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.

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41 Comments on “Liberal arts, and being literate”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Did you get a lot of Christmas cards that year, I wonder Ferdinand? You identify literate with familiarity with literature i.e. fiction, drama, poetry. But why not Darwin, Einstein, Adam Smyth, Mach, Feynman and any of the many other scientists who have written eloquently? I have read a lot of the latter and not too many of those that you mention but I am certainly not illiterate. So why is ignorance of the sciences implicitly acceptable (-just for nerds) but knowledge of literature not?

    • Vincent Says:

      This is why,

      Under Ben Bulben


      Swear by what the sages spoke
      Round the Mareotic Lake
      That the Witch of Atlas knew,
      Spoke and set the cocks a-crow.

      Swear by those horsemen, by those women
      Complexion and form prove superhuman,
      That pale, long-visaged company
      That air in immortality
      Completeness of their passions won;
      Now they ride the wintry dawn
      Where Ben Bulben sets the scene.

      Here s the gist of what they mean.


      Many times man lives and dies
      Between his two eternities,
      That of race and that of soul,
      And ancient Ireland knew it all.
      Whether man die in his bed
      Or the rifle knocks him dead,
      A brief parting from those dear
      Is the worst man has to fear.

      Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,
      Sharp their spades, their muscles strong.
      They but thrust their buried men
      Back in the human mind again.


      You that Mitchel’s prayer have heard,
      ‘Send war in our time, O Lord!’
      Know that when all words are said
      And a man is fighting mad,
      Something drops from eyes long blind,
      He completes his partial mind,
      For an instant stands at ease,
      Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.
      Even the wisest man grows tense
      With some sort of violence
      Before he can accomplish fate,
      Know his work or choose his mate.


      Poet and sculptor, do the work,
      Nor let the modish painter shirk
      What his great forefathers did.
      Bring the soul of man to God,
      Make him fill the cradles right.

      Measurement began our might:
      Forms a stark Egyptian thought,
      Forms that gentler phidias wrought.

      Michael Angelo left a proof
      On the Sistine Chapel roof,
      Where but half-awakened Adam
      Can disturb globe-trotting Madam
      Till her bowels are in heat,
      Proof that there’s a purpose set
      Before the secret working mind:
      Profane perfection of mankind.

      Quattrocento put in paint
      On backgrounds for a God or Saint
      Gardens where a soul’s at ease;
      Where everything that meets the eye,
      Flowers and grass and cloudless sky,
      Resemble forms that are or seem
      When sleepers wake and yet still dream.
      And when it’s vanished still declare,
      With only bed and bedstead there,
      That heavens had opened.
      Gyres run on;
      When that greater dream had gone
      Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude,
      Prepared a rest for the people of God,
      Palmer’s phrase, but after that
      Confusion fell upon our thought.


      Irish poets, earn your trade,
      Sing whatever is well made,
      Scorn the sort now growing up
      All out of shape from toe to top,
      Their unremembering hearts and heads
      Base-born products of base beds.
      Sing the peasantry, and then
      Hard-riding country gentlemen,
      The holiness of monks, and after
      Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;
      Sing the lords and ladies gay
      That were beaten into the clay
      Through seven heroic centuries;
      Cast your mind on other days
      That we in coming days may be
      Still the indomitable Irishry.


      Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
      In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
      An ancestor was rector there
      Long years ago, a church stands near,
      By the road an ancient cross.
      No marble, no conventional phrase;
      On limestone quarried near the spot
      By his command these words are cut:
      Cast a cold eye
      On life, on death.
      Horseman, pass by!

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      For most of its long history in English, literate has meant only “familiar with literature, only since the late 19th century has it come to refer to the ability to read and write. Granted, it would be good for an ‘educated’ individual to know the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the point however is a slightly different one: the ‘authors’ which make up the (nation’s)literary canon (and we might dispute such canon for its limitations) have contributed to shape our sense of identity, losing them would be losin part of ourselves…C.P. Snow has been rightly mentioned below, in today’s world, however, the gap between the two cultures is getting narrower, the term ‘digital arts’ (apparently an oxymoron)is there to prove it..

  2. Al Says:

    “will it be coming up on the exam?”

  3. copernicus Says:

    “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”

    The above does not mean studying liberal arts degree. I studied Sanskrit, Eastern and Western Philosophy, English Literature as well as Electronic Engineering and Computing. But these were not under liberal arts framework. The opportunity for the broader knowledge is in secondary school mainly at GCSE and AS levels. My son took Biology, Chemistry and English Literature in his AS levels.

    I spent a few years in America after my graduate studies and took sabbaticals there since many times. The problem with their broader liberal arts course is that the students say for example who apply for MS degree in computing come with inadequate knowledge of mathematics and some critical areas in computing and have to take undergraduate modules (courses over there) to supplement their background and to meet the prerequisites for the higher graduate level core modules.

    At the same time we should also ask how amny of those studying arts and humanities know about aspects of mathematics, genetics and computing for example. When the professor of philosophy was taken ill in Stirling university once in 1980s, I as a computer science academic, but some who knew Eastern Philosophy, was asked to step in to cover his lectures and tutorials. I can tell you the general knowledge of these students and the staff were not good in areas of sciences and technology when I attempted to give some comparative examples.

  4. Richard Says:

    I do agree with you that scientists should strive to be more literate; I am often surprised, not so much by the lack of knowledge, but the lack of curiosity, that many (but by no means all) of my colleagues show towards the humanities. But one should also keep in mind C.P. Snow’s famous dictum about scientific illiteracy:

    “A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

  5. Aidan Says:

    The problem with what you are suggesting is that it supposes that there is a body of literature that one must be familiar with. I don’t agree with this at all. I have studied science, engineering and an MBA in the past so my broad exposure to literature was at second level. Even there though choices must be made. Why did we study poems by Auden, McNeice and Keats but nothing by great American poets like Whitman or Elizabeth Bishop or even Sylvia Plath?
    Of course the reason is that choices must be made. School gives you a flavour of what English literature is out there, the rest is up to you.
    I am actually at the start of an OU degree in English Language and Literature now and many of those you mention are on the sysllabus. However, it is unreasonable to expect that everybody will be familiar with all of the supposed ‘greats’.
    Quite often I mention my favourite authors to people and they haven’t even heard of them. That doesn’t mean that I am more literate it just means that I have chosen a different selection from the millions of works published in English and other languages.

  6. copernicus Says:

    @Aidan I agree with you. My concern has always been when the argument of broad-based curricula and liberal arts concepts are thrown in, it always comes from the people in arts and humanities who think that it is the scientists and engineers who should be broadening their knowledge and not them!
    Also, when they bring in terms like ” critical analysis” , they seem to suggest only they are doing it and there is no critical analysis in science and engineering.

    I mentioned Stirling university, which in my time of mid-1980s, there arguably had the most broad-based courses with joint courses with different humanities and science departments. Except quite a few science students, who with advice from us the science academics took joint courses with humanities, most students in humanities shunned these joint courses with science departments and their tutors did not see it fit to advice them the way we wanted our science students to have broad-based curriculum. Hence I am not prepared to take a lecture on broad-based curricula when it comes from some one from humanities who has not even touched basic sciences.

    But while talking about English Literature

  7. copernicus Says:

    I am sorry to have not continued the last sentence.

    But while talking about English Literature, one can see ignorance there too in terms of period, genre etc.., and have seen people who have not read some authors, poets etc.. It was an eye opener for me when my son took English Literature ( with sciences)in his A-level and attempted to compare the specific novels of Bronte sisters with Hardy’s novels using a few specific criteria. The arguments he had with so called experts in English Literature was very revealing!!

  8. copernicus Says:

    Should be “were”. We could do with a preview facility here.

  9. copernicus Says:

    A few years ago, we were involved in reviewing A level marks in an English examination board. In a paper on English language and literature, the students who answered questions on Chaucer score high marks, whilst those who did a good analysis of Pope’s satire were placed in mark B band. almost as one person, the 4 examiners who were involved, said that Pope was not their cup of tea.

  10. Ernie Ball Says:

    The reason it is the scientists and engineers (and economists and others) who are held to need the broadening that the humanities provide is quite simple. Scientists and engineers are products of one particular ideology among the multitude of such ideologies in human history: The Enlightenment. Economists are nearly universally Utilitarian in their outlook. Competent students in the humanities will be familiar with these ideologies, even where they haven’t read Einstein, Mach or even Kuhn and Pierre Duhem (all of which I recommend). Those specialising in science or economics won’t be familiar with alternative ways of thinking about the world like Romanticism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism, Pragmatism, Marxism, etc. etc.

    We live in an era when one ideology–Economism–is absolutely dominant. The recent crisis has done nothing whatever to shake it. Quite the contrary. It holds that the only ultimate justification for anything (for learning anything in particular) is an economic one. In this context, the call for the sort of broadening that the humanities provide is not only a nicety for the elites. It is absolutely necessary for all.

    • Ernie, I actually agree with much of what you say above. However, economics (‘economism’) is not an ideology. The predominance of economics discourse can be traced back to two writers with hugely different ideological perspectives: Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Both had very different outlooks, but agreed on one thing: economics is everything.

      • copernicus Says:

        “the reason it is the scientists and engineers (and economists and others) who are held to need the broadening that the humanities provide is quite simple”

        I have heard this before. Hence I do mnot have much time for those hardcore arts and humanities zealots.

        • copernicus Says:

          Also, the shrinking arts and humanities faculties in universities in England is because of the inability of the academics to change what they practice and preach, and more often we find this bunch in the thick of protests as they are not only insecure but inflexible.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          Is that what counts as a refutation in whatever domain it is that you work in?

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        Economics is not an ideology. “Economism” most certainly is. It is the idea that the Master Science is economics and therefore that the ultimate tribunal before which any human undertaking must justify itself is the economic one. In our universities this ideology takes the form of an insistence that only research that has an economic return is “worth” pursuing (for the economists are the ones to tell us what things are worth). And only subjects that lead directly to employment prospects are worth teaching: To quote former FG Education Spokesman Brian Hayes, interviewed on this blog: “I think the idea that we offer courses on subjects where there are few available jobs is not viable.”

        I don’t believe this ideology is one shared by Karl Marx. Marx, at least in some of his writings, believed in economic determinism but that doesn’t imply that the economic is the only thing that matters in human existence as today’s dominant ideology does or that the arts, for example, are ultimately the simple reflection of the economic conditions of their production. In the Grundrisse he writes: “As regards art, it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society; nor, do they therefore to the material substructure, the skeleton as it were of its organisation. For example the Greeks compared with modern [nations), or else Shakespeare.”

        Indeed, Marx was highly critical of “commodity fetishism” whereby things that are properly conceived as means to other ends are instead thought to be ends in themselves (money, grades for today’s students, etc.) and quite cognizant of the distinction between use value and exchange value. Today’s Economism assumes that exchange value is the only kind of value there is. This position was prophesied by Marx but cannot be attributed to him.

  11. I recall one physics lecturer who, as a pre Christmas treat read the class some Virgil. In Latin.
    To a man the class presented a most convincing illusion of attentiveness and comprehension. The gentleman in question taught quantum physics, so we had a lot of practice at looking engaged when we didn’t have a glimmer what was going on.

    • copernicus Says:

      I took a quantum mechanics course which was delivered by the late great Richard Feynman and his group, mostly the latter and the great master used to drop in now and then. His explanation of hard to grasp and highly mathematical aspects of quantum electrodynmamics with examples of everyday world was breath-taking. His examples ranged from arts to biology to physical world.

  12. Aidan Says:

    A Professor at the University of Amsterdam called Rens Bod ( just brought out a book about the artificial distinction between the Humanities and the Sciences called “The Forgotten Sciences”.
    Ome of the things he emphasizes is that may of the great scientists were also engaged in other disciplines “Newton, for example, was a philologist, Descartes was a philosopher as well as a mathematician and Galileo also studied with musicology.”
    Personally I think that I have to agree with Copenicus that the Arts disciplines seem to think that those in the Sciences should understand more about their areas but they are unwillingly to tackle more mathematical or scientific disciplines themselves. Personally I think that all school leavers should have a college education in line with the US model because creative analytical thinking needs a combination of skills. The idea that a lawyer might have a primary degree in chemistry is reassuring. It seems crazy to specialize as early as Irish and British students do.

    • anna notaro Says:

      this is the idea of the Renaissance Man (term based on scholars of the European Renaissance who pursued multiple fields of studies. Quintessential renaissance man being Leonardo Da Vinci, master of art, engineer,anatomy expert etc.etc.. The term has known a revival nowadays with the advent of digital technologies in that ever more artists master programming/software etc (see my mention of the digital arts above). This is an era of ‘convergence’ not only of technical platforms, but of various knowledges as well – for those open minded enough to embrace such possibilities, of course..

  13. Aidan Says:

    Thanks, they are very interesting examples of cross-domain convergence. When the discovery of the bacteria with phospohorus-based DNA was reported last night I was really impressed that the NASA scientist had imagined that this type of life might exist before going to look for it. The ability to imagine multiple outcomes is something that can comes from exposure to different domains so that;s why it saddensme that people specialize too early and maybe miss out on possibilities to enrich their thinking.

  14. copernicus Says:

    For those so called open minded academics in humanities, how many of them have even strayed into hard sciences? I have yet to come across one. Open mindedness applies both to scientists and technologists as well as those who are confined to their own world of arts and humanities and think that open mindedness never applies to them because they can always say it is the former whose horizon should be broadened.

    • anna notaro Says:

      excellent example of open-mindedness at work :)a ‘close reading’ (in the humanities meaning of the term) of my sentence above would have noticed that I had left ‘those open minded enough’ generic, i.e, applying to those with either background, humanities and sciences..That such a comment then comes from somebody who has chosen Copernicus as nick (Copernicus being among the great polymaths of the Renaissance, mathematician, astronomer, physician, quadrilingual polyglot, classical scholar, translator, artist,Catholic cleric, jurist, governor, military leader, diplomat and economist) is rather ironic, to say the least..

      • copernicus Says:

        A very touchy humanities person in action. I would like to know what you know by way of sciences? I have laid out above my credential on the table- scientist in pure and applied sceinces areas, Eastern Philosophy, Sanskritist,.. I could ad more…By then over to you by way of sciences.

        • copernicus Says:

          I can ask you one specific question. How much do you understand the research work of Professor Graeme Hardie of Life Sciences in Dundee?

  15. Aidan Says:

    Funnily enough there are lots of people working in IT and scientific disciplines on the Arts course I am doing through the OU. I have yet to meet somebody going in the other direction though.
    I think that it is because people are so scared of mathematics. This post was about literacy but a lack of numeracy in society is equally problematic (e.g. try arguing with somebody about the benefits of nuclear power vis à vis wind power who is incapable of understanding the cost/benefit analysis, you will inevitably end up in a very emotive, irrational discussion) .

    • copernicus Says:

      I worked in OU for 10 years and know it well. I know a retired academic in computer science taking a masters course in Politics of the East. Another Database expert is studying Kant. There are a very few in arts and humanities (those in arts may dabble with computer software packages and that is all), even interested in sciences. Mathematics perhaps is an excuse, but why not stray into biological sciences?

  16. copernicus Says:

    @Ernie Ball. My domains are clearly laid out@ sciences and applied sciences including computer science and electrical and electronic engineering, as also in no small measure Eastern Philospohy and Sanskrit. As for refutation, the silence from the poster in respect of answer to my query after mocking my moniker is the proof. By the way, Dundee University should be proud in having the person of the stature of Prof Graeme Hardie, who could very well be the next Nobel prize winner for his AMPK work. Equally his colleague, Sir David Lane also of the same department, the discovere of P53 tumour -suppressor gene,is a potential Nobel Prize-winning scientist.

    • wendymr Says:

      he silence from the poster in respect of answer to my query after mocking my moniker is the proof.

      Perhaps it’s that not everyone has the abundance of free time which you apparently have and which enables you to dominate every post on this blog at present.

      • copernicus Says:

        I do not recollect to have had any arguments with you unless there is a name change which I failed to notice. I must have touched many humanities academics’raw nerves.

  17. cormac Says:

    My experience in Ireland is genrally quite different: we tend to be very aware of our writers (and musicians), with summer schools and festivals celebrating their status (who was Willlie Clancy?)
    On theoherhand, we pay extremely little attentio to our scientists and engineers – few can name even one irish scientist live or dead

    • Hm, Cormac. If I were to stand up in a crowded room of academics and ask who knew who Maria Edgeworth was, I wonder how many hands would be raised. And if I asked about George Boole?

      • copernicus Says:

        We should not also forget how Ireland helped that great scientist, Noble Prize-winning Erwin Schrodinger by inviting him and giving him the facilities to develop his Institute of Advanced Studies, at a time when the scientist was not really happy in USA.

      • Rachel Says:

        I would think that most academics in Ireland have probably heard of both Edgeworth and Boole, and that many more would be able to name a piece of work by Edgeworth than one by Boole.

  18. Rachel Says:

    Maybe you are right Ferdinand – if so I am happy that people know about the work of Boole! The argument about whether ignorance of literature or ignorance of science is more impoverishing and dehumanizing is itself a bit impoverishing in my opinion – surely our business is to seek and communicate understanding in whatever area(s) we can. That is always enriching and humanizing (if that is a word) whether it’s chemistry or classics. People are moved in different ways by different things. All of it is important and necessary. It’s time for us to stand up for academia as a whole and stop arguing amongst ourselves about whether scientists or humanists are more enlightened.

    • I agree, Rachel – and I have never suggested that one group of academics or intellectuals is better or more important or more enlightened than any other. I agree also that science and engineering have as much a claim to be noticed by the educated public as arts and humanities. However, I was not talking here about people’s awareness of the academic canon of any discipline, but their connection with culture; and culture does of course include some seminal scientific literature.

      • Rachel Says:

        Indeed I am sorry Ferdinand if you thought I was implying that you had suggested such a thing. My comment was meant as a general remark on the whole discussion.

  19. kevin denny Says:

    So how many academics in the room would have heard of Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, nephew of Maria? Edgeworth is a hugely influential figure in economic theory, his Mathematical Psychics is a classic in early mathematical economics. His contributions to statistics, such as Edgeworth expansions, are also widely used. The Edgeworth Chair in Economics at Oxford is named in his honour. FY is probably much more influential in his field than his aunt is in hers, yet he is not well known in Ireland.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Thanks for that Kevin. I can genuinely say I have never heard of FY Edgeworth, and am glad that I now have. Was he born in Ireland, or see himself as Irish? I don’t think I have ever heard of anyone called Ysidro either.

      So, 2 new bits of knowledge for the day (more than I have learned from reading emails) and off home to assimilate something else, probably related to the physical properties of snow🙂

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