What's Gone Wrong With Arts Degrees?

What David Daintree remembers below is very similar to what I remember when I did my Arts degree in the '60s. And my regrets about what has been lost nowadays are similar. I wrote something similar to his comments in 2015

“If you had your time over again, would you do an arts degree?” That’s the question my wife put to me, and it got me thinking. It wasn’t easy to answer.

I really loved my degree in the late 60s and early 70s. It was such a joy to read what I wanted to read across such a wide range of topics.

Sure, there was a syllabus to follow and some of the material you’d prefer to avoid if you had your druthers, but there was also that feeling that disciplined and structured study was a good thing and that mental training was no less important than physical exercise.

It wasn’t just externally imposed discipline, either: true, your teachers chose the contents of your courses, but it was your choice to accept their challenge and enrol.

But things are different now. Arts faculties in universities throughout the world have strayed into the crazy world of identity. Gender and race now define us, and there’s almost no escaping from a focus on certain big-ticket issues such as Colour (black lives matter, colonialism), Gender (toxic masculinity, women’s studies), Sex (choose your own), Politics (left good, right very, very bad).

United, in partnership with this identity focus, is the post-modernist notion that rejects hierarchies of any kind. Shakespeare is not intrinsically better than Mickey Mouse, rap is as good as anything Mozart wrote (he was a white male, after all, even if he didn’t make old age), and stone-age art is right up there with Michelangelo.

These two modes of thinking (and I use the term pretty loosely) make a dangerous combination. Dangerous, that is, if you think that the major achievements of world culture have no special value and that our greatest literary and scientific achievements as a human race are of negligible worth.

Then and Now

I recall that as undergrads doing English I, we were expected to read the Prologue to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” (in Middle English, too, not in translation), four Shakespeare plays, a range of novels by authors male and female from Fielding and Richardson up to the mid-20th century, and a good selection of poetry from across the range, though focusing on the romantics.

In later years, the gaps were filled in: more Shakespeare (of course), Milton, the metaphysical poets, Pope and Dryden, and lots more novels. It was a wonderful spread.

The idea was that after three years, you would have sampled and tested for yourself the lofty peaks of English literature and many of the less exalted but important foothills as well.

Nowadays, you can do three years of undergraduate English without more than a glance at Shakespeare and the others who were once thought great. You can specialise before you can generalise. You can even do a degree in Music in some universities now without it being thought necessary to read Western notation.

In general, this deplorable tendency to deny greatness and exalt mediocrity has so far been limited to the arts faculties.

If your goal is to read Medicine or Engineering, then universities are still the best or the only places to go, though we are now starting to hear stories of architecture departments focusing on indigenous design, whatever that can mean, and Law faculties de-emphasising the study of jurisprudence and the philosophical underpinnings of law.

How many law students nowadays, I wonder, would appreciate the Christian basis of the Common Law?

I had the very good fortune to serve for several years as president of Sydney’s Campion College, Australia’s first dedicated liberal arts college.

Campion offered only one bachelor’s degree at that time, focusing on what was described as the “core” subjects—literature, history, philosophy, and theology. There were few choices within the degree—all students studied all four subjects diachronically.

This meant that Plato, Aristotle, Homer and Virgil, Thucydides and Tacitus were studied at depth in year one; the second year focused on the Middle Ages, third year centred on the moderns. I thought and still think that it was the best arts degree in the country.

By contrast, art students at mainstream universities are embarrassed by the awesomely wide choice of subjects—but how do they choose? There are so many options now, some tightly focused on women’s issues, race relations, or colonialism. Some apparently frivolous, such as rock music studies (I guess somebody has to do them) or tourism.

Are these worthy of a university? Or is it that universities have to offer them to educate or entertain throngs of people who have been told that everyone is entitled to a university degree in something or other?

Choosing more or less randomly from disparate subjects means that the broad overview is impossible unless one has the wit or is very well advised to choose wisely.

Usually, there is often no connectivity or context. History units are studied in isolation. How can you understand Australian history without a background in British history? How can you understand British History without some reckoning with Greece and Rome? How can you do any of these things without first learning to read, write, and think?

The big lie is that standards haven’t dropped. They have.

In a world obsessed with false notions of “equality”, there are now too many sociologists and criminologists and far too few apprentices and tradies to do the real work of running the country.

Psychologist and author Jordan Peterson once said that the arts faculties of the mega-universities are no longer fit for purpose.  He thought that the humane arts would survive and thrive only in small organisations, such as the liberal arts colleges, specialised institutes, and “classical” high schools that are now springing up all over the world. Every little bit counts.

I treasure a remark of Edmund Burke: “No man ever made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”



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