Blaming Government, But Not Showing Why They Matter: A Critique of the Humanities

Alain de BottonIn a reflective opinion piece of 7 January 2011 in the BBC News Magazine, Alain de Botton—“philosopher and writer”—takes a sympathetic, but also sternly critical, view of the plight of the humanities under the threat of “cuts” in the United Kingdom. “If asked to apportion blame for what has happened to their departments,” he says, academics in the humanities “do not have to search long for an answer, obviously ‘the government’ is responsible. It is the government that has failed to appreciate the valuable work that the humanities do and it must therefore be scorned accordingly.” But, he continues, “at this difficult moment in the history of British universities, there is a need to acknowledge that at least some of the woes that have befallen academics is squarely their own fault. To put it at its simplest, academics in the humanities have failed to explain why what they do should matter so much. They’ve failed to explain to the government, but this really only means ‘us’ — the public at large.”

Other memorable quotes from de Botton’s piece—which strongly alludes to the defense and justification of the humanities in nineteenth-century English letters (e.g., John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold) but finishes with a surprising comparison to Oprah Winfrey—include:

“Don’t get me wrong, I care deeply for the humanities and believe they have a vital role to play in a healthy society. I just think that the way culture is currently taught in universities is a travesty of its real potential, and that the government cuts are an understandable, if not at all nice, consequence of the failure of current teaching methods and goals.”

“My personal view of what the humanities are for is simple – they should help us to live. We should look to culture as a repository of useful and consoling ideas about how to face our most pressing personal and professional issues. We should look to novels and historical narratives to impart moral instruction and edification, to great paintings for suggestions about value, to philosophy to probe our anxieties and offer consolations. It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we can emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish, unempathetic and blinkered human beings, who can be of greater benefit not only to the economy, but also to our friends, our children and our spouses.”

“Claims that culture could stand in for scripture — that Middlemarch could take up the responsibilities previously handled by the Psalms, or the essays of Schopenhauer satisfy needs once catered to by Saint Augustine’s City of God – still have a way of sounding a bit eccentric, or just insane in their combination of impiety and ambition. But I want to argue that we are wrong to be suspicious of such claims. Culture can and should change and save our lives.”

“Whatever the rhetoric of graduation ceremonies and the ambitious tone of prospectuses, there seems a strange and regrettable truth to confront about the workings of the modern university, that the institution has precious little interest in teaching us any emotional or ethical life skills – how to love our neighbours, clear human confusion, diminish human misery and leave the world better and happier than we found it.”

“We have implicitly charged our higher-education system with a dual and possibly contradictory mission, to teach us how to make a living and to teach us how to live…. How should universities be rearranged? In my view, departments should be required to identify the problematic areas in people’s lives and to design courses that address them head on…. There should be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness. A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artefacts within a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.”

“We have constructed an intellectual world whose most celebrated institutions rarely dare to ask, let alone answer, the most serious questions of the soul. Oprah Winfrey may not provide the deepest possibly analysis of the human condition, but arguably, in my view, she asks many more of the right questions than the humanities’ professors at Oxford.” (Read Alain de Botton’s full piece, titled “A Point of View: Justifying Culture”)

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