In modern, hard-nosed, utilitarian Anglo-Saxon cultures, it is quite difficult to get a hearing for the serious worth of anything that can't be measured. This is not quite as true in other Western countries. In Ireland, at least since the late 19th century, national identity defined itself over and against the ruthless, materialistic utilitarianism of the globalising British empire. (And if you've read the fine, haunting novel about Henry James, The Master, which was published a few years ago by one of contemporary Ireland's foremost writers, Colm Tóibín, you'll notice that he attributes very similar views of Edwardian Britain to the post-Puritan New Englander William James.) One of the extraordinary, concrete public expressions of this Irish resistance to Anglo-Saxon materialism is that to this day in Ireland, if you can get yourself registered as an "artist", then you pay no income tax. (Which might go some way towards explaining why every second person I met when I was teaching at Trinity College Dublin seemed to be writing and publishing poetry.) Ireland, then, furnishes some hope that, even in this day and age, a national society can publicly recognise human and social goods that are beyond measurement.
So while it is difficult in a heavily utilitarian culture such as ours to make a case for academic activity that doesn't matter much economically, it nevertheless belongs to the moral vocation of university "professors" (in the broad sense of any professional academic) in the arts and humanities to do just that.
It's their currently prophetic role to remember and to articulate what, beyond serving the economy, is the good of studying histories and literatures, religions and cultures, theologies and philosophies, music and drama. Why are these not just trivial, otiose ornaments? Why are they not self-indulgent recreations sponging off the public purse? Why do they matter for human and public flourishing?
There are the questions. So what are the answers? Let me inaugurate two of lines of thought. First, one valuable gift that the arts and humanities make is to introduce us to foreign worlds: worlds made strange by the passage of time; present worlds structured by the peculiar grip of unfamiliar languages; worlds alien to us in their social organisation and manners, their religious and philosophical convictions.
Introduction to these foreign worlds confers a substantial benefit: the benefit of distance from our own world, and thereby the freedom to ask questions of it that we could never otherwise have conceived. In foreign worlds, past and present, they see and love and do things differently. And in reflecting upon that difference, it might occur to us from time to time that they see and love and do things better. So, one precious contribution of the arts and humanities is their furnishing public discourse with the critical resources of an understanding of foreign worlds, resources vital for social and cultural and moral renewal — a renewal that deserves at least an equal place alongside scientific and technological innovation.
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