Book review: Arts degrees in the shade

Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education by Alan Ryan Profile Books, pounds 14.99, 182pp Can courses in culture from Plato to Nato really deliver the workforce of the future?

When it comes to education, Alan Ryan has been around. "I am what used to be called a scholarship boy: the beneficiary of a meritocratic educational system that plucked boys like myself from working class and lower-middle-class backgrounds, to give us a fiercely academic secondary education," he tells us in the opening chapter of Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education. From Christ's Hospital, which gave him the the kind of general education to which his parents could never have had access, Ryan went on to study that most revered of liberal subjects at Oxford, Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).

In the early Sixties he was a lecturer at the new and radical University of Essex. His period there coincided with student protests and sit-ins, targeted against restrictive, job-orientated curriculum reforms. I was a graduate student there, and remember him as an enlightened champions of the student cause. Later Ryan went to Princeton University - an Ivy League college which prides itself on recruiting and funding students from a wide range of backgrounds, and which delivers a "liberal education" on the classic American model (a thorough grounding in western civilisation from Plato to Nato). He returned to this country to become Warden of New College, Oxford.

Not surprisingly, Ryan writes with quiet authority and a reassuring sense of optimism. In a tone of level-headed reasonableness he takes his reader through the historical and philosophical arguments in favour of providing a general education in humanities for all, from Aristotle to Jane Austen, with a dash of art and music thrown in. As he puts it with touchingly old-world confidence, "A grasp of our national history, an acquaintance with John Keats and Robert Frost, some sense of why and how Bach is different from Beethoven, are indispensable to a civilised life." Leaning heavily on the American philosophical educationalist John Dewey and, closer to home, on Bertrand Russell, Ryan constructs a kind of mid- Atlantic case for "cultural literacy" as the essential grounding for an enlightened education, as against narrowly vocational skill training.

He does it so reasonably, barely ever raising his voice, that the question which heads his penultimate chapter - "Is Higher Education a fraud?" - becomes effectively rhetorical. How could anyone be anxious about the benefits of an all-round training in clear thinking, coherent arguing and problem-solving which, according to Ryan, are the "skills" a liberal university education offers? Who could quarrel with his contention that this humane introduction to everything beautiful and good in our culture is the best grounding for life?

Indeed, he concludes, the distinction between vocational and liberal training turns out to be misleading. Training in liberal arts is vocational, in the sense that it inculcates all the components of intellectual competency necessary for reasonable participation in our society. Any government ought to be eager to fund such an enterprise, destined as it is efficiently to produce the next generation of useful citizens.

Here, it turns out, is the crux of Ryan's argument. Writing from within the beleaguered British system, his goal is to convince government that an investment in higher education in the humanities is one worth making. "I have spent all my working life in universities," he begins his final chapter: "The sense of working in a beleaguered system is one I have lived for most of my career." As Ryan draws his argument to a close, it becomes tantamount to a direct plea to the present government to reinvest in the liberal arts within universities, on the grounds that these pragmatically provide the basis for the kind of pliant, intellectually well-equipped workforce of which New Labour dreams.

The trouble is that, in order to make his case, Ryan is obliged seriously to understate the case made by liberal education's opponents. If this book is to be a grant application to the funding body, mounting the strongest arguments for this blueprint as opposed to its competitors, it must like all grant applications overstate its own case and understate that of the opposition. Where the project is to sell a liberal arts education this means underplaying the entire "culture wars" debate - endemic in education circles in the US and increasingly prominent here.

This is not a problem that Ryan alone faces, as he defends a largely traditional curriculum against Business Studies and Accountancy as the education of choice for the aspiring young. In the US, Leon Botstein, President of Bard College and musical director of the American Symphony Orchestra, has made a similar case for the kind of educational project in which he, like Ryan, has had a life-long involvement, in his highly regarded book, Jefferson's Children. Like Ryan, Botstein dismisses the nostalgia school of educationalists by insisting that the golden age never existed - that we now educate far greater numbers to a far higher level of competence than in the "good old days". Like Ryan, he maintains that a broadly civilising grounding in great art, music and literature is the ideal education for any young person to become a useful member of the workforce. Botstein too is adept at hands-on adaptation of the traditional curriculum to suit the less well-prepared, more culturally impoverished students who enter the admired institution which he heads.

Ranged against both men stand both the forces of Gradgrind conservatism and the ranks of multicultural pluralism. In the US the former have noisily contended that, in its focus on the student as an individual and its classroom encouragement of challenges to the status quo, the liberal educational ideal is intrinsically left-wing, disruptive and anti-social. Although Ryan, like Botstein, coherently argues the case that such a point of view is unnecessarily alarmist, the fact is that the "public at large" (for which read successive ministers of education) has by and large been persuaded. Hence the broad success of books on both sides of the Atlantic advancing vigorous arguments to prove that education is "dumbing down" - that "liberal" merely means pandering to the downmarket, television-led tastes of an increasingly self-interested tier of the education market.

It is, however, the second category of opponents whose neglect undermines Ryan's careful case. Outside the charmed enclosures of Oxford and Bard, those who oppose an old-style liberal education do so on grounds that it no longer addresses the cultural or intellectual needs of an increasingly diverse community of learners. This case can be made. We need an advocate with Ryan's authority actively to persuade us of that his programme in the humanities can compete in the global village as the foundation for our civilised, and civilising, future.

Lisa Jardine's latest book is "Ingenious Pursuits: building the scientific revolution" (Little, Brown)

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