Nuts for Winter
It is not enough to educate boys and girls for a job alone
“The Liberal Arts” is a term we hear a lot which perhaps calls for some explanation. We are not talking about precious and “arty” school subjects that students do when they can’t quite manage math and science! Though that is a common enough impression: I recall as classics master in an Adelaide school in the 70s being told by a science colleague, “This boy can’t manage Physics – he’s going to have to do Ancient History.” A couple of days later I had my chance: in a common room meeting I reported having a boy in my class who couldn’t manage History and would have to do Physics or Chemistry instead. The reaction was interesting: no guffawing laughter, no kindly touché, just astonishment that anybody could have such a silly idea.
But the liberal arts are the arts appropriate to a free man or woman. The idea is older than Cicero, though he was among the first to speak of the arts systematically. After Cicero’s time, as the world morphed into the Christian Middle Ages, they were classified into two groups, the trivium and the quadrivium, the first comprising grammar, logic, and rhetoric, the latter arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These subjects look odd to our modern eyes, but look again: they focus on the arts of thinking, writing, and persuading, in close association with calculating, measuring, and music. They encompass all the skills that separate us from the rest of creation.
As humans we have complex natures that can only achieve their potential by exercising our whole range of talents. “Man,” says Hazlitt, “is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck by the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.”
These “liberal” arts are not the preserve of a rich elite but have traditionally been taught in all our schools so that those who go on to learn a trade or profession should have a solid basis in the life of the mind, could enjoy poetry and music, could think rationally and logically, could communicate with power and conviction. It has never been enough to educate boys and girls for a job alone; they must be educated for life so that they have, if you like, nuts for winter: a store of good things to enrich and excite their minds.
But the days of the educated and cultivated doctors, lawyers, engineers, builders, cab drivers, and what have you may be numbered. Our schools seem to be finding better things to do than teach the three Rs. Post-modernism, an essentially cynical doctrine, and identity politics, with its tendency to widen the fractures in society, both powerfully influence school curricula. And at great cost: if you spend too much time studying grievances you may not learn to read and write.
University arts faculties are often even worse than schools. Free speech is suppressed, and the silencing of unpopular ideas looks frighteningly like the burning of books. Sydney University is likely to close its classics departments if the number of students drops further. Monash did the same thing decades ago.
So what? Who needs classics anyway? Very few will ever want to study Latin or Greek; most of us are content with good translations of great literature. That would be quite reasonable apart from one thing: Who is going to make those translations, to interpret ancient words for modern readers? If classics departments close, we’re a step closer to bidding good night to Homer and Thucydides, Virgil and Tacitus. If Italian departments close, farewell Dante! In every field we need our experts.
Alan Tudge, Federal Minister for Education, recently wrote this of Sir Robert Menzies:
At university, he believed deeply in free speech and the contest of ideas. He knew that universities must be spaces for argument and debate — they must be “custodians of mental liberty and unfettered search for truth.” … I frankly think he would be aghast at many of the recent trends on university campuses — of de-platforming, hostility to contrary views, and shutting down debates.
It’s not a rosy picture, but there are grounds for hope. For example, little liberal arts institutions are starting to fill the gaps. I conclude with a remark from Einstein: “The more I read the Greeks the more I realize that nothing like them has ever appeared in the world since… How can an educated person stay away from the Greeks? I have always been more interested in them than in science.”