Writing in today’s Independent on Sunday, Paul Vallely observes that there are two elements of human behaviour – the egotistical that focuses on controlling our surroundings to our advantage: wealth, success and status – and the altruistic, which seeks inner fulfilment and shows compassion for others. A new book by David Brooks, The Road to Character, apparently argues that we thrive when we keep the two in balance, but that modern society is driving the egotistical at the expense of the altruistic. I find this hard to doubt.
And so, fortuitously, a topical opening to a matter that has been preoccupying me for a while…
The drive to promote so-called STEM subjects has been going on for some time now. It appears that the government has identified them as meeting the principal needs of our economy, and therefore they are to be pushed through education. It is hard to doubt that many people with such skills are indeed needed to keep an advanced modern economy on track.
Having one finger on the pulse of our local university, it does appear that most of the funds and attention there are going into the applied sciences and business, while the arts and humanities are left to wither. One report I read a while ago suggested that there is now no state funding for degree-level humanities courses at any U.K. university; has this happened?
Furthermore, developments in secondary education – the emphasis on quantifiable linear progress, narrowly-defined learning objectives and technically derived teaching practices all appear more sympathetic to the teaching of STEM subjects than they do the liberal arts and humanities, where non-linear evaluation and personal response and interpretation are valid elements.
In a society as materially-focused as our present one, it is difficult to make the case for non-technical subjects; certainly it barely works to ‘justify’ non-material subjects in material terms. Economists have attempted to do just this – but it still somehow misses the point. It is also difficult to explain to materially-orientated children why other personal attributes may be worth having in their lives, when the mature benefits of such may be decades from fruition. (I did however, seem to hit a nerve this week, when I told a class that my ambition for them is as much to do with the personal integrity that will lead others in future to choose them as friends and partners, as how rich they may become…)
I fear we are losing something here. It is barely reasonable to argue that technical subjects are not important, but it echoes a view of the human condition that looks outward for both the sources and the solutions to its problems, perhaps even its existence. Material progress has undoubtedly greatly improved the human lot – but it has also been the cause of many of our largest problems; understanding our inner needs and responses is just as important in developing meaningful lives – let alone for addressing the roots of many global problems.
The value of the arts and humanities is not what they do directly to fix the world around us – but what they do to address our inner condition; we need to balance our attention between our personal and collective selves. But by knowing our inner selves, we also develop a more nuanced reading of the divergent positions of others. (In the same newspaper, Emma Sky relates how she struggled to persuade the American military in Iraq that the problem was more subtle than a simple good/bad dichotomy).
I am regularly left with an impression of a society which while materially prosperous, is inwardly poor – where the life of the mind and the self-knowledge it can bring is not just under-valued but not even present. Creativity and deep thought do not seem to figure widely in everyday lives – and nor do their popular expression through serious art and culture; everything is mere ‘entertainment’ now. Few children I encounter – even in their late teens – seem to have much interest in exploring such fields; everything is focussed on securing inflated material dreams.
When material comfort is now so valued – and for many, so readily available, there seems less and less need to explore the profound questions about one’s being that have traditionally been part of the educative process. While it is of course easy to over-attribute children’s insight, this may also explain the expectation amongst many that schooling is also an outwardly-experienced process, rather than something whose main effect is internal.
The fact that the political and education systems now seem intent on furthering this, in the process downgrading the arts and humanities unless they can be shown to make money – is a profound endorsement of an impoverishing process. It risks making us technically perfect – and personally vacuous. And in terms of real education, it will make our job more difficult, since cognitive development remains essentially an inward process.
We may end up knowing more than ever before about the world around us – and less than ever about ourselves.