BROAD SUBJECTS HELP KEEP
US FREE FROM NARROW MINDS
08 April 1998,
distinguishes classical literature, history, music, art and
philosophy from other subjects is their intrinsic value. These subjects
important and universal simply because they have the potential to speak
people and all generations. They teach us, as much as anything can,
[Discourses, Bk II]“Only
educated are free”, says the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. By this he
that education has the potential to free us from the constraints of
culture, and nation. Education is what gives us the ability to go
own experience, to see unexpected alternatives, to think outside the
reading Anne Frank’s Diary, for example, we are transported
and space to experience what it was like to live in hiding during the
purges. By learning about discoveries such as those of Gregor Mendel or
Newton, we find it easier to face new scientific and medical challenges
famous Greek philosopher had a different view. “If you ask what is the
education in general,” wrote Plato, “the answer is easy; that
good men, and that good men act nobly.”
[Plato, Laws, Bk I, 641c.]
this view, choosing the right action and leading a good life require
all we can about the world, human nature and ethics. Just as becoming a
carpenter requires that we learn about the practice of carpentry,
good person requires that we learn about the nature of the good.
the modern period there is yet a third value attached to education.
that in order for democracy to prevail, we must all be able to read and
about a wide variety of topics. Since all laws and institutions
their foundation in the sovereign will of citizens, it is only through
educated population that democracy can flourish.
three suggestions about the value of education are no doubt
But if we accept them, we must also acknowledge that they require that
exposed to something more than narrow, technical training. All three
suggestions rely crucially upon the so-called “impractical” disciplines
humanities. They emphasize what is often called a liberal education.
far from being the centre of the modern university, as these arguments
envisage, humanities departments might rightly be characterized as the
of today’s university. Like a once prosperous city centre that has been
abandoned in the rush to the suburbs, humanities departments are among
least prosperous sectors of the university.
gap between federal funding for the humanities and for the pure
as an example. Although the Social Sciences and Humanities Research
(SSHRC) represents 55% of all students and researchers in Canada,
it funds just 5% of these students and 15% of
contrast, although the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research
(NSERC) represents only 30% of all students and researchers, it has a
four times larger than that of SSHRC. As a result, it is able to fund
the students and 60% of the researchers it represents.
it appears that we have decided that the task of maintaining the
simply not worth the money.
to emphasize this point, Ontario Premier Mike Harris recently suggested
universities might consider abandoning degrees in
the humanities. In this, he was suggesting yet another view about
which has a long tradition. This is the view that unlike the sciences,
fail to help us improve the human condition.
science we are able to harness the elements, conquer disease and master
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.
words of the 18th-century enlightenment thinker Paul-Henri Holbach,
unhappy because he is ignorant of nature.”
we do ourselves and our children a disservice when we abandon the goals
liberal education solely in favour of those of science or the
only is the current decline in funding to humanities departments across
likely to effect adversely the goals of Epictetus
and Plato, it will surely diminish our understanding of nature as well.
and the humanities are too closely linked in practice for this not to
The same connections also hold between the humanities and professional
faculties such as business, law and medicine.
to the development of such practical disciplines are so-called
skills—basic reading and writing skills, critical thinking skills, and
knowledge. Yet all of these skills come primarily from the humanities.
the practical-minded, like Premier Harris, it is worth emphasizing that
these skills that help distinguish Canada’s highly educated employees
other competing labour markets, including that of Mexico.
economically integrated, yet culturally plural world, such skills are
essential if we are to understand and communicate with people whose
and views are different from our own. Living successfully together in
global village requires an informed understanding of different ways of
liberal education helps us meet these challenges.
a Roman slave, clearly understood this. For him, education was a
of responsible world citizenship, an idea that he and his followers
so, there is one further view regarding the humanities that is worth
emphasizing. This is the view that the humanities should be studied,
any instrumental reason, but simply for their own sake. Enjoying good
literature, understanding history, studying philosophy, and
and art are all activities that serve as ends in themselves.
time when so many people find their lives unfulfilling, it is odd that,
society, we have decided to devalue those very pursuits that are of
purely for their own sake.
distinguishes classical literature, history, music, art and philosophy
other subjects is their intrinsic value. These subjects are important
universal simply because they have the potential to speak to all people
generations. They teach us, as much as anything can, about our shared
there is wide agreement that each generation has a duty to preserve our
environment for the next generation to come. It is a pity that there is
equally wide agreement about our duty to preserve those intellectual
that make up our non-physical environment. As humanities departments
greater and greater pressures to prove their relevance to specific
outcomes, it is worth emphasizing that, here too, we have an obligation
study and teach those disciplines that have formed the backbone of our
culture for over two thousand years, regardless of their short-term
we are able to read the works of Epictetus and Plato only because prior
generations over the centuries, despite every hardship, have had the
to preserve them for us. What will future generations say of us if,
unquestioned prosperity, we fail to do the same?
Irvine teaches in
of Philosophy at the University of British
Return to Academic Freedom Page