are the liberal arts in danger?

In The end of education, a review of Martha Nussbaum’s new book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities in TPN the philosophers’magazine, Nussbaum argues the case for the humanities as governments reduce funding for university arts courses, ‘sacrificing history, art and literature for science, economics and accounting.’

Of course you need to produce people who are computer scientists and engineers, but why shouldn’t they have years of general education where they learn things that equip them for citizenship and life?

Nussbaum consults for the UN and her argument for the importance of the humanities is for educated and informed citizens in a just democracy. When citizens engage with one another politically, she says, you want much more reflection and thought, and more criticism of bad arguments … You need to understand where other people are coming from, what their history is, what their experience of life is. It requires not just philosophy but history and literature.

Alain de Botton weighs in, arguing that universities have failed to deliver arts and humanities courses well and that they are partially to blame for their current slide in status Can Tolstoy save your marriage? Cultural classics offer vital questions about how to live: but our universities don’t teach them that way

The modern university has achieved unparalleled expertise in imparting factual information about culture, but it remains wholly uninterested in training students to use culture as a repertoire of wisdom … It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish and blinkered human beings

In A point of view: justifying culture de Botton argues that ‘arts subjects are being cut because those who teach them are not saying why they matter’ and that modern university education is failing us because it teaches us ‘how to earn a living but not how to live’

Listen to the podcast (approx 20 mins) of Martha Nussbaum in conversation with Alain de Botton

For a more heated view, Rob Nugent’s The decline of reading in an age of ignorance QuadrantOnline, January-February 2011. He opens with the usual complaints and evidence that in an age of so much information being accessible the internet is used mostly for porn, celebrity gossip and ‘crackpot’ science. It’s tempting to dismiss the now ubiquitous and tedious critique of online popular culture but with continued reading he does raise some interesting questions. The stats do reveal that there is a significant decline in ‘literary’ reading and the knock-on effect is a decline in reading ability. This is true at the post-compulsory ‘elite’ college and university level as well as the secondary school level. Nugent argues that in this age of opportunity instead of ‘bringing knowledge to the masses’ we have made ‘the pursuit of ignorance’ a cultural imperative.

…our contemporary intellectual elite does not represent to us a worthy democratisation of the knowledge base. Through its dismal failure to fulfil its significant function to transmit culture and history, it instead sells short the aspirations of our society in general … in the name of a spurious “relevance”, the chief channels of culture—schools, universities, the arts and literature—have followed a downward spiral into contentless, valueless and narcissistic mediocrity.

Nugent’s argument is focussed predominately on the liberal arts and in particular the teaching of history. He argues that while mathematics and the sciences still require rigorous grounding that the humanities are increasingly being seen as ‘expendable’. History courses have a thematic syllabus with little or no expectation that primary sources be consulted (‘literary reading’) nor that any sort of analytical or evaluative skills be employed when using secondary sources of information. Near the end of the (lengthy) article he makes one more interesting point.

It makes weird sense, therefore, that in our narcissistic age, while creative writing courses boom, reading withers. People want to be read, they don’t want to read. They demand an audience; they don’t want to be one.

The pursuit of knowledge, the appreciation of beauty … the ability to connect with the chain of meaning that humanity has been constructing over the millennia … these are the imperatives that we must communicate from one generation to the next. Yet this is precisely where we are failing.

To finish with a flourish, a quote doing the twitter rounds “when Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he replied “Then what are we fighting for?” (don’t ask me to source the validity of this one, but it’s a great sentiment!)

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