• Victoria Pickering

SHAPE-ING the Future

We have long defined subjects via binary terms and placed a judgment value on what it means to learn specific subjects. In 1959 at Cambridge University, the writer and scientist C. P. Snow (1905-1980) gave an influential lecture on “the two cultures”. Snow’s argument was that science and the humanities, or, “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” had become split into “two cultures”, and this division created a major barrier to solving global problems.[1]

Several Circles by Wassily Kandinsky, 1926.

The stereotyping that ensued saw “rigorous scientific thinking” pitted against the more sensitive and empathetic characteristics of the humanities. The educational term STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) was coined in the early noughties and can be seen as an example of this binary thinking. The UK government has focused much attention on education as a way of ensuring that the relevant skills to underpin the successful future of the country’s innovation and development could be sourced from the UK’s workforce. Not surprising considering that the application of STEM contributes greatly to the economy.[2]

Non-science subjects however, play an equally important role in the economy, and indeed, the future of the world. In June of this year, the introduction of SHAPE was announced. “Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy” is a rebranding and marketing of the subjects that have been traditionally considered in competition to STEM. The hope is that our attitudes towards subjects including English, Philosophy, Economics, History, Archeology and so on, will become aligned with those across STEM. After all, the aim is that SHAPE and STEM will walk side by side complementing each other, rather than being in competition or opposition.

For the time being, SHAPE is aimed at schoolchildren and undergraduates as a way of encouraging a more positive view of these subjects; taking away previous judgment calls and showing that subjects such as Sociology, Classics, Linguistics and Languages act as important and positive steps towards a high-status career. These subjects after all, play a significant role in allowing students to develop verbal reasoning, and an understanding of society, environment and culture within a range of different contexts. Professor of Law at LSE, Julia Black points out the importance of such subjects for our future:

“It will be crucial for the future of Britain to begin to value those subjects where human behaviour takes centre stage, as well as those in which numbers and scientific properties are studied.”[3]

In other words, if we are going to build a better country in a post-COVID world, then we need to shine a spotlight on the subjects that allow people to learn how to better interrogate and make sense of the world. This could be through addressing conflicting and contested perspectives for example, or having a solid understanding of geographic and historical studies. SHAPE subjects teach us how to utilise the skills we need in order to innovate in these changing and unsettling times: the ability to analyse, interpret, construct, connect, communicate and collaborate with thoroughness and clarity. It would be naïve to not recognise that these skills are just as crucial as those emphasised in STEM, for today and the future.

Suprematist Composition by Kazimir Malevich, 1915

At the very core of KNOWLG is an understanding of how important SHAPE is to research and innovation. Indeed, KNOWLG was founded with the long-term aim of creating a space that will enable those people with highly developed SHAPE expertise to bring their experience to more industries, companies and organisations. KNOWLG brings individuals with academic-grade research experience across the social sciences, humanities and the arts to areas that might not normally have been able to access such expertise. But why does this matter?

Well, in 2017, the Chair of Arts Council England, Peter Bazalgette gave a lecture on the fundamental connection between the arts, culture and empathy.[4] The phrase ‘empathetic citizens’ was coined to describe those working across these subjects and their ability to see things from other people’s perspectives. Those of us who have spent many years, even decades working across the SHAPE landscape have fine-tuned our ability to ask the most effective research questions. This in turn allows us to best collate and critically analyse information in new ways. Creating original knowledge and insight in these ways actively moves us forward in better understanding each other and the world around us. In this way, the subjects found across SHAPE, and the research experience offered by KNOWLG, are a telling of human stories, they are about empathy, and the value of empathy is what it can lead to.


[1] C. P. Snow, 1959 The Two Cultures. Cambridge University Press. [2] R. Morgan & C. Kirby, 2016 The UK STEM Education Landscape, Royal Academy of Engineering [Accessed online: https://www.raeng.org.uk/publications/reports/uk-stem-education-landscape]. [3] V. Thorpe, 2020 University and Arts Council in drive to re-brand 'soft' academic subjects [Accessed online: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/21/university-and-arts-council-in-drive-to-re-brand-soft-academic-subjects] [4] P. Bazalgette, 2017 Arts, Culture and Empathy Lecture [Accessed online: https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Arts_culture_empathy_lecture_transcript_Final.pdf].

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