If you went to any university in the country and said that you had come to study “how to live”, you would be politely shown the door – if not the way to an asylum. Universities see it as their job to train you either in a specific career (law, medicine) or to give you a grounding in “the humanities” – but for no identifiable reason, beyond the vague and unexamined notion that three years studying the classics or reading Middlemarch may be a good idea.
The contemporary university is an uncomfortable amalgamation of ambitions once held by a variety of educational institutions. It owes debts to the philosophical schools of Ancient Greece and Rome, to the monasteries of the Middle Ages, to the theological colleges of Paris, Padua and Bologna and to the research laboratories of early modern science. One of the legacies of this heterogenous background is that academics in the humanities have been forced to disguise both from themselves and their students why their subjects really matter – for the sake of attracting money and prestige in a world obsessed by the achievements of science and unable to find a sensible way of assessing the value of a novel or a history book.
The chief problem for anyone in a history or an English department today is that science has been too successful. Science can make your car work, fix your liver, send spaceships to Mars and turn sunlight into electricity. In other words, science is to be valued because it gives us control over our fate, whereas in W. H. Auden’s defiant words “poetry makes nothing happen”. Auden’s stance may be an heroic rallying cry for the freelance poet, but it becomes more alarming as a job description for a young academic who has just completed a doctorate on Biblical references in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s later verse.
The response of humanities departments to their status anxiety has been to mimic their colleagues in physics or astronomy – in a move that has had short-term gains, but is in danger of asphyxiating certain subjects in the long run. Academics in the arts have decided that they, too, should be viewed as “researchers” and that their principal value should come from their capacity to discover new things, like chemists might uncover new molecular structures. There are clearly occasions when scholars do make genuine discoveries which can be compared to breakthroughs in science, but it surely represents a distortion of the value of the arts as a whole to make their value entirely dependent on factual, verifiable criteria.