Friday, January 7, 2011

Growing Up

This morning I was reading Alain de Botton's piece, "A Point of View: Justifying Culture." He queries the inability of academics in the humanities to explain the importance of their work. At times, it is difficult. And I do agree that often we fall into that trap of: "speaking only in dangerously vague terms about the value of culture in helping people to 'think'." Though 'thinking' is a simple, yet fundamental and amazing aspect of who we are.

Some of the work we do does appear impossibly esoteric. I've at times furrowed my brow over why someone should care about the sexuality of a warthog or an obscure bibliographic point about a seventeenth century edition of fairy tales. Yet, as I go along, I begin to understand how it all fits into a bigger picture. Stories matter. How they're told, printed, collected, read... these things all matter. They tell us little things about human nature and the world we live in. Sometimes they tell us big things. Most of all, they tell us how stories tick. Stories are, I think, a natural phenomenon as worth understanding as quantum mechanics or neurology. Just as we all breathe and live and die, just as the world turns and stars 'fall,' we all tell and attend to stories.

Alain de Botton writes: "My personal view of what the humanities are for is simple - they should help us to live. We should look to culture as a repository of useful and consoling ideas about how to face our most pressing personal and professional issues. We should look to novels and historical narratives to impart moral instruction and edification, to great paintings for suggestions about value, to philosophy to probe our anxieties and offer consolations."

I am admittedly always cautious over and often dismissive of the 'moral instruction' element. I teach fairy tales and children's literature. It's a minefield of morality and I have great sympathy with Mark Twain's attitude, expressed in the notice to Huckleberry Finn: "Persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished." Morality is such a shifty thing. I don't trust it at all. I also worry about the implications of 'consoling ideas.' Would we potentially have classrooms that are akin, at the very worst, to therapy sessions? I don't want study to turn into a self-obsessive habit - for a fantastic story to become all about 'me.' That's why I like the big picture. Just as an astronomer looks out to the stars and thinks about galaxies and black holes, I look at the history of storytelling and think about all those Rapunzels and Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties. It's not that I find long hair, cute shoes and long naps a consolation (well, maybe the shoes and the naps) or their fates a moral example by which to live life, it's that I want to understand how those tales work and why they work and what they tell us about how the world works.

Yet, I do respect the call for universities to teach us how to live. When I teach children's literature, for instance, I like to challenge students to enjoy and stand up for the right of adults to engage with these stories, to challenge the idea of what it is to be 'grown up' and what it is to be a child. We share stories about the reactions of friends and families as we curl up in a chair with Where the Wild Things Are or Harry Potter. We question which stories are important and how, and even why, we make those calls.

I believe one of the problems facing the university system as a whole is the increasing pressure to act as a training facility. There is an idea that going to university should equip you to do a certain job, to embark upon a certain career. That idea is gaining ground. At Open Days, you will hear a parent asking "but what can she do?" with the degree. On one memorable occasion, I even heard a parent ask "but what will he be paid?" once armed with the degree. There is an essential incompatibility of the university system with the jobs market. While often a degree in Medicine or Architecture immediately leads to the appropriate job (although it may lead to many other things, too), a degree in Philosophy will not be so straight forward. There aren't many paid philosophers about. Yet, universities are not places where you obtain the education required for the one job, the one future. They are places where you go to engage with knowledge and wisdom, where you go to be equipped for any kind of future that might follow. Universities are about educating people for and about possibilities. What people do with that education is up to them and hopefully, by the time they leave the campus, whether with or without the degree (for sometimes the degree isn't everything), they will know that and be ready to make the most of all possibilities, professional or otherwise.

The reason it is so difficult to say exactly what academics do is that we can do almost anything and everything. It's why I became an academic.

No comments: