Why the Arts and the Sciences need each other more than ever

John Holman
"Neither the sciences nor the humanities can get us to this future by themselves, but working together they can, quite literally, save us." Professor John Holmes.

What’s in a name? Surely a rose by any other name would smell as sweet? Maybe, but it is hard to doubt that the collective term STEM has raised the profile of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths in education and social policy in a way that the earlier, unenticing acronym SMET could never have managed. The arts, humanities and social sciences keep trying to play the same game, conjuring up acronyms of their own that they hope might capture the public’s interest or at least appeal to government ministers. Somehow these never quite work. Either, they don’t sound like real words, like HASS, or they are just that little bit too forced. With STEAM, the Arts tried punkishly to gatecrash a party that was already happening to which they had not been invited.

With the latest initiative, SHAPE – Social sciences, Humanities & Arts for People & the Economy – the urge to find an acronym that is also a real word, like STEM, has given a distorted picture of what these subjects are really for. Of course, the Social sciences, Humanities and Arts have important contributions to make to both People and the Economy, but the letters P and E remain extraneous and more than a little arbitrary. SHAPE just doesn’t ring true as a name in the way that STEM does. After all, if SHAPE were the right name here, presumably we would need STEMPE, not just STEM, as the sciences contribute to people’s lives, including the economy, too.

The conceptualisation and promotion of STEM was a fight-back against the closure of science departments and the dwindling enthusiasm for sciences among school students. SHAPE is an attempt by the British Academy and its partners to do the same for the humanities, but it is already compromised by the fact that they are following not leading. In their branding, they are conceding too to a managerialism that delights in acronyms and to the reification of the Economy as something distinct from and of equivalent value to People. It is not hard to see why, in the current political climate, humanities scholars might feel that they have little choice but to make these concessions. In making them, however, they undermine their own disciplines even as they show, paradoxically, why we need the humanities now as much as ever.

We live in a world awash with disinformation, much of it in the service of hierarchies and ideologies posing as the natural order and the best of all possible worlds. Our civic societies desperately need to be informed and enriched by the critical scrutiny that the humanities teach, their openness to diverse ideas, their increasingly generous if belated appreciation of difference, but also their moral rigour, admission of their own failings and suspicion of self-serving complacency and deceit. All these the humanities teach us, and we do ourselves and society no good by suspending or compromising them to trim our objectives into SHAPE with an ideology that reduces complexities to buzz words and insists that in the end it is the economy, stupid, that matters. To quote John Ruskin, ‘There is No Wealth but Life’. The humanities, and still more the arts, enrich and expand our lives. This is where their true value lies. Any economic gain is a bonus. The Social sciences and Humanities – like Economics, properly conceived, and of course the Arts – are all for People. But who would choose to champion SHEAP?

There is something more fundamental at issue here than just the choice of acronym. It is over sixty years now since C. P. Snow decried the ‘two cultures’ of scientists and literary intellectuals, but it remains the case that our education system still sorts most students into one group or the other as early as 16, and that competition for financial and social capital tends to pit the sciences and the arts against one another. The arts and humanities feel disadvantaged and beleaguered in this struggle, but by setting SHAPE up as a competitor, or even as a complement, to STEM, humanities scholars are re-inscribing the separation between Snow’s Two Cultures, not rejecting it.

Yet we are collectively facing social and political challenges which we can only hope to surmount if the arts, humanities and social sciences pull together with the sciences. Whether we are talking about our dependency on technologies increasingly beyond our control or the wreck we are making of the planet we live on, science is vital to our understanding of the problems we face and to the modelling of consequences and solutions. It is by far and away our most reliable source of information about the world around us, and within universities at least is overwhelmingly conducted in good faith. But we need too the emotive power of the arts to bring home to people the real impact of the changes we have unwittingly set in train, so we can feel for ourselves what we are risking and losing. We need history to remind us of the precariousness of our civilisations and the unforeseen consequences of political action; philosophy to enable us to think through the ethical implications of the profound choices we need to make as individuals and societies; and criticism to keep us alert to the vested interests furthering exploitation, entrapment or destruction.

If one thing is certain, it is that our current ways of life, particularly in the global North, are unsustainable. One way or another they will have to change. To chart the paths to liveable futures, we have to be able to imagine where we might be going. The humanities and social sciences are not plural by accident. Together they reveal the immense diversity of human lives and societies, real and imagined, past, present and looking into the future. With this immense body of knowledge covering a near-limitless array of possibilities for how to be human, these disciplines have a vital role to play in enabling us to fashion new and sustainable societies. Neither the sciences nor the humanities can get us to this future by themselves, but working together they can, quite literally, save us.

John Holmes is Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture at the University of Birmingham and a co-founder of Symbiosis, a new network bringing the arts, humanities and sciences together in natural history museums worldwide.