Liberal arts

Over the past year, I have had a few different ideas about how to save the world and get a Phd simultaneously. This combination of world-saving and self advancement is perhaps not intuitive, but I won’t go into a critique of capitalism at the moment. What I will go into is my long-held belief that education, done well, could help to address a lot of the sociological and cultural problems that sprout up locally, nationally and globally. My initial thoughts on dialogue across boundaries (social, religious, economic, ethnic, political, etc.) was that it was best begun in schools…partly because attendance is compulsory, but mostly because we would want to instil in young people the skills, abilities and habits to critically assess their own and others’ statements and beliefs, and external input generally.

I then began thinking about other aspects of education, particularly liberals arts. There had been some chat in the media about threats to funding for liberal arts in schools and universities, which I had registered but not engaged with. In fact, I hate to admit it, but my two degrees and journal publication not withstanding, I have never seriously thought about why anyone should study literature. Neither can I remember any teachers, from Kindergarten to university, expounding on why we were reading literature or what it could possibly do for us. The closest I got was a vague sense that this was (in a phrase I never heard as a student) cultural capital, and was just stuff that people would expect me to know. In fact, along with the occasional music lesson, it felt more like a process of getting students up to speed on what was going on in western society to date, with critical viewpoints or contextualisation left up to the historians. For me personally, I just enjoyed it.

When I did start thinking about whether education could help in a long-term overhaul of the polarisation and isolation evident in American (and other western) societies, I was reminded of a couple articles I had read about the power of novels to increase readers’ empathy or emotional intelligence (see here and here). Wanting to know more, I read Empathy and the Novel, which ties a lot of research in the field together. And I realised that part of the reason that I was so intrigued by this idea was that, when considering different issues that I have been confronted with, I often draw on the immersive experience of reading. It helps me to understand why people do ethically or morally troubling things; it helps to understand the lived experience of poverty or abandonment or war; it helps to simply remind us that everyone has a complex interior life.

So I thought about a longitudinal project that studied undergraduates’ levels of empathy throughout a literature course and what other factors came into play (reflection, discussion, etc.). But this idea was a bit too tangential for me in my increasingly alarmed state (as 2016 progressed, and I use the term in the temporal sense only). I wanted something that would get closer to what I wanted to achieve (and involved fewer privileged white students reading primarily privileged white authors, etc.), so my thoughts moved on. But as a concept, I had come to have much more respect for literature as doing something in society. I also began to consider how the approaches learnt in what might be considered esoteric subject like philosophy and Classics were transferrable to life generally–critical attitudes, ability to discuss different opinions with others, integrity, research, etc.

These are the qualities and skills sought by employers recruiting our students (the aforementioned predominately white and privileged ones) to management-track jobs in London. But there seems to be a shift–whether or not it’s related to the reported threats to liberal arts generally (and the actual cutting of some A-levels)–toward less nuanced job-focussed bachelor’s degrees. Alarm bells rang for me when I read JISC’s visions for HE in 2020 and 2030. There was a prevalent theme that suggested that the purpose of education is to directly prepare a student for a job. The idea that a university education was preparing students for Life–civic, personal, cultural and global as well as professional–was almost absent. Instead, it was imagined that every student would do a work placement as part of their degree, and every employer would be able to see a detailed portfolio of the student’s progress through the degree. So we’re back to capital.

I’m not so concerned about what came first (the increasing prioritisation of job-focussed education or the sidelining of liberal arts), but what it will mean if it keeps on going. Will this be another example of slow migration from whole-person education to machine-cog production? Has the term ‘liberal’ doomed us already?

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