Saturday, 1 December 2012

Taken for Granted

Some of you will be aware I wrote recently on ARC funding for arts and humanities projects, and on the wider malaise in the university system in general.

The Australian's Bernard Lane has followed this up today, both in the print and the online versions.

It breaks my heart to do this, because I still feel like I should wade in and defend ars gratia artis, but I just can't. And no one else so far has managed to produce even a slightly convincing argument, either (I am really looking forward to the carefully-conducted and scientifically-valid published study proving that studying the history of medieval emotions has had an actual impact on the Western Australian suicide rate).

Back in the days before post-modernist relativism, we used to be able to argue that the study of the arts and humanities:
  • supported a Judeo-Christian social and ethical framework;
  • helped to make us a better society as a whole because of this;
  • also made us better people by teaching us to appreciate good art and literature, listen to good music, and read accurate and critical histories;
  • gave us as individuals and as a society a means of expressing eternal truths about life, beauty, goodness and love.
I still argue in this way, because I still believe in all those things, because I'm not a post-modernist or a relativist. But there are very few of us left in academia, or indeed at all.

So here's the thing: without the driving force of the Judeo-Christian framework, I have struggled to find any other ars gratia artis argument for the study of the arts and humanities at all. When you take arts and humanities out of their Christian framework, you are left with 'learning stuff you need to get a job', like, say, Asian languages so that you can save a planeload of people from disgruntled fellow passengers.

In this context, the study of early Jesuit emotions really does become very hard to justify. It may help you get a job as a Jesuit, but I have always understood that those positions were not advertised in the normal way.

And THIS is my point: that the grants thing is not the central problem here. It's a wider malaise, and it stems in part from the corrosive influence of relativism and secularism, and also from the bureaucratisation of the university.

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