The importance of being useless

The tide of instrumentalism threatens to engulf the UK’s higher education sector, but could a new wave of liberal arts programmes signal a return to the ancient ideal of learning for its own sake? Nigel Tubbs hopes so

October 11, 2012

Aristotle noted that the same ideas return in men’s minds, not once or twice but again and again. By the same token, does the recent introduction of named liberal arts degrees at the universities of Winchester, Exeter, Birmingham, Kent and King’s College London (and in the nascent independent Catholic Benedictus College) signal the return, again, of the ancient ideal of education as an end in itself? Put differently, and not pejoratively, does it mean the return of “useless” education?

In antiquity, a useless education was the highest and most noble form of education because it represented the genuinely free education of the genuinely free man. But such individuals were free from instrumental ends only because they owned slaves, leaving these leisured scholars uninterrupted freedom for their intellectual enquiries into the first principles of the natural universe and social life within it. This is not the definition of freedom, or of useless education, that is appropriate for a modern liberal arts education.

Perhaps the story of King Canute describes well any attempts to champion liberal arts degrees in the current educational climate. Just as Canute knew he could not command the sea, so one cannot reasonably expect to stem the tide of instrumentalism that currently overwhelms all sectors of education. Yet, like Canute, these new programmes place themselves on the seashore in full recognition of their own limitations in the face of overwhelming tidal forces. Indeed, it is possible that in the end they will be swept away like sandcastles. But the point is that, for the moment, they have placed themselves in harm’s way, saying: thus far but no further.

The risk they are taking creates the opportunity to consider what a modern liberal arts education might look like in relation to its ancient and medieval counterparts.

By late antiquity, Pythagorean, Platonic and Aristotelian liberal arts were the only game in town. The trivium - grammar, rhetoric and dialectic - carried the pursuit of virtue in the microcosm of personal and political life, while the quadrivium - astronomy, music, mathematics and geometry - expressed the natural laws of the macrocosm. Together they demonstrated the harmony believed possible between the individual and the cosmos. The goal of achieving this harmony dominated political and philosophical perspectives, as well as the three religions of the Book, over the next 1,200 years. However, the intellectual excitement that originally generated the trivium and quadrivium petrified into scholasticism and its attendant compendia. It was the Renaissance that first challenged this scholasticism, both by retrieving the humanism of liberal arts, and establishing the fine arts within it.

A further significant development was marked by Cardinal Newman’s 19th-century lectures on the idea of the university, in which he defended religious and liberal education against those for whom education should result in something that can be “weighed and measured”. Such people held as useless - useless in its disparaging and derogatory sense - any education that does not “advance manufactures, improve lands or the economy, or make men lawyers, engineers, surgeons, or scientists”. Famously, Newman defended intellectual culture and activity “as its own end”, adding that “what has its end in itself, has its use in itself also”. Two hundred and fifty years later, Rowan Williams again reminded us that “the most difficult challenge in the Western University world today is how the university avoids being completely dominated by this external pressure to produce and to offer functional training (instead of contributing to) the common culture of learning humanity”.

In the 20th century, North American higher education institutions had their own struggles between intellectual and vocational higher education. On the side of the useless was the Great Books tradition, famously championed at Columbia University, the University of Chicago and St John’s College. The debate in the 1980s and 1990s between Allan Bloom and Martha Nussbaum challenged liberal arts to open its curriculum to other cultures and traditions than that of dead white Western males, and to open its doors to all groups in North American society.

So, what contribution can the contemporary Canutes now make to the idea of liberal arts education in the UK? First, liberal arts degrees return us to the question of the dominance of subject-based study in UK university education. This approach ensures that only academic subjects, and never learning, are ends in themselves. It means, among many other things, that questions provoked in learning are not invited to transgress subject - and this also means professional - identities. But where there is learning for its own sake, the questions raised and pursued demand the right to roam; and the right to roam, to ramble, is a fundamental question of freedom, of the art of libertas.

Slowly Canute raises his arm. Is it really the case that employers recruiting for generalist graduate jobs seek subject specialist knowledge above all else? Or is it rather that they seek lively, enquiring minds, able to set out on yet-to-be defined paths, not knowing where they will lead but having faith in the process and having the skills to communicate this to others?

The current employability agenda wilfully ignores how not all graduates (or all graduate jobs) have financial reward as their priority. In their studies some students uncover a vocation for work that demands care for and service to others. Employers seeking such graduates might find in the philosophy of liberal arts education a commitment to the benevolence and wisdom required to make humane decisions within the leviathan of social welfare. And of immediate social concern, we might all see the urgent need for graduates who, faced with the temptations of self-interest that power and influence bring, understand this as living in the profound and difficult struggle for one’s own integrity. In passing, one notes the invidious employability survey which, six months after graduation, measures only salary, ignoring the positive and commendable choices - other than for salaries - that some graduates are making in the light of their higher education.

Second, the new liberal arts degrees are offering different models of liberal arts education, and this can only help to foster debate about what liberal arts education is. As in North America, there are programmes offering a major subject alongside interdisciplinary and generalist modules. At Winchester we have retained a wholly non-disciplinary model; an integrated and broadly philosophical search for the first principles of the macrocosm and the microcosm, where not the result but the search is the meaning and “use” of such an education. Discussing the merits or otherwise of each model ensures that education in itself is also education for itself, avoiding petrification into dogma.

An important part of this debate within liberal arts concerns the modern idea of freedom. While it would be unthinkable for modern liberal arts degrees to hold to ancient models of freedom based on slavery, we have to recognise that master/slave relationships still prevail in different ways in all parts of the world, and that in many of them it is the West that is the master. As we state in our core modules at Winchester, freedom is to learn, meaning both that freedom requires open and unrestricted learning and that freedom always remains something still to be learned.

Third, discussions about whether or not to introduce liberal arts degrees involve long-overdue difficulties for universities. Imagine, for example, how unseasonal, how untimely and how unrealistic it would be to remind universities of Robert Maynard Hutchins’ comment in 1936 that they should try first to have an educational policy and philosophy and only then to try to finance it. But causing the academy such difficulty and, no doubt, embarrassment is to be commended. If liberal arts is brave and foolish enough to defend useless learning then it might see universities, once again, having to ask what they and higher education are for, and whether they believe in education for its own sake, or see education only as a tool of other, more important, interests.

No one can seriously doubt the number of strictly non-educational ends that universities are accountable to: employability, student satisfaction, excellence, recruitment, Key Information Set data, research excellence framework status, research contracts, prestige in league tables - each of which claims higher education as its servant. Amid all this, liberal arts, properly thought through, stands, for a moment at least, against these ferocious currents. (One might reflect here how, on the sea of instrumentalism, the oil tankers find it almost impossible to turn, while the smaller craft, more agile and bravely piloted, can risk retrieving and can respond more quickly to core educational questions.) Discussing liberal arts education makes life more difficult for universities by taking them back, even if only briefly, to the question of the first principles of higher education. But it is a wonderful and creative difficulty, not least because the integrity of universities is to be found in the extent to which they are able to question their educational principles at the most fundamental levels.

It is very early days (this is the third year in which we have offered the course as a full degree) but our experience of teaching liberal arts at Winchester elicits some tentative observations. We have recruited students who have been through subject-based compulsory schooling and experienced it as lacking, even if in ways they could not quite articulate at the time. Some tell us now that liberal arts was what they were looking for even though they had never heard of it before. By offering an alternative, integrated approach to learning, it meets the needs of some for whom subject-based study has stifled their intellectual curiosity.

As for debts and jobs, students tell us that jobs can wait. If they are going to have to go into debt for their degree, then they are determined to spend the money on something they are really going to enjoy and that does not necessarily mean a degree directly linked to a career.

In terms of content, they welcome the integration of social and natural sciences, arts and humanities in thinking about the big questions - truth, freedom, God, justice, life and death. And they care deeply about the state of the natural and social worlds, seeking, of course, solutions to intractable problems and learning all the time of the difficulties and dangers that can be associated with “solutions”. In anticipating and recognising that students who care deeply about the world will also have experienced some of the contradictions in attempting to mend it, our recruitment literature draws attention precisely to these experiences. We state: if we are asked who might want to study liberal arts, we do not think first and foremost of subjects studied at A level. Instead we believe that our programme speaks to the mind that hears the bigger questions that formal curricula and subject disciplines imply but often suppress; to the heart that cares but suffers in caring; to the activist who finds only political impasse; to the soul that knows there is something more but not where it is or how to look for it; to the religious mind that is not sure; and to the certain mind that is not religious.

At first our students are understandably uneasy that their degree might be seen as useless. But they come to understand this ambivalence differently and begin, slowly, to defend the difficult questions that it raises. In the risks they are taking here our students are beginning, again, to find the meaning of useless education or of education for its own sake.

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