Lately, there has been a proliferation of articles on popular news media sites arguing the case for the shunning of university study, in favour of alternative educational pathways (like this one), such as workplace learning. So, I thought I would make a case for the enduring relevance of higher education and university study, especially the arts and humanities.
In a so-called ‘knowledge economy’, characterised by increasing technology, rapid communications and an almost frenetic need for continuous (though not always long-sighted, logical or ethical) innovation, Higher Education is more important than ever. Whilst on the surface, the arts and humanities specifically, may appear less relevant than in previous times, I would argue that it is precisely in this current sociopolitical and economic climate that we need to make the teaching and learning of arts and humanities (via higher education) a priority.
Considered essential to the development of the ‘free person’ since classical antiquity, the arts and humanities (a key component of liberal arts education) includes the disciplines of social science, philosophy (including morality and ethics), psychology, sociology and cultural studies. Far from being irrelevant to modern commercial agendas, these subjects are vital for encouraging individuals to achieve the kind of ‘innovative thinking’ that the government and private enterprise are so terribly hungry for. As it is these disciplines that prompt individuals to move beyond rational, hegemonic economic accounts of productivity, profits, expansion and domination to ask ‘hang on a minute…what is the point of this? ‘Is this really making anyone happier, healthier, wiser or more humane?’ That is, arts and humanities subjects actively highlight the need for us to think beyond our contribution as merely Homo Economicus to ask more philosophical questions about where we are and where we might be going to, as a society. In particular, it prompts us to question the logic, reason, rationality, ethics and morality underlying what we do and what we are really up to, not just as individuals, family units, businesses, governments or societies, but as all of these things, simultaneously.
I am not suggesting that we should all return to the ways of the ancient Greeks and I am not eschewing the transformative opportunities that technology offers. Indeed, when used for the right ends and with a healthy dose of perspective, technology facilitates the exact kinds of thinking, dialogues and philosophical exchange that I am advocating for. What I am suggesting is that if the government, enterprise and individuals start turning away from Higher Education or if Higher Education yields entirely to the whims of the government or short-term business agendas, then we are in dire trouble as it is Higher Education, particularly with its teaching of the arts and humanities, that fosters ways of thinking and feeling about the world that are vital to authentic innovation. That is, the kind of innovation based on intellectual appreciation and diversity, which requires individuals to step out of their 5 year business plan and into their society and in doing so, come back to these plans with authentically fresh, and arguably more strategic, perspectives; although of course they never really left in the first place!