What’s the point of studying obscure topics in the arts and humanities when there seems to be no practical purpose or economic benefit for the students themselves or for the society that funds them? Six years ago the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, was happy to suggest that public funding should only support academic subjects of ‘clear usefulness’.
Nigel Biggar wonders what universities are for, and gives a beautiful reflection on the poverty of this kind of utilitarian assessment. He explains the importance of the moral education that takes place when we study histories and literatures, religions and cultures, theologies and philosophies, music and drama:
One valuable gift that the arts and humanities make is to introduce us to foreign worlds: worlds made strange by the passage of time; present worlds structured by the peculiar grip of unfamiliar languages; worlds alien to us in their social organisation and manners, their religious and philosophical convictions.
Introduction to these foreign worlds confers a substantial benefit: the benefit of distance from our own world, and thereby the freedom to ask questions of it that we could never otherwise have conceived. In foreign worlds, past and present, they see and love and do things differently. And in reflecting upon that difference, it might occur to us from time to time that they see and love and do things better. So, one precious contribution of the arts and humanities is their furnishing public discourse with the critical resources of an understanding of foreign worlds, resources vital for social and cultural and moral renewal — a renewal that deserves at least an equal place alongside scientific and technological innovation.
He develops this idea and says that it is not just about appreciating other worlds and other people but understanding how to relate to them. This is ultimately a training in virtue:
The arts and humanities not only introduce us to foreign worlds, they teach us to treat them well. They teach us to read strange and intractable texts with patience and care; to meet alien ideas and practices with humility, docility, and charity; to draw alongside foreign worlds before we set about — as we must — judging them. They train us in the practice of honest dialogue, which respects the “Other” as a potential prophet, one who might yet speak a new word about what’s true and good and beautiful.
A commitment to the truth, humility, a readiness to be taught, patience, carefulness, charity: all of these moral virtues that inform the intellectual discipline into which the arts and humanities induct their students; all of these moral virtues of which public discourse, whether in the media or in Parliament or in Congress, displays no obvious surplus. All of these moral virtues, without which this country and others may get to become a “knowledge economy”, but won’t get to become a “wisdom society”.
And public decisions that, being unwise, are careless with the truth, arrogant, unteachable, impatient and uncharitable, will be bad decisions — and bad decisions cause needless damage to real institutions and real individuals.
What I’m saying, then, is that in addition to providing talented individuals with the opportunity to grow their gifts and find a social role to exercise them; in addition to producing qualified applicants for positions in legal practice and in public administration; in addition to training the labour-force to man a high-tech, service-oriented economy; and in addition to generating new scientific knowledge with technological or commercial applications, universities exist to form individuals and citizens in certain virtues — virtues that are not just intellectual, but are also social and political.
It’s no surprise that he turns to John Henry Newman for inspiration. It will be interesting to see whether Newman’s ideas about university education get any new publicity when his beatification takes place in September.