Our volatile and confusing world needs the humanities more than ever

June 16, 2023

Given its location in a part of the world known for sunshine and optimism, the University of California, Berkeley, seems like a fitting place to provide some bright news for the global humanities community.

Six months ago, in an update on their website Berkeley reported that the number of first-year students taking their arts and humanities majors was up by 121% from 2021, while applications to those degrees from high school students were up 73% compared to 2013. Indeed, the university said that many humanities departments had received more applications than they had for ten years.

Of course, this is one university in one country. Berkeley itself has been quick to point out that the trend is based on only two years of data, and that a more complete understanding will be possible in autumn 2023 once first-year students declare their majors. Yet clearly US students’ interest in these subjects has risen. Those in the humanities should ask ourselves: ‘why now’?

Berkeley’s dean of Arts and Humanities, Sara Guyer, speculates that the rising interest could be down to the volume of crises in recent years. “If I had one hypothesis,” she says, “it’s that students are trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t make a lot of sense right now.” As examples, Guyer cites era-defining events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the Washington Capitol insurrection.

To Guyer’s list we could also add the growing number of headlines about artificial intelligence, Russia’s war on Ukraine and the impact of accelerating climate change. The insights of the SHAPE subjects (the Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts for People and the Economy) are essential in helping us to understand our shifting world and in responding to the challenges we face. This is to say nothing of the subjects’ intrinsic value – the joy and fulfilment that comes with their study – which is often understated.

However, student numbers for many humanities are still low in the UK compared to ten years ago – for instance, between 2012 and 2019 English Studies undergraduate students fell by 20%. In the public sphere, it is not enough simply to speak about their importance. We must also involve and engage a non-academic audience in SHAPE research.

Every year the British Academy opens its building in central London for our Summer Showcase: a free festival celebrating the best research within our disciplines. This year we are inviting the public to participate in more live research studies, workshops and Q&As than ever before. On Saturday 17 June the Academy’s funded researchers will host workshops on using creative writing or music to improve our wellbeing, an interactive mini citizens’ assembly, and analysis to gain insight into how our political allegiances can bias how we view and feel about people with opposing views – to name a few. This is research in action, harnessing the interests of those with curious minds.

On this theme, the Academy recently launched a new pilot funding scheme, called SHAPE Involve and Engage, which invites researchers to form partnerships with galleries, archives, libraries or museums delivering creative activities which push forward public engagement practice in our disciplines.

As we try to make sense of the rapidly changing world around us – from geo-politics to AI, from climate risks to social cohesion, the insights of the SHAPE subjects (the Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts for People and the Economy) help us understand our shifting world, as well as provide us joy, enrichment and fulfilment.

The British Academy