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 Title

Broad Subjects Free Us From Narrow Minds

 Synopsis

Previously published in the Vancouver Sun, April 8th, 1998

 Author

Andrew D. Irvine

 Author Notes

Department of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

 Essay - 4/8/1998

"Only the educated are free", says the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. By this he means that education has the potential to free us from the constraints of class, culture, and nation. Education is what gives us the ability to go beyond our own experience, to see unexpected alternatives, to think outside the box.

By reading Anne Frank's Diary, for example, we are transported across time and space to experience what it was like to live in hiding during the Nazi purges. By learning about discoveries such as those of Gregor Mendel or Isaac Newton, we find it easier to face new scientific and medical challenges with optimism.

Another famous Greek philosopher had a different view. Says Plato, "if you ask what is the good of education in general, the answer is easy; that education makes good men, and that good men act nobly." On this view, choosing the right action and leading a good life require learning all we can about the world, human nature and ethics. Just as becoming a good carpenter requires that we learn about carpentry, becoming a good person requires that we learn about the nature of the good.

In the modern period there is yet a third value attached to education. This is that in order for democracy to prevail, we must all be able to read and think about a wide variety of topics. Since all laws and institutions ultimately find their foundation in the sovereign will of the people, it is only through an educated citizenry that democracy can flourish.

These three suggestions about the value of education are no doubt inter-connected. But if we accept them, we must also acknowledge that they demand that people be exposed to something more than narrow, technical training. All three suggestions rely crucially upon the so-called impractical disciplines of the humanities. They emphasize what is often called a liberal education.

Yet far from being the centre of the modern university, as these arguments envisage, humanities departments might rightly be characterized as the ghettos of today's university. Like a once prosperous city centre which has been abandoned in the rush to the suburbs, humanities departments are among the least prosperous sectors of the university.

The gap between federal funding for the humanities and for the pure sciences serves as an example. Although the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) represents 55% of all students and researchers in Canada, it funds just 5% of these students and 15% of these researchers. In contrast, although the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) represents only 30% of all students and researchers, it has a budget four times larger than that of SSHRC. As a result, it is able to fund 20% of the students and 60% of the researchers it represents. Collectively, it appears that we have decided that the task of maintaining the humanities is simply not worth the money.

As if to emphasize this point, Ontario Premier Mike Harris recently suggested that Ontario universities might consider abandoning degrees in the humanities. In this, he was suggesting yet another view about education which has a long tradition.

This is the view that unlike the sciences, the humanities fail to help us improve the human condition. Through science we are able to harness the elements, conquer disease and master nature. It is through science that we are able to learn about everything from earthquakes to penicillin. In doing so, we improve our quality of life. In the words of the 18th-century enlightenment thinker Paul-Henri Holbach, "Man is unhappy because he is ignorant of nature."

However we do ourselves and our children a disservice when we abandon the goals of a liberal education solely in favour of those of science or the professions. Not only is the current decline in funding to humanities departments across Canada likely to effect adversely the goals of Epictetus and Plato, it will also diminish our understanding of nature as well. Science and the humanities are too closely linked in practice for this not to occur.

The same connections also hold between the humanities and professional faculties such as business, law and medicine. Essential to the development of such practical disciplines are so-called transferable skills -- basic reading and writing skills, critical thinking skills, and general knowledge. Yet all of these skills come primarily from the humanities. For the practical-minded, like Premier Harris, it is also worth recalling that it is these skills which help distinguish Canada's highly educated employees from many other competing labour markets, including that of Mexico.

In an economically integrated, yet culturally plural world, such skills are also essential if we are to understand and communicate with people whose backgrounds and views are different from our own. Living successfully together in the global village requires an informed understanding of different ways of life. A liberal education helps us meet these challenges.

Epictetus clearly understood this. For him, education was a precondition of responsible world citizenship, an idea that he and his followers introduced.

Even so, there is one further view regarding the humanities which is worth emphasizing. This is the view that the humanities should be studied, not for any instrumental reason, but simply for their own sake. Enjoying good literature, understanding history, studying philosophy, and appreciating music and art are all activities which serve as ends in themselves.

At a time when so many people find their lives unfulfilling, it is odd that, as a society, we have decided to devalue those very pursuits which are of value purely for their own sake. What distinguishes classical literature, history, music, art and philosophy from other subjects is their intrinsic value. These subjects are important and universal simply because they have the potential to speak to all people and all generations. They teach us, as much as anything can, about our shared humanity.

Today there is wide agreement that each generation has a duty to preserve the natural environment for the next generation to come. It is a pity that there is not equally wide agreement about our duty to preserve those intellectual achievements which make up our non-physical environment. As humanities departments face greater and greater pressures to prove their relevance to specific vocational outcomes, it is worth emphasizing that, here too, we have an obligation to study and teach those disciplines which have formed the backbone of our common culture for over two thousand years, regardless of their short-term consequences.

Today we are able to read the works of Epictetus and Plato only because prior generations over the centuries, despite every hardship, had the foresight to preserve them for us. What will future generations say of us if, given our unquestioned prosperity, we fail to do the same?


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