often unpalatable truths that underpin the premises of much of the day to day. However, identifying problems must be a step towards finding solutions. And these solutions come most effectively when we work in collaboration with others across the disciplines. 

This means, for example, getting beyond the ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ technology positions that dominate the debate about the digital at the moment. This polarised structure to the debate has lacked a necessary maturity and impoverished our understanding and our ability to reach a better future. The Digital Futures Institute at King’s has as part of its living-well-with-technology mission a commitment to both recognising the challenges and also finding ways to harness our digital environment for good. Hand-wringing and wishing away the digital age simply doesn’t cut it; there’s a similar pointlessness in blindly celebrating each new innovation. We aim to convene a discourse on the digital that both understands the human and social challenges and brings together a range of skills to configure solutions

As we observe in the report, if there’s one thing we learned during the pandemic, it was that it’s not enough to discover a vaccine if you can’t persuade diverse communities to take it. Without an understanding of cultural diversity and how to communicate across a range of belief-systems within the community, the scientific advancement is pointless. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) will get us only so far, but SHAPE (Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities), STEM and Health in collaboration will unlock a better future. 


  1. Ros Lucas says:

    Much to commend and think about especially the paragraph that mentions diagnosis of problems must be accompanied with suggested action for solving.

    This, together with the Arts included in STEAM and SHAPE, provides some hope that education and exams in their present often cost effective regurgitated form across all Key Stages will now be reformed to make it inclusive and more appropriate for the 21st Century….!

  2. Albert Wright says:

    How widespread and well known is this New, Supercharged, Beneficial Humanities Movement?

    Are we about to see a second Renaissance or period of Enlightenment?

    Are the would be undergraduates applying for courses this year aware of this revolution.

    Are the A level teachers and tutors in FE colleges fully informed of the new Jerusalem?

    What about the staff currently teaching Humanities to the current cohort of students doing English, history, sociology, geography – have they changed their curriculum to reflect the new situation or does the change affect only a few hundred people, given the independent nature of individual Universities and the absence of a national curriculumn?

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