As the new year begins and humanities and social science undergraduates across Canada return to campus, they will face the usual robust combination of academic pressure, parental anxiety over their future employability, nervousness over mounting debts and the inevitable recitation of that tired and toxic mantra: “How many sociologists do we need, anyway?”
They will have been steeled to face the scrutiny of their professors and the apprehension of their parents. However, the incomprehension and parochialism of the commentators, policy wonks and self-labelled enlightened pragmatists who call into question the validity of their studies is both dispiriting and frustrating.
Unpersuaded by the compelling philosophical and social arguments that undergird the continuing relevance of a liberal arts education, and determined to place utility and rationalization of services as the premier determinants of higher education, the critics can easily assail the productivity value of a traditional liberal arts education. They simply point to economic data that shore up theirs as the only common-sense position in a time of global upheaval.
In other words, reading Schopenhauer, exploring the relationship between Freud and Jung, studying patterns of exile in the new breed of Canadian novelist or probing the sublime beauty of a late Beethoven piano quartet are nice, but indulgent – a waste of taxpayers’ money and a dereliction of responsibility at a time when the economic engine requires nothing higher than entrepreneurial spirit.
But here’s an idea: a social sciences and humanities education as a corrective to political tyranny.
The recent deaths of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and former Czech president Vaclav Havel provide an arresting example of the formative power of education. Mr. Kim and Mr. Havel were dramatic contrasts in style of governance, liberality of mind and openness to new thinking, but they can also serve as case studies of the myopic and deadening education of the technocrat as opposed to the expansive and liberating education of the playwright-essayist.
Admittedly, being a technocrat is not a bad thing; the governments of Greece and Italy have replaced their respective prime ministers, George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi, with technocrats Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti. But the latter are economists and not party functionaries like Mr. Kim, who was adept enough to charm former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright and others with a self-deprecating manner and a familiarity with pop culture, all the while remaining a dangerous political fantasist.
A liberal arts education is not an automatic guarantor of an emancipated intellect or an enlightened sensibility. You have to work at it. In fact, Mr. Havel was prevented from studying the humanities at university for political reasons, an early indicator for him that the authorities appreciated the subversive potential of such an education. But the capacity of a writer and political thinker like Mr. Havel to usher in a new and bloodless era by symbolizing the conscience of freedom-enamoured Czechs would be unthinkable were it not for his exposure to a tradition of learning that is not subservient to a prevailing political ideology, that is deeply humanist in its core, steeped in the writings of extraterritorial thinkers not held hostage to the orthodoxy of the moment.
North Korea’s Dear Leader may have been an obsessive devotee of Hollywood B movies, thereby giving him a mite of aesthetic relief from the grey madness of Pyongyang, but Mr. Havel brought down an oppressive system through his art and witness.
So, when next a young sociology undergraduate is critiqued in the manner of Peter Shaffer’s Austrian emperor in Amadeus, who observes to a puzzled Mozart that his just-debuted work has “too many notes,” the student might respond that there are as many sociologists as it takes to keep us free.
Michael W. Higgins is an author and past president of two Canadian liberal arts universities.
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