The Value of Arts and Humanities

Over the past few years, and in particular, the last two, the meaning and function of the University as an institution and the value of Arts and Humanities have come into question. This is mainly due to the fact that everything is seen through an economic prism at the time of austerity. There are very valid reasons for this but one also has to be aware of other value systems (something that the university provides). Despite the assault on the Humanities, I believe that crisis can be something positive. It leads to us questioning our positions and beliefs, and reasserting some while leaving others behind. In this weekend’s The Guardian “Review” section Stefan Collini writes about the “use of universities”, suggesting that seeing them purely on a market-based value is misunderstanding the point of them. Collini seems positive about universities’ meaning and people’s view of them:

“Whatever the reality of the experience of actually attending one of today’s semi-marketised, employment-oriented institutions, there remains a strong  popular desire that they should, at their best, incarnate a set of ‘aspirations and ideals’ that go beyond any form of economic return.

It is crucial that attempts to make the case for universities in present circumstances should not lose sight of this deep and pervasive conviction. In saying this I am certainly not forgetting or underestimating the degree of misunderstanding and hostility that universities, in England at least, have encountered from some politicians and some sections of the media over the past two or three decades. But I suspect that among the public at large there is, potentially, a much greater reservoir of interest in, and latent appreciation of, the work of universities than this narrow and defensive official discourse ever succeeds in tapping into.”(Review, Guardian, 25.02.12, p. 4)

I hope that Collini is right in his belief in people’s appreciation of universities (I shall see what his argument is once I’ve read the book). Whatever the truth is, it is obvious that the university is a very controversial subject at the moment and the Humanities even more so. At an event organised by King’s College in 2011 “What is the public value of Arts and Humanities?” many of the speakers agreed that although we were all there because we believe in these subjects, what the we have to become better at is articulating and arguing for the value of Arts and Humanities outside our spheres of comfort. One of my favourite arguments is by the comedian Stewart Lee, where he suggests that it is impossible to engage in a discussion of the value of the arts using the language of economics.

I created this blog because I deeply believe in the value of art and literature and intellectual, critical thinking. Arts and Humanities seem to have become “The Faculty of Economically Useless Knowledge”. But art helps us to survive as humans, which is evident in memoirs of Gulag survivors (among many others) where reciting poetry and telling stories literally saved your life and figuratively your soul. If this seems far-fetched in any way, Aung San Suu Kuy has recently clarified for me the importance of literature (and BBC it seems…). In her first Reith Lecture broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on the 28th of June 2011 she spoke of the meaning of Liberty for her and the people of Burma. In this lecture she referred to several works of fiction, intellectual thought and poetry, and how these helped her throughout her years of imprisonment: “Whenever I was asked at the end of each stretch of house arrest how it felt to be free, I would answer that I felt no different because my mind had always been free.” She further explains that “an inner sense of freedom can reinforce a practical drive for the more fundamental freedoms in the form of human rights and rule of law.” This inner freedom of which Aung San Suu Kuy speaks has been supported by literature of all kinds, in her lecture she quotes works by Akhmatova, Ratushinskaya, Isiah Berlin, Kipling and Vaclav Havel. She depicts a particularly dark episode of her internment when she kept thinking to herself “this is not me” and reinforces this episode with poetry:

“At that time, I had no recollection of Akhmatova’s lines: ‘No, this is not me. This is somebody else that suffers. I could never face that and all that happened.’ It was only much later, back in my own house but still under arrest, that these words of requiem came back to me. At the moment of remembrance, I felt almost as a physical force the strong bond that linked those of us who had only our inner resources to fall back on when we were most in need of strength and endurance.”

To me, this is the value of Arts and Humanities, of literature existing in its own right, of the opportunity to study and understand it. The value of the subjects under the umbrella of “Arts and Humanities” is an internal and personal value, but one that is equal to all people. It amazes and inspires me to think that the very real struggle of the Burmese people is somehow, even if very remotely, strengthened by poetry.* This is how something as seemingly abstract as poetry is transformed into something very practical.  As Aung San Suu Kuy suggests: “Akhmatova and Ratushinskaya were Russians. Henley was English. But the struggle to survive under oppression and the passion to be the master of one’s own fate and the captain of one’s own soul is common to all races.” It is interesting that in a society that is seemingly free the value of arts is questioned, while for people in un-freedom (as Aung San Suu Kuy calls it), literature is one of the paths to freedom. Something worth thinking about more deeply perhaps?