Novel ideas and life lessons

Narrowly vocational higher education stripped of the insights offered by the arts and humanities, particularly literature, does students in all disciplines a lasting disservice, says Roger Lister

November 11, 2010

According to a recent survey by the Sutton Trust, degrees in the arts and humanities are already becoming the preserve of the wealthy. Academics, politicians and economists agree that this is morally offensive, socially unsettling and all too often leads to the misallocation of talent. The trust suggests that candidates from lower-income families may turn to vocational degrees in the hope of improving their employability.

But these candidates may be mistaken and the best among them may find themselves at a disadvantage when seeking work. Many employers in the City prefer arts and humanities graduates on the grounds that they are more rounded, creative and articulate.

Fortunately, vocational students' disadvantage can be mitigated by requiring them to study the arts and humanities.

Several of our international competitors have taken this on board for generations, but the Browne Review threatens to push us in the opposite direction.

Its proposed cut to the current teaching grant distributed to English universities would eliminate at a stroke the state's investment in these areas. Institutions would come to depend on private individuals who wish to study the disciplines and are willing to pay for the privilege.

In her incisive 2004 book Killing Thinking: The Death of the Universities, Mary Evans, centennial professor at the London School of Economics' Gender Institute, anticipated the Sutton Trust's report and foresaw the dangerous implications of Browne Review-style arguments when she suggested that the erstwhile social elite from leading universities was already being replaced by an arts-educated cultural elite. Culture has become a valuable commodity recognisable by its original thought, clear expression and social fluency.

The implication is stark. We are in danger of producing a privileged caste of Platonic "golden souls", whose broad, imaginative minds, distinctive idiom and unmistakable tone allow them to rule those with a poorer cultural endowment. The lesser will be allowed to realise themselves, but only while contributing to the privileged existence of the rulers.

Today's disadvantaged are the graduates of degree courses that, with government encouragement, have imparted "marketable" education in the narrowest sense. Such faculties are operating as de-disciplined skills factories rather than universities.

If we encourage narrow vocational studies at university, we will stunt a generation of innovators. But this need not happen. More than 40 years ago, Lord Butler perceived the danger of dehumanising vocational graduates. Addressing a gathering of professionals and politicians, he argued that if their successors were to meet the demands of the future, they needed to have the benefit of some liberal-arts education as undergraduates.

We need to go further: arts and humanities should be compulsory in every university course. All branches of those disciplines have the power to enrich and it would be wrong to impose a particular subject on individual students. Their backgrounds and preferences would guide them to the most appropriate subject.

Mature students may wish to build on decades of dedicated leisure activity or work experience. This could take them to the visual arts, fine literature, music, history, philosophy or even theology. Younger students may be fresh from an inspiring school experience in a branch of the arts. Others may have shared their parents' enthusiasms since childhood.

Once they have chosen a subject, it is likely that they would follow one or more first-year modules in the relevant faculty. If demand were sufficient, a dedicated course could be offered, like the literature-leadership module taught by Joseph Badaracco, John Shad professor of business ethics at Harvard Business School.

Subject to overriding personal considerations, a strong case could be made for literature, which confers an armoury of benefits conducive to intellectual innovation and creativity. In addition to classic works, popular and children's literature are valuable. National and cultural boundaries should purposely be crossed.

Wherever possible, students should experience works as a whole. Instructors should resist the temptation to mine literature for examples of vocational counterparts. In his book Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership through Literature (2006), Badaracco ranges across millennia of literature to impart lessons to business students. These include morality, role models, caring, success, pragmatism and character appraisal. But as a result, the student is denied the entirety with its aesthetic, economic, social and political resonance.

A striking example of using the arts in this way is the University of British Columbia's Island Medical Program, piloted in 2008 and based at another Canadian institution, the University of Victoria. One of the aims of the programme is to enhance physicians' empathy with the dying. In one example, researchers showed doctors and medical students a suite of paintings, including Deidre Scherer's Surrounded by Friends and Family (2001), which depicts dying patients and their loved ones.

Feedback fully justified the notion. One clinician said that "having someone tell you what empathy is, is a lot different from feeling empathy ... There is just something about strong role models that gives you a feeling that you want to imitate; an inspiration that gives you the drive to learn better skills."

Another said that "art kind of gets through to that level of emotion, that place in my mind that (I couldn't have reached) without having an image to take me there".

Literature would have been even more effective. It vividly joins us in every psychological nuance and inner conflict that is experienced at the end of our lives as fear, frustration, aggression, guilt, despair, resignation, reconciliation and a thousand other emotions evolve, mix and beset us.

The European literary tradition offers three particularly apposite examples. Sterben (1895) ("Dying"), a novella written by Arthur Schnitzler (himself a doctor), traces the final phase of the dying hero's life. Schnitzler unearths emotions including pride, Liebestod, subsequent remorse and desperate anguish. The work's explicitness, depth and nuance could only have been achieved with words.

The author of Madame Bovary (1857) was also a doctor. It is impossible to read Gustave Flaubert's description of the dying Emma Bovary without experiencing a wave of empathy that will last a lifetime.

Finally, in Honoré de Balzac's Le Père Goriot (1835), we experience in its account of the hero's final hours an interweaving of banal practicalities, obsession, vanity, guilt and nobility that will be familiar to anyone who has had to watch another die.

As well as inspiring empathy by its intensity of expression, literature's ambiguity, enigmas and imagination encourage a degree of creativity and open-mindedness in problem-solving that enables graduates to climb higher in their careers.

We all remember William Blake's poem The Tyger (1794) from school and would gain from revisiting it as emotionally mature or maturing adults. Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market (1862) will never fully reveal its secret, and offers endless scope for aesthetic, psychological, social and political analysis. The business student will be interested to know that it has even been seen as a critique of exploitative advertising!

Aspiring accountants, financiers or MBAs who are exposed to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949) will be better equipped to understand employees. It is certain that they will encounter - if not themselves experience - the ageing hero's crumbling self-esteem in the face of professional and personal impotence.

Educators universally complain of students' imprecise and uncertain powers of expression. We as instructors, our textbooks and academic periodicals are all guilty of hurling gratuitous jargon and ill-structured prolixity at our learners. Confronted by Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (1949), with its simple expression and absence of verbosity, academics and students alike will wonder why we don't talk like this all the time.

In short, if the government wishes to avoid generating a workforce with unmarketable skills, insufficiently able to innovate and communicate in an informed global society, it must take on board the value of the arts and humanities in vocational studies. Its policy should be consonant with the raison d'être of the university: teaching students to use their brains.

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