Study of the arts cannot claim to be essential to democracy or economic success but it is the intrinsic value of the arts that keeps us coming back.
Arts and humanities departments in universities are under siege. Public expenditure on culture is increasingly scrutinised and there has been a move towards a more instrumental view of education.
When people defend the study of arts and humanities, they usually talk about the fact that they can improve students’ employment prospects or career development. It is increasingly rare for people to defend them based on their intrinsic value.
But defending the arts and humanities in terms that sidestep their intrinsic value and their unique qualities creates a hostage to fortune. The arts and humanities cannot claim to be essential to democracy, economic success and social wellbeing.
It is the intrinsic value of the arts and humanities that keeps us coming back to them. For many of us, the human desire for knowledge, stimulation, understanding, pleasure and enlightenment is fed by our engagement with the arts, literature, history or philosophy.
We enjoy examining in depth something that is worthy of our time and judgment and that rewards concentration and application.
Our human world
The arts and humanities are special because they investigate, excavate, create, critique and celebrate the many achievements, ideas and values of our human world. At their most challenging, they grapple with the problem of the human condition.
But when we come to talk about this we get embarrassed and anxious about seeming elitist.
However, university humanities departments have made efforts to make sure they no longer smack of elitism, setting up courses to cater for students who do not want to spend their time studying Victorian novels, romantic poetry, Renaissance sculpture or Aristotelian philosophy.
Researchers are becoming adept at writing research grant applications that demonstrate how their work has social or economic relevance and potential impact. No one is intrinsically incapable of enjoying art, literature, music or philosophy, and a traditional purpose of education has been to help them to do that.
Evidence from the huge range of publications that come out of universities every year shows how much the arts and humanities expand our horizons and challenge our preconceptions. Recent examples that I enjoyed include philosopher John Armstrong’s In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea, which offers a refreshing defence of the idea of civilisation, and Helen Small’s The Value of the Humanities, which provides an exploration for the reasons we study humanities within an historical context.
In a year when we commemorate World War I, Kate McLoughlin’s book Authoring War shows how the literary form is uniquely “sensitive to the fragmenting effects that war has on individual lives, communities, the body, and the environment”. And Prue Shaw’s Reading Dante brings Dante’s Inferno alive for the modern reader. Without arts and humanities departments in universities many of these books wouldn’t exist. Such departments afford an important sphere of freedom in which students and academics can delve into the past, re-evaluate assumptions, grapple with difficult and complex ideas developed and expressed by artists, writers and thinkers, and challenge existing orthodoxies.
The arts and humanities embrace much of human life, and study in them filters into society, feeding our desire for knowledge and understanding, encouraging us to rethink our own ideas and assumptions. At their best they can engage us in a continuous search to understand the human condition. – © Guardian News and Media 2014.
Wendy Earle is knowledge exchange manager at Birkbeck, University of London