Liberal arts, and being literate
Some readers may have heard me tell this story before, but it’s worth a repeat. In the mid 1990s I was a Faculty Dean in the University of Hull in England, and on one occasion I was chairing an interview panel. One of the candidates had listed in her curriculum vitae that she had been a student at ‘Winifred Holtby School’. I asked her about it, and then paused to ask my fellow interviewers who Winifred Holtby was. Of the seven people on the panel, only one knew the answer, and even he didn’t know much more than that she was a novelist and that one of her novels (which he hadn’t read) was called South Riding.
You might think I was being something of a patronising git. Well, what was bugging me was that Holtby was a famous writer who was raised in the Hull area. I felt that a group of reasonably cultured academics should be more familiar with her and her work. So if you think I was behaving in a rude and pretentious manner, you wouldn’t have liked me any better in the weeks that followed. In casual conversations I began to ask colleagues about Dickens, and Shakespeare, and Mrs Gaskell, and Wilkie Collins; and then about Herman Hesse, Siegfried Lenz, Camus, Sartre, Goethe. And I formed the view that the English intelligentsia had become remarkably illiterate. When anyone knew anything at all, it tended to be because they had seen the BBC dramatisation.
Universities must of course consist of academics with quite specific expertise and skills; but I feel they should also be places of art and culture, and that this should not be confined to people working in the humanities. Furthermore, this should also apply to students, who should see higher education not simply as a path to specialisation. Perhaps we need to look again at how we structure our education system, and how we can ensure that those who graduate from it have a good level of general knowledge and an understanding of literature and the arts, as well as science and technology, before they proceed to something more specific.