Fatal Error: Universities Have Stopped Teaching HOW To Think

David Butterfield’s recent Critic article on the declining interest in humanities points out that humanities graduates get fewer job offers and earn lower salaries compared to their peers in STEM subjects. This market signal is not lost on government departments that fund universities and on students who enrol in them. Where funding leads, students follow. So much for the symptoms. And what have humanities departments done to reverse this trend? To make up for lost appeal, humanities jump on the bandwagon of issues that look relevant — diversity, decolonisation, or whatever other buzzword of the day comes along. 

For Butterfield, the root cause of the crisis in the humanities is that by trying to be all things to all men humanities suffer “a loss of shared purpose.” He mentions J.H. Plumb mapped out this decline in 1964. Already then, in other words, humanities were losing their mojo. David Butterfield suggests humanities will get back their oomph if they “open up the accumulated wealth of literature, art and culture to allow for profound exploration of these questions — about what is good or bad, beautiful or perverse, worthwhile and salutary or pointless and destructive.” Butterfield invokes Cicero’s studia humanitatis in ancient Roman times and would update the artes liberales with readings of timeless literatures produced since then.

H. Plumb was not the first voice of disquiet over the fate of the humanities. In 1870 John Ruskin wrote that Oxford University had for the “for discipline of intellect … substituted hurried courses of instruction in knowledge supposed to be pecuniarily profitable; stimulated by feverish frequency of examination, of which the effect was not to certify strength, or discern genius, but to bride immature effort with fortuitous distinction.”

As for Butterfield’s suggestions for overhauling the teaching of humanities, far more radical ones were made by Dorothy Sayers in 1947 in The Lost Tools of Learning.  

Long before the internet and its unsavoury side effects were upon us — e.g. fake news and twitter shitstorms —  Sayers identified a breakdown in communication in the public sphere:

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that to-day, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass-propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard-of and unimagined?

But Sayers did not blame mass media, she blamed educationalists. People were losing their skill in coping with information because universities taught them how to study a subject rather than teaching them how to think for themselves. But the defect Sayers identified has nothing to do with choice of reading matter.

Sayers contrasts modern curricula with medieval teaching. Universities were invented in the Middle Ages and education began with study of the trivium, namely of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. These fields were conceived as a unit because medieval artes liberales conceived speaking, writing, and thinking as a unit. In modern parlance the trivium lives on in the term trivial. Such might be more telling about the state of modern than of medieval education.

But back to Sayers:

Modern education concentrates on teaching subjects, leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along; mediæval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.

Whether Sayers’ recommendations for bringing back the trivium are workable today — anyone interested can read up on them in her lecture — is neither here nor there. What matters is not what her road map looks like, but where it leads to. The artes liberales offer the very antidote to the scourge of contemporary public discourse:

For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armour was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.

Butterfield is in agreement with Sayers that the artes liberales offer something that technical subjects are not set up to deliver. Both agree that the studia humanitatis started even before the Middle Ages, in antiquity. But Butterfield accentuates a different aspect of the humanities. He asks:

What, then, are the Humanities for? At root, they seek to understand what others have produced, individually and collectively, and to learn from them about what it is to be human. The central, most material consideration for living life is that of being human. What does that mean?

However, the core of the trivium was not the study of the meaning of life, but the meaning of words. This too began in antiquity. In fact, this is what got ancient philosophy going in ancient Greece — it sparked the stand-off between Gorgias and Plato. Gorgias was a leading Sophist; Plato was head of an academy. Gorgias argued that speaking and thinking were the same; Plato that thinking consisted of telling the difference between good speaking and bad speaking. The trial of Socrates was over the way he irked his fellow Athenians through the way he used words to trip them up. 

Today’s cancel culture might look like something new, but we know it has nothing on the trial of Socrates. The shared purpose of the humanities is the same it always has been, ever since Socrates stepped into the dock: it is to equip readers with the skill to analyse the meanings of words. That skill works in many contexts, not least the job market. If not always at trials.

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