Saturday, November 13, 2010

What is the Price of Civilisation?

I read some interesting articles and posts this week relating to the way governments, particularly those of the right, when deciding we need a bout of austerity for whatever reason, tend to cut back on funding to the arts, research and tertiary education. This is one and this and this are others.

While I don't agree with everything said by these writers they do raise valid questions. Who decided that universities should become institutions for churning out graduates to supply the needs of business? Why are the Humanities becoming regarded as unnecessary and sometimes even as a waste of time? Why is scientific research only considered useful if it pays for itself? Why are the Arts - and I use the capital deliberately - seen more and more as self indulgent? When did we decide that higher education was only of value to the graduate and lose sight of the value to the community and the nation?

It appalls me that we don't see the value to the community of educating everyone to the highest level they can attain. When I was a girl there was a general perception that educating a woman to a high level was a waste of time and money. She would only be getting married and staying at home with her children after all. We have moved past that, thank goodness, but we still have not advanced in other areas. Scientists are often seen as just wasting time and money in laboratories where most of them indulge themselves in esoteric studies. They need to get a real job, we hear, as if living on a pittance of a scholarship, acquiring a crippling student loan debt and advancing our knowledge is just a way to get out of working in the real world. And artists - well, who needs them.

In fact we all need all these people - and we should support them as a nation. Fiona Woods and her team would never have created life saving artificial skin without research and even apparently pointless research can lead to future important discoveries that build on that beginning. While research has obvious physical value, the humanities role tends not to be so tangible. It may not be visible but it should not be ignored because they give us insights into ourselves - our past, our nature and our place in the world.

University education should be much more than the regurgitation of memorised facts. The most important thing learned there is how to think critically. The benefits that flow from this affect every part of life. Certainly some graduates go on to make a lot of money but is this a reason to punish the majority who don't? Maybe that's the problem. We resent the success of the few forgetting the years of study that goes into the making of, for example, a medical specialist.

Let's not forget the artists. Why should we fund people who want to mess about creating music, painting, books? Because their creations feed the spirit. A society where the spirit is starved of beauty and is not stimulated by questions of about the nature of humanity is not civilised.

There is a story attributed to Winston Churchill, himself an artist, that during World War II he was approached by the Finance Minister, who wanted to cut spending to the arts to raise money for the war effort. Churchill's reply was, 'Then what are we fighting for?' He was right. Without the arts, research and a well educated population we are not civilised, anymore than if we fail to care for the disadvantaged among us. Commerce is important. It provides jobs and income but it is only one part of the equation and we would do well not to forget that.


Laura E. Goodin said...

Your post feels particularly cogent to me, as my husband has just lost his job at the University of Wollongong due to the fact that the music program is being cut. Entirely cut. The only thing left is some singing training offered to the people in the acting program. No composition, no sound production, no performance, no nothing. Reason? Because it doesn't pull its weight financially. And of course that's the point of music, isn't it? To make money?

Helen V. said...

Economic rationalism has much to answer for, I think. It's time we understood that not everything has a monetary value.

Satima Flavell said...

Ditto, Helen. It's shameful that a university should cut an entire music program.